Cindy, and the Lords on the left,
My original focus in King John, engendered deep down by my undergraduate prof William Matchett, was on a triangle among power or possession (John), right (Arthur), and character―duty, reputation, honor, or patriotism (the Bastard). Historically, John had a legitimate claim to the throne according to his brother Richard I's will, but the Elizabethan audience could listen to an argument for Richard's late older brother Geoffrey's son Arthur on grounds of primogeniture (we will soon be tangled in the wrangle between Mortimer and Bolingbroke). Shakespeare establishes this conflict from the beginning when the French ambassador refers to John's "borrowed majesty" (I.i.4) and to young Arthur, "thy nephew and right royal sovereign." John rebuts with "Our strong possession and our right," and his mother Queen Eleanor underscores that: "Your strong possession much more than your right," i.e., possession is nine-tenths of the law. So, once again in the Histories, the issues of usurpation, possession, and succession are in play.
But the creation of the non-historical Bastard makes it more complex, because he is given (bar)sinister royal blood, the direct son of Richard I, Coeur-de-lion, so he would have the most legitimate claim to the throne were he not born on the wrong side of the sheets: "something about, a little from the right,/ In at the window, or else o'er the hatch./ Who dares not stir by day must walk by night,/ And have is have, however men do catch" (I.i.170-73). It is neat he rhymes rather than blusters about his own illegitimacy, taking the sting from the possibility that Shakespeare nearly created King FitzRichard Ia.
Eventually, by character and action, the Bastard rises to viceroy of England: "Now hear our English King,/ For thus his royalty doth speak in me" (V.ii.128-9) and emerges victorious over the French, Rome, and his own treasonous lords, who whine "That misbegotten [literally] devil Faulconbridge,/ In spite of spite, alone upholds the day" (V.iv.4-5). John is poisoned by a monk, one of those pesky Catholics (Holinshed writes John died "through anguish of mind"). But a brand new character (baaad Shakespeare), young Prince Henry, is introduced in Act V, scene vii, duty or honor prevails, and the Bastard kneels "with all submission, on my knee./ I do bequeath my faithful services/ And true subjection everlastingly" (V.vii.103-5), and English history is again on track. Cindy and I are both pleased we do not need to go on to The Long Boring Life of King Henry III. Bring on Dick, the Tooth.
Cindy redirected me (though I spent 56 days in computer limbo and many hours in hospital waiting rooms) to the mother-son relationships. We first see a comic version, in which the Faulconbridge brothers appear before the king to argue contentiously that their mother has cuckolded their father. One thinks that we will see the old joke about a wife/mother's fidelity (e.g., Don Pedro: "I think this is your daughter." Leonato: "Her mother hath many times told me so," Much Ado, I.i.104-105), but this time questioning legitimacy is in earnest:
I, a gentleman
…and eldest son,
As I suppose, to Robert Faulconbridge…
Most certain of one mother
…and, as I think, one father
But for the certain knowledge of that truth.
I put you o'er to heaven and to my mother.
Of that I doubt, as all men's children may. (I.i.50-52, 59-63, italics mine)
Eleanor defends motherhood: "Out on thee, rude man, thou dost shame thy mother,/ And wound her honor with this diffidence" (I.i.64-5), though she does note a physical resemblance to her own son, Coeur-de-lion. King John, Coeur-de-lion's brother, caps it: "Mine eye hath well examined his parts,/ And finds them perfect Richard" (I.i.89-90). That settles it; in those pre-DNA times, parts is parts. Robert Faulconbridge insists King Richard had much employed his father, but the Bastard redirects him, " Your tale must be how he employ'd my mother."
Soon, the resolution is agreed upon: Robert, though not the eldest son and heir, gets the land, but Philip/Sir Richard Plantagenet/ aka the Bastard gets the face, the blood of his great father, and the honor to follow his grandmother Queen Eleanor, though his blunt, rude humor immediately emerges: "My father gave me honor, yours gave land./ Now blessed be the hour by night or day/ When I was [be]got, Sir Robert was away!' (I.i.104-6), though 'honor' may be a tenuous word, if one notes that 'hour' and 'whore' are homophones in Elizabethan England.
Enter Lady Faulconbridge: "O me, 'tis my mother," who is mighty piqued that her two sons have come before the king to besmirch her reputation, yet she must acknowledge that King Richard Cordelion was the Bastard's father; he "that art the issue of my dear offense,/ So strongly urg'd past my defense." The Bastard's rationale to absolve his mother from sin ("your fault was not your folly;" "Needs must you lay your heart at his dispose / Subjected tribute to commanding love') is touching. This guy ripped the heart out of lions; what defense would a mere woman have?
Cindy feels the Bastard lets his mother off easily, yet he truly thanks her that she has given him the heart of a lion, far better than a landed income of 500 pounds a year. I rehearse this at length because if the play underscores mother-son relationships, this first, as with everything we associate with the Bastard, is fraught with delicious irony. Yet, by the end of the play, it is the Bastard's honor, duty, patriotism, and character that prevail. And, thanks to his mother, we can see the root [pace Eric Partridge] from which this grew.
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