5 Branded with Baseness: Bastardy and Race in King Lear

Mario DiGangi

In William Shakespeare’s King Lear, bastardy functions as a nexus for the racializing mechanisms of lineage, sexuality, and gender. The racial implications of bastardy come to the fore through the experiences of Edgar and Edmond, each of whom soliloquizes about what it feels like to be dispossessed. As Benjamin Minor and Ayanna Thompson have shown, Edgar, a legitimately born first son and heir who is renounced by his father, consciously adopts blackface to exile himself from legitimate society as a rogue or gypsy. Signifying his alienation from kin, court, and nation, Edgar’s disguise as Poor Tom functions as a “marker of radical racial difference.”[1] Although Minor and Thompson acknowledge Edgar’s illegitimate younger brother Edmond as “the obvious ‘other’ in King Lear,” the racial implications of his bastard status have yet to be explored.[2]

Because it is always already about social illegitimacy, sexual sin, and bodily impurity, bastardy puts into relief the intersecting racializing mechanisms of lineage, sexuality, and gender.[3] Advocating the need for a “materialist theory of politics or agency,” Diana Coole and Samantha Frost attest to “the role played by the body as a visceral protagonist within political encounters.”[4] Edmond’s soliloquy, bristling with strong feelings that might be variously realized in performance — anger, resentment, outrage, puzzlement, disgust, vanity, humiliation, scorn, longing, aggression, exultation — puts his body into play as a “visceral protagonist” in a scheme to appropriate his legitimate brother’s place. The fraught affects that attend the specters of social illegitimacy, sexual sin, and bodily impurity in the early modern imaginary give us access to how the mechanisms of racialized bastardy might feel to an early modern subject. Edmond’s articulation of his affective experience as a bastard — as, in effect, a member of a denigrated race — mobilizes a host of contradictory feelings around kinship, sex, and gender as mechanisms of racial meaning. In his famous soliloquy, Edmond casts his older brother as a figure of racial illegitimacy, but this denigration is in part a response to Edmond’s deeply felt apprehension and fraught affects of his own racially illegitimate status.

Delivering the first soliloquy of the play, Edmond seizes our attention with an impassioned account of his membership in the race of bastards:

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, tirèd bed,
Go to th’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 Edmond
As to th’legitimate. Fine word, “legitimate”.
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmond the base
Shall to the legitimate. I grow; I prosper.
Now gods, stand up for bastards! (2.1.1–22)[5]

My reading of this passage is indebted to Geraldine Heng’s influential definition of race as the tendency to “demarcate human beings through differences among humans that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental, in order to distribute positions and powers differentially to human groups.[6] Although we are not accustomed to thinking of bastards as a race, Edmond experiences his bastard status as an arbitrary (selectively essentialized) attribution of inborn (absolute and fundamental) “baseness” that is used to deprive him of land and title (powers and positions). Through his enforced habitation of the “customary” category of bastardy, Edmond experiences the embodied differences signified by illegitimacy as a racial formation.[7]

Although Edmond’s anger and resentment are generally acknowledged, previous commentators have overlooked the complexity of Edmond’s affective experience of his relegation to a race of bastards, who are demarcated from the legitimately born through the “brand” of natural “baseness.” Brands were literally used in early modern Europe to mark the fixed positions and powers of criminals. In Edmond’s metaphor of being branded with baseness, race produces a kind of indelible, always legible, mark of inferiority.[8] As evidence for the medieval racialization of Jews, Heng cites the fact that Jews in thirteenth-century England “were forced by law to wear badges on their chests, to set them apart from the rest of the English population.”[9] Edmond bitterly recognizes that in its attribution to bastards, “base” functions as both a social status — “low in the social scale; not noble, low-born” — and a moral judgment of natural character — “Of a low or inferior quality or standard; poor, inadequately good.”[10] Patricia Akhimie’s reading of the “base Indian/Judean” in Othello’s final soliloquy imparts a racial significance to “base,” which denotes “a faulty state of mind, a low estate, a moral failure, and an adulteration and impurity; it connotes ignorance or naïveté, willful defiance or simple misfortune.”[11] Conflating “the somatic with the behavioral,” Othello assigns the Indian/Judean to a race of “intemperate, savage, and base people without the desire or the ability to improve themselves.”[12] “Base” thus figures the somatic and behavioral differences between “temperate, civil, noble, and genteel people”[13] and savage races incapable of moral cultivation. If, as Akhimie shows, the discourse of baseness mobilizes racial categories, then it is no surprise that Edmond decries the mark of baseness that renders his social status an oxymoron. Edmond recognizes that no amount of earnest self-improvement can erase his essentialized status as “Edmond the base.” Getting lands “by wit” (1.2.160) will require not slow cultivation, but instead a treacherous and “willful defiance”[14] that would seem to confirm the impurity of mind and body customarily attributed to bastards.

