“In Everything Illegitimate”: Bastards and the National Family





illegitimate, literature, politics

How to Cite

Vella Bonavita, H. (2014). “In Everything Illegitimate”: Bastards and the National Family. M/C Journal, 17(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.897
Vol. 17 No. 5 (2014): illegitimate
Published 2014-10-25
This paper argues that illegitimacy is a concept that relates to almost all of the fundamental ways in which Western society has traditionally organised itself. Sex, family and marriage, and the power of the church and state, are all implicated in the various ways in which society reproduces itself from generation to generation.  All employ the concepts of legitimacy and illegitimacy to define what is and what is not permissible. Further, the creation of the illegitimate can occur in more or less legitimate ways; for example, through acts of consent, on the one hand; and force, on the other. This paper uses the study of an English Renaissance text, Shakespeare’s Henry V, to argue that these concepts remain potent ones, regularly invoked as a means of identifying and denouncing perceived threats to the good ordering of the social fabric. In western societies, many of which may be constructed as post-marriage, illegitimate is often applied as a descriptor to unlicensed migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. In countries subject to war and conflict, rape as a war crime is increasingly used by armies to create fractures within the subject community and to undermine the paternity of a cohort of children. In societies where extramarital sex is prohibited, or where rape has been used as a weapon of war, the bastard acts as physical evidence that an unsanctioned act has been committed and the laws of society broken, a “failure in social control” (Laslett, Oosterveen and Smith, 5). This paper explores these themes, using past conceptions of the illegitimate and bastardy as an explanatory concept for problematic aspects of legitimacy in contemporary culture.

Bastardy was a particularly important issue in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe when an individual’s genealogy was a major determining factor of social status, property and identity (MacFarlane). Further, illegitimacy was not necessarily an aspect of a person’s birth. It could become a status into which they were thrust through the use of divorce, for example, as when Henry VIII illegitimised his daughter Mary after annulling his marriage to Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon. Alison Findlay’s study of illegitimacy in Renaissance literature lists over 70 portrayals of illegitimacy, or characters threatened with illegitimacy, between 1588 and 1652 (253–257). In addition to illegitimacy at an individual level however, discussions around what constitutes the “illegitimate” figure in terms of its relationship with the family and the wider community, are also applicable to broader concerns over national identity. In work such as Stages of History, Phyllis Rackin dissected images of masculine community present in Shakespeare’s history plays to expose underlying tensions over gender, power and identity. As the study of Henry V indicates in the following discussion, illegitimacy was also a metaphor brought to bear on issues of national as well as personal identity in the early modern era. The image of the nation as a “family” to denote unity and security, both then and now,  is rendered complex and problematic by introducing the “illegitimate” into that nation-family image. The rhetoric used in the recent debate over the Scottish independence referendum, and in Australia’s ongoing controversy over “illegitimate” migration, both indicate that the concept of a “national bastard”, an amorphous figure that resists precise definition, remains a potent rhetorical force.

Before turning to the detail of Henry V, it is useful to review the use of “illegitimate” in the early modern context. Lacking an established position within a family, a bastard was in danger of being marginalised and deprived of any but the most basic social identity. If acknowledged by a family, the bastard might become a drain on that family’s economic resources, drawing money away from legitimate children and resented accordingly. Such resentment may be reciprocated. In his essay “On Envy” the scientist, author, lawyer and eventually Lord Chancellor of England Francis Bacon explained the destructive impulse of bastardy as follows: “Deformed persons, and eunuchs, and old men, and bastards, are envious. For he that cannot possibly mend his own case will do what he can to impair another’s.” Thus, bastardy becomes a plot device which can be used to explain and to rationalise evil.

