Bast. Brother, adieu: good fortune come to thee!
For thou wast got i’ the way of honesty.
Exeunt all but Bastard.
A foot of honour better than I was;
But many a many foot of land the worse.
Well, now can I make any Joan a lady.
‘Good den, sir Richard!’--’God-a-mercy, fellow!’--
And if his name be George, I’ll call him Peter;
For new-made honour doth forget men’s names;
‘Tis too respective and too sociable
For your conversion. Now your traveller,
He and his toothpick at my worship’s mess,
And when my knightly stomach is sufficed,
Why then I suck my teeth and catechise
My picked man of countries: ‘My dear sir,’
Thus, leaning on mine elbow, I begin,
‘I shall beseech you’--that is question now;
And then comes answer like an Absey book:
‘O sir,’ says answer, ‘at your best command;
At your employment; at your service, sir;’
‘No, sir,’ says question, ‘I, sweet sir, at yours:’
And so, ere answer knows what question would,
Saving in dialogue of compliment,
And talking of the Alps and Apennines,
The Pyrenean and the river Po,
It draws toward supper in conclusion so.
But this is worshipful society
And fits the mounting spirit like myself,
For he is but a bastard to the time
That doth not smack of observation;
And so am I, whether I smack or no;
And not alone in habit and device,
Exterior form, outward accoutrement,
But from the inward motion to deliver
Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age’s tooth:
Which, though I will not practise to deceive,
Yet, to avoid deceit, I mean to learn;
For it shall strew the footsteps of my rising.
King John, 1.1.180-216
As a dramatist, Shakespeare did not dwell on the meaning of abnormal bodies, a concern of the sculptor or painter or doctor or physiognomer. As a dramatist, Shakespeare attended to the making of the meanings of those bodies, which is to say stigma, not a physical feature of a body, but the invention, perpetuation, circulation, and negotiation of negative attitudes about abnormality. It is this aspect of Shakespeare’s interest in physical difference, approaching it as a cultural event as opposed to a natural object, that allowed him to use the same representational system for seemingly disparate abnormalities – including a physical deformity like that of Richard III, a racial difference like that of Aaron the Moor, and the bastardy of Philip Faulconbridge, simply called “Bastard” in the dramatis personae of King John.
I call the representational system that Shakespeare used for this set of characters the figure of stigma, its elements being abnormality, villainy, irony, and tragicomedy. First, Shakespeare’s stigmatics derive their meaning and identity not from what they are but from what they are not; that is, they take their meaning from their abnormality, from their not being normal, making that meaning fundamentally relative. In contrast to the tall, strong, white, warrior-like ideal of the English nobleman, Richard has his physical deformities, Aaron his black skin, and Faulconbridge his bastardy. Although bastardy is not outwardly visible on the body, it is written into Faulconbridge’s blood, and, in that sense, is as much a part of the man as is Richard’s hump or Aaron’s skin. By villainy, I mean those actions that are immoral or criminal, yes, but also extremely wicked, almost unbelievably so. A homicidal maniac dedicated to hate, Richard compulsively murders his foes (Henry VI and Prince Edward), his family (Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, Clarence, Edward IV, Edward V, York, and Anne), and his friends (Hastings and Buckingham). Aaron never actually kills anyone in Titus Andronicus, but he does orchestrate the deaths of Quintus and Martius, the rape of Lavinia, and the dismemberment of Titus, and at the end of the play he wishes he could do a thousand things worse. The Faulconbridge of King John, however, is hardly a villain at all; he opts for national service over personal property, and he displays tremendous loyalty and courage during the First Barons’ War, actions that set him apart from the figure of stigma as it is formulated in the examples of Richard and Aaron. Thus, Faulconbridge is an exception to the figure of stigma on the point of villainy. By irony, I mean those moments when Shakespeare treats the evil the stigmatic represents as though it were good, usually by having the stigmatic speak directly to the audience, securing our sympathy and support in his revisionary reading of his own body and behavior. When Richard talks to us about his body, he explicitly says that it is the cause, not the sign, of his bad behavior, inviting us to join him on a quest for revenge against the injustices of nature and culture, something we all desire desperately. In Aaron’s soliloquies, the sheer joy he takes in the evil he does excites us into a naughty intimacy with someone whose actions we would instantly abhor were they simply listed out to us on paper. Faulconbridge also addresses the audience directly, although his memorable soliloquies on “observation” (flattery) and “commodity” (expediency) are more daring and honest than demonic. Thus, Faulconbridge is also an exception on the point of irony. In speaking of tragicomedy, I refer to the several senses of this term in operation during the Renaissance, not only the most common Elizabethan usage – plays of virtue rewarded and vice punished – but also plays that mix mirth with sorrow, clowns with kings, high plots with low, and bring characters near death but not to it. At the end of Richard III, virtue conquers vice when the demonic Richard, a clown who becomes a king, is killed by the heroic Henry, Earl of Richmond, who becomes King of England and has the play’s final speech. At the end of Titus Andronicus, vice is punished when Aaron (a clown) is buried alive by Lucius (a king), who becomes Emperor of Rome and has the play’s final speech. At the end of King John, therefore, the stigmatized Faulconbridge ought to be slain by Prince Louis of France, the outside conqueror who gains the English lands, but instead Shakespeare gives Faulconbridge the play’s last words, a defiant and prophetic speech of English unity in the face of French aggression. Here is yet another exception.
The clearly mitigated and sometimes entirely abandoned elements of the figure of stigma in King John might be taken to suggest that bastardy is a lesser stigma than physical deformity or racial minority. It must be noted, however, that the example of Edmund in King Lear argues against this position. As such, we should consider the possibility that King John shows Shakespeare’s thoughts about stigma in transition. At this point in his career, Shakespeare was still happy to exploit this figure to structure his representation of an outlying character whose very birth presents a problem to his society, but the case of Faulconbridge also shows a Shakespeare willing to resist the dictates of the figure of stigma in pointed ways (dictates he himself codified in his representations of Richard and Aaron). For the first time in his career, Shakespeare suggested that stigma may not be as absolute and deterministic as stigmatizers traditionally make it out to be, that someone who has been stigmatized still has the ability, like Faulconbridge, to fashion his own character and destiny.
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