Relegated to an inferior race by the law and “custom” of primogeniture, Edmond takes solace in a different account of the nature of bastards than the one that subtends such laws. Edmond at once exposes as ideological (arbitrary, false, unjust) the national customs that group him with all other bastards as a naturally inferior race and mobilizes his own self-interested account of bastardy that groups him with all other (male) bastards as a naturally superior race. According to Edmond, bastards enjoy a naturally enhanced manhood that derives from their parents’ ardent and illegal “stealth of nature” at their conception.[15] Consequently, bastards enjoy more composition (stronger “constitution of body” / “constitution of mind and body combined”)[16] and a more fierce (“high-spirited, brave, valiant”; “proud, haughty”)[17] character than their legitimately conceived counterparts. Edmond’s positing of an enhanced masculinity might well serve to compensate for the ugly feelings that attend his forcible debasement as a bastard.

For Edmond, membership in a race or tribe produces a complex affective charge. While his masculine kinship with other bastards might seem to repair his feeling of social and familial alienation, he also chafes about being grouped with men whom he seems to regard as his inferiors in body and character. Edmond explicitly groups himself with other bastards as members of a race characterized both as inferior — “Why brand they us / With ‘base’?” — and as superior — those “[w]ho, in the lusty stealth of nature take / More composition and fierce quality” from their birth than the legitimately born. By attributing to bastards “more composition and fierce quality” than legitimate men, Edmond can imagine himself as part of an affective community constituted via membership in the racial category to which the law has assigned them.[18] At the same time, he implicitly distinguishes himself from other bastards as a naturally superior individual, a particularly distinguished bastard who is comparable to any “honest madam’s issue.”[19] Edmond here turns from identification with other bastards to identification with a hypothetical legitimately conceived man with whom he might compare in excellence of “dimensions,” “mind,” and “shape.” In attributing the source of this counterpart’s legitimacy to maternal honesty, however, Edmond evokes the tainted racial origins that unjustly prevent his fine qualities from being legible underneath the blot of bastardy. Recognizing the primary meaning of “issue” as “the action of going, flowing, or coming out,” we can more easily hear in Edmond’s resentment the undertones of revulsion against the corrupt maternal body from which his own “dimensions,” “mind,” and “shape” — howsoever since cultivated into a state of manly excellence — first emerged.[20] To be a bastard is to be the “issue” of a base mother and thus always marked as belonging to a base, inferior race.[21]

Although some critics have marked the gendering mechanisms in bastardy, they have not accounted for how gender ideologies intersect with racial ideologies in Edmond’s rhetoric. Robert J. Bauer argues that to Edmond, “nature … means a life force that thrives as long as he strives”; it is a “physical” and “undisciplined nature that blindly seeks to dominate and control”.[22] Yet Edmond renders his devotion to nature not “blindly” or in an “undisciplined” fashion but in terms of a masculine “service” that carries courtly and erotic overtones.[23] Neither can Edmond’s disciplined masculine “service” to nature be explained by Michael Neill’s observation that bastards’ connection with nature implied a feminizing maternal influence: “For all his supposedly ‘unnatural’ qualities, the bastard was traditionally described as a ‘natural child’ because, conceived without benefit of matrimony, his origins lay outside the order of culture (imagined as masculine) in the (typically feminine) domain of nature.”[24] Likewise, Alison Findlay explains that the “danger of the unsocialised bastard comes from his origins in a feminine, uncivilised world of nature.”[25] As we have seen, Edmond does allude to his origins in a dishonest maternal body. In serving the “law” of nature, however, Edmond seems less to reassert his association with feminine incivility than to demand that his natural (individual, inborn) bodily capacities be publicly recognized despite the customary legal constraints that would sink him into oblivion within the general race of bastards.

In Edmond’s experience of his body, then, gender articulates the outlines of race, just as race articulates the outlines of gender. If it is “curiosity” — artificial and overprecise distinctions between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” conceptions — that relegates him to bastard oblivion, then through his masculine service to nature Edmond will bring to bear a counter-curiosity in measuring the refinement of his own natural body, as manifested in his “compact,” “generous,” and “true” appearance and capabilities.[26] Fittingly, Edmond identifies his mind as “generous” — meaning “noble of spirit, honourable” — despite being barred from claiming the status of “generous” in the sense of coming from “noble or aristocratic lineage; high-born.”[27] At once recognizing his brotherhood in a race of bastards and distinguishing himself from this essentialized group, Edmond carefully observes and records his “natural” bodily gifts, thereby opening up the possibility of his difference from other bastards who might possess his natural fierceness but not his distinct superiority of shape, mind, and limbs. Nature’s “law” thus counters the race-making logics of nations with an insistence on individual masculine distinction that thwarts any attempts to selectively essentialize some differences over others. Hence, the movement in Edmond’s soliloquy from first person plural (“why brand they us”) to a first-person singular stressing his powers of expansion and erection (“I grow; I prosper”).[28] Edmond, after all, aims not to alter any laws to advance the interests of all bastards, but merely to work within the present conditions of possibility to “top” his legitimately born brother.[29]