In early modern English literature, as today, bastardy as a defect of birth is only one meaning for the word. What does “in everything illegitimate” (quoting Shakespeare’s character Thersites in Troilus and Cressida [V.viii.8]) mean for our understanding of both our own society and that of the late sixteenth century? Bastardy is an important ideologeme, in that it is a “unit of meaning through which the ‘social space’ constructs the ideological values of its signs” (Schleiner, 195). In other words, bastardy has an ideological significance that stretches far beyond a question of parental marital status, extending to become a metaphor for national as well as personal loss of identity.  Anti-Catholic polemicists of the early sixteenth century accused priests of begetting a generation of bastards that would overthrow English society (Fish, 7). The historian Polydore Vergil was accused of suborning and bastardising English history by plagiarism and book destruction: “making himself father to other men’s works” (Hay, 159).

Why is illegitimacy so important and so universal a metaphor? The term “bastard” in its sense of mixture or mongrel has been applied to language, to weaponry, to almost anything that is a distorted but recognisable version of something else. As such, the concept of bastardy lends itself readily to the rhetorical figure of metaphor which, as the sixteenth century writer George Puttenham puts it, is “a kind of wresting of a single word from his owne right signification, to another not so natural, but yet of some affinitie or coueniencie with it” (Puttenham, 178). Later on in The Art of English Poesie, Puttenham uses the word “bastard” to describe something that can best be recognised as being an imperfect version of something else: “This figure [oval] taketh his name of an egge […] and is as it were a bastard or imperfect rounde declining toward a longitude.” (101). “Bastard” as a descriptive term in this context has meaning because it connects the subject of discussion with its original.

Michael Neill takes an anthropological approach to the question of why the bastard in early modern drama is almost invariably depicted as monstrous or evil. In “In everything illegitimate: Imagining the Bastard in Renaissance Drama,” Neill argues that bastards are “filthy”, using the term as it is construed by Mary Douglas in her work Purity and Danger. Douglas argues that dirt is defined by being where it should not be, it is “matter in the wrong place, belonging to ‘a residual category, rejected from our normal scheme of classifications,’ a source of fundamental pollution” (134). In this argument the figure of the bastard aligns strongly with the concept of the Other (Said). Arguably, however, the anthropologist Edmund Leach provides a more useful model to understand the associations of hybridity, monstrosity and bastardy. In “Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse”, Leach asserts that our perceptions of the world around us are largely based on binary distinctions; that an object is one thing, and is not another. If an object combines attributes of itself with those of another, the interlapping area will be suppressed so that there may be no hesitation in discerning between them. This repressed area, the area which is neither one thing nor another but “liminal” (40), becomes the object of fear and of fascination: – taboo.

It is this liminality that creates anxiety surrounding bastards, as they occupy the repressed, “taboo” area between family and outsiders. In that it is born out of wedlock, the bastard child has no place within the family structure; yet as the child of a family member it cannot be completely relegated to the external world. Michael Neill rightly points out the extent to which the topos of illegitimacy is associated with the disintegration of boundaries and a consequent loss of coherence and identity, arguing that the bastard is “a by-product of the attempt to define and preserve a certain kind of social order” (147). The concept of the liminal figure, however, recognises that while a by-product can be identified and eliminated, a bastard can neither be contained nor excluded. Consequently, the bastard challenges the established order; to be illegitimate, it must retain its connection with the legitimate figure from which it diverges. Thus the illegitimate stands as a permanent threat to the legitimate, a reminder of what the legitimate can become.  

Bastardy is used by Shakespeare to indicate the fear of loss of national as well as personal identity. Although noted for its triumphalist construction of a hero-king, Henry V is also shot through with uncertainties and fears, fears which are frequently expressed using illegitimacy as a metaphor. Notwithstanding its battle scenes and militarism, it is the lawyers, genealogists and historians who initiate and drive forward the narrative in Henry V (McAlindon, 435). The reward of the battle for Henry is not so much the crown of France as the assurance of his own legitimacy as monarch. The lengthy and legalistic recital of genealogies with which the Archbishop of Canterbury proves to general English satisfaction that their English king Henry holds a better lineal right to the French throne than its current occupant may not be quite as “clear as is the summer sun” (Henry V 1.2.83), but Henry’s question about whether he may “with right and conscience” make his claim to the French throne elicits a succinct response.  The churchmen tell Henry that, in order to demonstrate that he is truly the descendant of his royal forefathers, Henry will need to validate that claim. In other words, the legitimacy of Henry’s identity, based on his connection with the past, is predicated on his current behaviour:

Gracious lord,
Stand for your own; unwind your bloody flag;
Look back into your mighty ancestors:
Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire’s tomb,
From whom you claim; invoke his warlike spirit…
Awake remembrance of these valiant dead,
And with your puissant arm renew their feats:
You are their heir, you sit upon their throne,
The blood and courage that renowned them
Runs in your veins….
Your brother kings and monarchs of the earth
Do all expect that you should rouse yourself
As did the former lions of your blood.
(Henry V 1.2.122 – 124)

These exhortations to Henry are one instance of the importance of genealogy and its immediate connection to personal and national identity. The subject recurs throughout the play as French and English characters both invoke a discourse of legitimacy and illegitimacy to articulate fears of invasion, defeat, and loss of personal and national identity. One particular example of this is the brief scene in which the French royalty allow themselves to contemplate the prospect of defeat at the hands of the English:

Fr. King. ‘Tis certain, he hath pass’d the river Somme.

Constable. And if he be not fought withal, my lord,
Let us not live in France; let us quit all,
And give our vineyards to a barbarous people.

Dauphin. O Dieu vivant! shall a few sprays of us,
The emptying of our fathers’ luxury,
Our scions, put in wild and savage stock,
Spirt up so suddenly into the clouds,
And overlook their grafters?

Bourbon. Normans, but bastard Normans, Norman bastards!...

Dauphin. By faith and honour,
Our madams mock at us, and plainly say
Our mettle is bred out; and they will give
Their bodies to the lust of English youth
To new-store France with bastard warriors.
(Henry V 3.5.1 – 31).

Rape and sexual violence pervade the language of Henry V. France itself is constructed as a sexually vulnerable female with “womby vaultages” and a “mistress-court” (2.4.131, 140). In one of his most famous speeches Henry graphically describes the rape and slaughter that accompanies military defeat (3.3).  Reading Henry V solely in terms of its association of military conquest with sexual violence, however, runs the risk of overlooking the image of bastards themselves as both the threat and the outcome of national defeat. The lines quoted above exemplify the extent to which illegitimacy was a vital metaphor within early modern discourses of national as well as personal identity. Although the lines are divided between various speakers – the French King, Constable (representing the law), Dauphin (the Crown Prince) and Bourbon (representing the aristocracy) – the images develop smoothly and consistently to express English dominance and French subordination, articulated through images of illegitimacy.

The dialogue begins with the most immediate consequence of invasion and of illegitimacy: the loss of property. Legitimacy, illegitimacy and property were so closely associated that a case of bastardy brought to the ecclesiastical court that did not include a civil law suit about land was referred to as a case of “bastardy speciall”, and the association between illegitimacy and property is present in this speech (Cowell, 14). The use of the word “vine” is simultaneously a metonym for France and a metaphor for the family, as in the “family tree”, conflating the themes of family identity and national identity that are both threatened by the virile English forces.

As the dialogue develops, the rhetoric becomes more elaborate. The vines which for the Constable (from a legal perspective) represented both France and French families become instead an attempt to depict the English as being of a subordinate breed. The Dauphin’s brief narrative of the English origins refers to the illegitimate William the Conqueror, bastard son of the Duke of Normandy and by designating the English as being descendants of a bastard Frenchman the Dauphin attempts to depict the English nation as originating from a superabundance of French virility; wild offshoots from a true stock. Yet “grafting” one plant to another can create a stronger plant, which is what has happened here. The Dauphin’s metaphors, designed to construct the English as an unruly and illegitimate offshoot of French society, a product of the overflowing French virility, evolve instead into an emblem of a younger, stronger branch which has overtaken its enfeebled origins.

