Yesterday, we discussed how the opening section of King John‘s first scene introduced the idea of royal lineage and legitimacy, and we hinted that, with the introduction of Robert Faulconbridge and Philip the Bastard, the rest of the scene would touch upon those same issues, but with possibly less global significance.
When King John asks the Bastard (and that’s how he’s referenced in the character list) who he is, the answer begins “Your faithful subject” (I.i.50). As we shall see, this is vitally important.
As it turns out, the Bastard is the oldest son “(he) suppose(s)” (I.i.52) of old Robert Faulconbridge, while Robert claims to be the “son and heir to that same Faulconbridge” (I.i.56). If you find this confusing, you’re not alone; King John responds: “Is that the elder, and art thou the heir? // You came not of one mother then, it seems” (I.i.57-58). As we learn that there is question to the Bastard’s paternity, both Eleanor and King John see a little of the old (dead) King Richard in the Bastard, as “he hath a trick of Coeur de Lion’s face… (and) his parts // (are) the perfect Richard” (I.i.85, 89-90).
Uh, oh. Well, it’s funny they say this as Robert tells them that Richard I, sent old Robert Faulconbridge off “in an embassy // To Germany … (and) sojourned at (his) father’s” (I.i.99-100, 103). He claims that the Bastard was born a “full fourteen weeks” (I.i.113) the time when he could have been fathered by old Robert. It seems then that the Bastard is truly a bastard, the bastard son of Richard.
However, and here is where some of that old English law we talked about yesterday comes into play, King John states that the Bastard
Your father's wife did after wedlock bear him,
And if she did play false, the fault was hers,
Which fault lies on the hazards of all husbands
That marry wives.
In other words, if the Bastard was born in wedlock, that makes him legitimate (just as Arthur’s birth after the death of his father, nullifies his paternity).
However, Eleanor has a better solution: she is willing to adopt the Bastard as her “reputed” (I.i.136) grandson, now to be called Sir Richard Plantagenet. He agrees, but Shakespeare still calls him “the Bastard” for the rest of the play. Everybody is happy.
When left alone on stage, the Bastard begins to soliloquize. And for those of us who know Don Juan of Much Ado About Nothing or Edmund in King Lear, we’re expecting to hear the plans of villainy. Only we don’t; he hear the thoughts and reactions of a man who is thrilled with his new position, and with no further ambitions but to be that “faithful subject.” In fact, his soliloquy posits him as an Everyman, funny about royalty and society, but good-hearted.
I might be crazy, but methought I heard a little foreshadowing of Hotspur here…
Mother Faulconbridge arrives, and is disappointed to hear of the Bastard’s change of family (as it throws her [chastity] under the pre-Elizabethan bus). But she acknowledges the truth, and like a true gentleman, the Bastard notes that “(her) fault was not (her) folly” (I.i.262), especially as she was at Richard’s “dispose” (I.i.263).
The Bastard is a good guy.
And the first scene, and act, is done.