In his project of willful and affectively expansive self-advancement, Edmond, relegated by his birth to a socially disadvantaged race of persons, weaponizes his precarious identity through what Carol Mejia LaPerle describes, in an argument about Titus Andronicus’s Aaron, as a “racialize[d] will.”[30] Aaron’s violent will, depicted in the play as an expression of his Black nature, exists in defiant opposition to the “public, social will that underwrites Roman authority.”[31] Because Edmond is not Black, he can rewrite his social identity in a way not available to Aaron, a transformative capacity of will that Edmond conveys through a clothing metaphor: “Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit. / All’s with me meet that I can fashion fit” (1.2.160–61). Still, Edmond’s willful advancement of his own interests at any cost does correspond with LaPerle’s account of Aaron’s will as “a perpetual threat” to the dominant social order.[32] Moreover, just as Aaron’s “violent volition is explicitly correlated to his physical characteristics” as a Black man,[33] so the repetition of the word “fierce” in regard to Edmond’s violent plots underlines how his racial characteristics as a bastard — “fierce quality” and strong constitution — facilitate his treachery against his brother, their father, and the dominant social order they represent. When framing Edgar, Edmond realizes that wounding himself as if in self-defense against his brother’s attack would “beget opinion / Of my more fierce endeavour” (2.1.33–4). Edmond’s misleading information leads to Gloucester’s capture and torture. Just before his blinding, Gloucester, unaware of how his words apply to his own son, condemns the bestial fierceness of children who would physically harm their fathers, thus striking against lineage as the very foundation of social order. He admonishes Regan: “I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out [Lear’s] poor old eyes, nor thy fierce sister / In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs” (3.7.54–56). The masculine fierceness that Edmond attributes to his identity as a bastard empowers him to undermine the very social system responsible for that racialized identity.

If Edmond is linked both affectively and sexually with Regan and Goneril as children who violently unmake patriarchal lineage for personal gain, then he is also racially stained through his mother’s sexual fault. As I have described, Edmond glances at his mother’s dishonesty in comparing himself favorably to “honest madam’s issue.” Edgar more pointedly articulates the intersection of racial and sexual corruption in bastardy. Positioning Edmond as the providential scourge of their father’s adultery, Edgar’s stunning moral pronouncement places ultimate blame on the embodied darkness of female sexuality:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes. (5.3.160–63)

Edmond takes his life from the “dark and vicious place” whose blackness signifies both illegitimate female sexuality — as in Joyce Green MacDonald’s analysis of bastardy in Samuel Daniel’s Letter from Octavia as a “blemish” worse “than a slavish wipe, or birth hour’s blot” — and female sexuality as illegitimate, what Janet Adelman calls “the mother’s dark place.”[34] In “‘The Darke and Vicious Place,’” Peter L. Rudnytsky further explores this misogynist rendering of the vagina as the vicious “place” from which both sexual sin and illegitimate birth originate.[35] According to Rudnytsky, “As Kent alleges of Oswald, Edmond is ‘the Sonne and Heire of a Mungrill Bitch,’ irrevocably doomed by the whore at his origin.”[36] As a “whoreson,” Edmond’s “virility is tainted”; again, Rudnytsky argues, Edmond is “tainted” by the “darke and vicious place” from which he was born — a prostitute’s vagina.[37] Although Rudnytsky does not directly address race, his analysis of the play’s imagery of darkness and mongrel hybridity, as well as his own emphasis on Edmond’s being “tainted” by his mother’s dark sexuality, corroborate the racial implications of bastardy I have been exploring in Edmond’s soliloquy.

Of course, although Edgar’s point is that Gloucester has been justly punished for adultery via Edmond’s treachery, his language contrasts the seemingly trivial “pleasant vice” of Gloucester’s sexual lapse with an explicit disgust for and condemnation of a “dark and vicious” female sexuality/body. The “instruments” of justice in this passage are, first and foremost, the dark female place in which Gloucester pleasurably begets Edmond; then the bastard son who takes life from this darkness; and finally the implement that Cornwall uses to remove Gloucester’s eyes and cast him into darkness. If for Edmond racialized bastardy feels paradoxically both humiliating (“base, base”) and empowering (“I grow; I prosper”), then for Edgar it feels unambivalently frightening, disgusting, and worthy of punishment. Given this emphasis on the pleasure offered and the danger posed by this “dark and vicious” woman, what would happen to our reading of this passage (and Edmond) were we to imagine Edmond’s mother as, in fact, a Black woman — the kind of figure that Lynda Boose finds unrepresentable on the early modern English stage?[38] Although the play does not explicitly prompt us to imagine Edmond’s mother as dark-skinned — if anything, Gloucester’s praise of her as “fair” suggests the inverse (1.1.20) — her “fault” racializes Edmond in that having a “son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed” constitutes ocular proof of sexual sin (1.1.13–14).[39] Although Kent graciously compliments the proper “issue” of this maternal fault, Gloucester’s identification of his son as a “whoreson” — the issue of a whore — shows how illegitimate sexuality is racialized through fear and disgust at the maternal body’s ability to impress its sinful darkness upon its issue (1.1.15, 21).[40]

