Shakespeares Globe Logo

Bastards

What does it mean to be a ‘bastard’ in Shakespeare’s world? In Medieval England the term ‘bastard’ was defined in Latin as filius nullius. This phrase means son of nobody. This is a very alienating concept. To be nobody’s son suggests being completely alone, and isolated. Don John in Much Ado About Nothing stands as an emblem for such isolation.

What the Latin phrase, filius nullius, means is different from what it suggests; it indicates, not that the ‘bastard’ is nobody’s son, but that he is nobody’s heir. This means he is not entitled to inherit property because he was conceived illegitimately. To be conceived illegitimately means that the bastard’s mother and father slept together out of wedlock, which was a sin. The sinful actions of the parents would determine the misfortunes of the ‘bastard’: his isolation from the family unit, his lack of entitlement to property and inheritance. This isolation would result in anger and resentment from the ‘bastard’.

Don John's isolation and bitterness in the play is linked to the laws of primogeniture which favoured the older brother. The older brother was the inheritor of property and possession, while the younger brothers had to be trained in a vocation of some kind. Shakespeare explores this theme in other plays, perhaps most famously in King Lear.

Many writers of Shakespeare’s time would refer to ‘bastards’ using imagery of disease, filth, corruption, or plague to draw attention to the sinful conditions of his birth.

Don John: ‘Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be medicinable to me. I am sick in displeasure to him, and whatsoever comes athwart his affection ranges evenly with mine. How canst thou cross this marriage?’ (2.2.4-7)

In this speech, Don John describes his discontentment as a kind of disease, a physical sickness that can only be cured by causing his brother's misery.

Don John is interesting because his utter failure to wreak his revenge, dictated by the confines of the genre (comedy), leaves us to think he is absurd. He seems motiveless in his attempted destruction of Hero – but is he?

In Shakespeare's time bastardy was a female fault; it is the sexual transgression of the mother that brings about the everlasting misery of the bastard son. Don John's attack on Hero's chastity is one way for him to expunge his self-hatred and implied hatred of his mother's diseased infidelity.

How can modern audiences connect with these ideas? Nowadays, fatherless children are a normal part of society and sex out of wedlock is not stigmatised. The answer lies in viewing the ‘bastard’ as an emblem of social isolation which generates feelings of unworthiness, which, can lead to bitterness, isolation, jealousy and potentially hatred.

(Article taken from a lecture by Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper)