Bastards in Shakespeare’s England

Edmund the bastard has a label scarred onto him which he cannot shake off, and which causes him to hold a unquenchable desire to secure power and prove himself worthy of respect and his fathers title. In introducing Edmund, Shakespeare ensures the bastard label is made clear, and makes Edmund’s feelings around the label known. “Why brand they us with base?….” Shakespeare must have included “bastard” as a central character trait for a reason, given the English societal customs of his period.

Using “bastard” as a central character trait was not unique to King Lear for Shakespeare. In “King John” Phillip the Bastard served as a more noble representation of a bastard. Bastards are included in a number of other Shakespeare plays, but with more minor roles.

Shakespeare seems to feel sympathy for bastards in his plays, even for the villainous Edmund. His writing appears to sympathizes with the grievances Edmund lays out in his “Stand up for Bastards” speech.

One theory for Shakespeare’s bastard focus is rumored to be that he had a bastard son of his own. A book recently published called “Shakespeare’s Bastard” suggests Shakespeare’s godson, who became a famous poet and shared a unique facial feature with Shakespeare, was actually Shakespeare’s illegitimate (and only) son.

Of course the book merely speculates, but the importance of the Bastard label in English society remained. The coat of arms of all royal bastards was required to feature a band dexter to signal their baseness. A papal decree from 786, almost 750 years before the birth of Shakespeare, declared english royalty “must not be begotten in adultery or incest” and that “he who was not born of a legitimate marriage” could not succeed to the throne.

There had been a few famous English Royal Bastards, but none who became as powerful as Edmund in Lear.

Robert, 1st Earl of Glouster, for example managed to secure power by being the oldest illegitimate son of the king. He was entrusted with holdings in Normandy by his father.

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