Don John in Much Ado About Nothing and Edmund in King Lear are both the primary “villains” in their respective plays, carrying out schemes that cause conflict and suffering within the plot. Both characters are also bastards, meaning that they are were born out of wedlock or through illicit affairs. Is it merely a coincidence that these illegitimate children are also sources of evil? Or is there a connection between bastards and villainy in Shakespeare’s plays?

It is clear that the word “bastard” carries stigma, considering that it is used now as a general insult. Although this usage did not develop until later, the word had strong and negative connotations in Shakespeare’s time, even when not referring to actual illegitimate children. For example, in The Winter’s Tale, Perdita dismissively calls grafted plants “nature’s bastards,” suggesting that they are inferior to naturally occurring breeds. Michael Neill notes that in Shakespeare’s day, the word “bastard” carried connotations of adultery, “referring not only to the ‘spurious’ or ‘counterfeit,’ but also to the ‘mongrel’ or ‘hybrid’—in effect, the monstrous.” [1]

If bastards were treated as others in society, then it is not surprising that they make great stage villains. However, Shakespeare does not simply reproduce the stereotype in his plays. In the case of King Lear, Shakespeare seems interested in the inner thoughts Edmund, bastard son to the Earl of Gloucester. In perhaps one of the most famous defenses of bastardy in literary history, Edmund lays his case directly before the audience:

Thou Nature art my Goddess, to thy Law

My services are bound. Wherefore should I

Stand in the plague of custom, and permit

The curiosity of Nations to deprive me,

For that I am some twelve or fourteen Moonshines

Lag of a Brother? Why Bastard? Wherefore base?

When my Dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true,

As honest Madam’s issue? Why brand they us

With Base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, Base?

Who, in the lusty stealth of Nature, take

More composition and fierce quality

Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,

Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,

Got ‘tween a sleep and wake? Well then,

Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:

Our Father’s love is to the bastard Edmund,

As to the legitimate: fine word: Legitimate.

Well, my Legitimate, if this Letter speed,

And my invention thrive, Edmund the base

Shall top the Legitimate. I grow, I prosper:

Now Gods, stand up for Bastards!


On the one hand, Edmund’s speech is all about the stigma attached to bastardy. He reveals his plan to usurp his half-brother Edgar out of his inheritance and title, conjuring the idea that bastards are deceitful and treacherous. He also repeats the word “legitimate” as if it is ash in his mouth; legitimacy is the thing Edmund hates the most because he is barred from it by birth. In contrast to “Legitimate Edgar,” he labels himself “Edmund the base”—Edmund of low birth or Edmund the inferior. Yet, he questions why he should be treated in this way when he is just as talented and capable as his half-brother. By pointing out that his “shape” is “as true” as Edgar, Edmund argues that bastardy is nothing but a social construct. He rejects the notion that he was born a bastard. Rather, he was branded one by an unfair society. Thus, he asks, “Wherefore base?” meaning, “Why should I be treated this way?”

At the same time, Edmund entertains the common belief that there is something uniquely essential about bastards. In the first line of the monologue, Edmund invokes Nature as his deity. Another name for bastards in Shakespeare’s time was “natural child.” Alison Findlay, in her book Illegitimate Power: Bastards in Renaissance Drama (1994), give several explanations for why this term may have been used. Bastards were sometimes associated with nature because of the image of unmarried women giving birth outside of towns or unwanted infants buried in the wild. Meanwhile, when Edmund mentions his “composition and fierce quality” as the result of his being conceived “in the lusty stealth of Nature,” he is echoing a popular idea that bastards are more vigorous and robust because they are the product of passionate love rather than dutiful procreation. Finally, there was a superstition that Nature must favor bastards because they are so unfortunate in human society. Regarding the strong affinity between bastards and nature, Findlay argues that these figures move outside the boundaries of the existing social and legal structures. In other words, they “introduce alien perspectives which unsettle the authority of the ruling order, forcing it to interrogate its own legitimacy” [2].

In that regard, we could ask what makes Edmund such a compelling character despite his evil deeds. Does his charismatic presence onstage have something to do with his disenfranchised status? Setting aside the immorality of his actions, Shakespeare spends a lot of time establishing clear motives for Edmund—something that he does not always do for his villains. We gain insight into Edmund’s anger and frustration towards a prejudiced society. We admire his sharp wit when he sarcastically comments on his “baseness.” Notably, he becomes a spokesperson for others who share his misfortune, asking why they treat us (rather than me) unfairly. His rallying cry in the final line is addressed to all bastards, perhaps including actual illegitimate children in Shakespeare’s audience.

James Barry, King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia (1786-88). Edmund’s dead body is being carried out on the left, failing to rescind his order to execute Cordelia in time.

Furthermore, Edmund refuses to accept these circumstances as fate. He is a man of action, taking his fortune into his own hands. Indeed, he strategically places himself at the center of the play’s political intrigue, not only usurping Gloucester’s position but also hedging his bet between Goneril and Regan’s sides as civil war looms on the horizon. In his speech towards the end of I.ii ridiculing people (including his own father) for believing in astrological signs, he comes across as a distinctly modern man in a musty feudal world. Findlay notes that many bastard characters in drama share this energetic quality, making them compelling figures:

"The bastard’s freedom of movement is dramatically exciting and unnerving. It gives a natural unpredictability to characters which makes them ideal figures to introduce dramatic action. At the same time, independence renders them difficult to contain within the boundaries of the play’s official discourses. Their difference threatens to erupt beyond the confines of the social world of the play." [3]

But one might ask: Is Edmund not still a villain? After all, he does try to have his half-brother killed, facilitates the violent blinding of his father, has affairs with two women, and orders the execution of Cordelia and Lear. In that sense, he fits the bill of the villainous bastard stereotype. But surprisingly, Shakespeare has Edmund repent his treachery after he is fatally wounded in a duel with Edgar. Edmund tries to fix his wrongdoings, though the attempt tragically comes too late. Compare this to some of the other characters who do terrible things in the play, such as the Duke of Cornwall. Shakespeare does not give these characters the same redemption arc as Edmund. In fact, when you consider King Lear as a whole, it is unclear whether Edmund’s morals are any worse than that of those around him. Rather than link bastardy to evil, Shakespeare explores how Edmund’s status drives him to action in a world full of evil. At least we understand what that world looks like from Edmund’s point of view.

Shakespeare’s other bastard characters are generally not as fleshed out as Gloucester’s unfortunate natural child. Don John’s motivations for villainy in Much Ado are never given, and he does not even appear in the final scene to be judged. Perhaps the one other exception is Philip Faulconbridge in King John, an honorable and courageous fortune-seeker who shatters the bastard stereotype completely. But even if Shakespeare does not give them rousing soliloquies like Edmund’s, it does seem that Shakespeare had a great deal of empathy for these disenfranchised yet dynamic figures. Edmund’s speech may be self-serving, but he also gives voice to a group that had little power and faced a mountain of obstacles.

[1] Michael Neill, “‘In Everything Illegitimate’: Imagining the Bastard in Renaissance Drama,” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 23 (1993) 286.

[2] Alison Findlay, Illegitimate Power: Bastards in Renaissance Drama, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press (1994) 169.

[3] Ibid., 39.