In creating this scene, Shakespeare constructs the Frenchmen as being unable to contain the English figuratively, still less literally. The attempts to reduce the English threat by imagining them as “a few sprays”, a product of casual sexual excess, collapses into Bourbon’s incoherent ejaculation: “Normans, but bastard Normans, Norman bastards!” and the Norman bastard dominates the conclusion of the scene. Instead of containing and marginalising the bastard, the metaphoric language creates and acknowledges a threat which cannot be marginalised. The “emptying of luxury” has engendered an uncontrollable illegitimate who will destroy the French nation beyond any hope of recovery, overrunning France with bastards.

The scene is fascinating for its use of illegitimacy as a means of articulating fears not only for the past and present but also for the future. The Dauphin’s vision is one of irreversible national and familial disintegration, irreversible because, unlike rape, the French women’s imagined rejection of their French families and embrace of the English conquerors implies a total abandonment of family origins and the willing creation of a new, illegitimate dynasty. Immediately prior to this scene the audience has seen the Dauphin’s fear in action: the French princess Katherine is shown learning to speak English as part of her preparation for giving her body to a “bastard Norman”, a prospect which she anticipates with a frisson of pleasure and humour, as well as fear. This scene, between Katherine and her women, evokes a range of powerful anxieties which appear repeatedly in the drama and texts of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: anxieties over personal and national identity, over female chastity and masculine authority, and over continuity between generations.

Peter Laslett in The World We Have Lost – Further Explored points out that “the engendering of children on a scale which might threaten the social structure was never, or almost never, a present possibility” (154) at this stage of European history. This being granted, the Dauphin’s depiction of such a “wave” of illegitimates, while it might have no roots in reality, functioned as a powerful image of disorder.

Illegitimacy as a threat and as a strategy is not limited to the renaissance, although a study of renaissance texts offers a useful guidebook to the use of illegitimacy as a means of polarising and excluding. Although as previously discussed, for many Western countries, the marital status of one’s parents is probably the least meaningful definition associated with the word “illegitimate”, the concept of the nation as a family remains current in modern political discourse, and illegitimate continues to be a powerful metaphor. During the recent independence referendum in Scotland, David Cameron besought the Scottish people not to “break up the national family”; at the same time, the Scottish Nationalists have been constructed as “ungrateful bastards” for wishing to turn their backs on the national family.

As Klocker and Dunne, and later O’Brien and Rowe, have demonstrated, the emotive use of words such as “illegitimate” and “illegal” in Australian political rhetoric concerning migration is of long standing. Given current tensions, it might be timely to call for a further and more detailed study of the way in which the term “illegitimate” continues to be used by politicians and the media to define, demonise and exclude certain types of would-be Australian immigrants from the collective Australian “national family”. Suggestions that persons suspected of engaging with terrorist organisations overseas should be stripped of their Australian passports imply the creation of national bastards in an attempt to distance the Australian community from such threats. But the strategy can never be completely successful. Constructing figures as bastard or the illegitimate remains a method by which the legitimate seeks to define itself, but it also means that the bastard or illegitimate can never be wholly separated or cast out. In one form or another, the bastard is here to stay.


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Author Biography

Helen Vella Bonavita, Edith Cowan University

Following graduation from the University of Western Australia, Helen worked for three years at the John Curtin International Institute, Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia. She subsequently moved to the University of Wales, Lampeter as a Visiting Fellow in the Humanities , and was the Head of the Department of English and Creative Writing from 2007 – 2010. She has taught in a range of subjects within the discipline of English literature and in a variety of media including blended learning. Helen has held a number of research positions including a short-term Visiting Fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. She is currently the Associate Dean, International, for the Faculty of Education and Arts at Edith Cowan University. Her research interests include past and present forms of citizenship, illegitimacy, national identities, editing sixteenth century texts, and representations of the Ottomans in sixteenth century literature.