Suffering public degradation as a “whoreson,” Edmond privately degrades Edgar by assigning him to a “tribe of fops,” a phrase that deploys racial and gendered meanings to disparage “legitimate” conception. In early modern England, “tribe” was primarily used to refer to the twelve tribes of Israel, not to Native Americans.[41] We have already considered the pertinence to Edmond of Othello’s self-comparison to the “base Indian/Judean” who “threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe.”[42] Othello’s usage suggests the possibility that “tribe” had racial applications aside from Judaism.[43] Whereas Edmond attributes an enhanced masculinity to bastards, he sneers at the legitimately born as “fops” whose natural constitutions have been enervated by the “dull, stale, tired” sex of their married parents. “Fop” in the early seventeenth century generally meant “fool” — as in Edmond’s mockery of the “excellent foppery” of astrology — but the “effeminate” (mannered, vain) behavioral characteristic of the Restoration fop is already recognizable in the foolish courtiers of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.[44] In other words, it is possible that “fop” signified in the earlier seventeenth century as a type of gender and erotic transgression.[45] Although the legitimacy of martial sex gives Edgar a social and legal advantage over his younger, bastard brother, that very legitimacy — the product of dutiful and passionless intercourse — generates males of a duller, weaker constitution. Edmond reformulates sexual legitimacy as a form of embodied weakness. In this sense, legitimately conceived men also constitute a “natural” race (or “tribe”) that is physiologically inferior to the fierce bastard race over which such men nonetheless enjoy social supremacy.

In exploring the racialization of bastardy, my analysis of King Lear has elaborated on the intersecting racial components of lineage, gender, and sexuality. Edmond describes the parental sexuality that produces lineage as a cause of greater or lesser manhood in sons: dull marital sex produces legitimate, foppish sons; ardent adulterous sex produces illegitimate, fierce, bastard sons. Following this logic to its conclusion, we might better understand why Edmond scorns “legitimate” as a “fine word”: “fine” signifies not only superiority and purity, but also foppish affectation, fastidiousness, and insincerity.[46] If legitimate lineage is reproduced through the generational repetition of the dull marital sex that produces foppish sons, ad infinitum, then racial degeneracy is not, as Jean E. Feerick has detailed, merely an ever-present “possibility,” but an inevitability.[47] Ironically, a noble family’s only salvation from degenerating into a “tribe” of self-replicating fops would seem to rest in the fierceness of an illegitimate son such as Edmond, who might inject a renewed manly spirit into the bloodline. Does the bastard’s fierce manliness also suggest his ability to reproduce at once a legitimate and a manly (i.e., non-foppish) bloodline through his capacity for “fierce” or passionate marital sex? Having just decried the “tribe of fops” that Edgar stands poised to sire, Edmond appears to reach an abrupt and overconfident conclusion: “Well then, / Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. / Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmond / As to th’legitimate.” Edmond’s brutal imperative seems less arbitrary if he imagines himself in this moment as not only a daring opportunist, but also the eventual restorer of patriarchal lineage — the son who will redeem his father’s sexual fault and earn his love by displacing his foppish older brother and reinvigorating the family blood. But the bold action that to Edmond feels like a heroic destiny might well be experienced by an early modern audience as a racialized affect: the fear that the undoing of noble lineage could undo the foundations of common good will.

As we know, instead of becoming his father’s savior, Edmond will eagerly seize the chance to become one of the “instruments” of his father’s demise. In relegating Edmond to the role of fatal instrument, Edgar reminds his base brother that he embodies the indelible racial/gendered/sexual taint of maternal darkness and dark maternity. Once his purposes are realized, Edgar, unlike Edmond, can shed the markers of race and reconstitute his identity as a legitimate son and heir. Edmond can never escape the racialized category of bastardy that will ultimately be exposed, punished, and purged from the commonwealth. This is why Edmond’s singular attempt at moral self-improvement in the play — the rescinding of the execution warrant for Lear and Cordelia — fails so miserably. Howsoever future-facing and self-authoring Edmond may will himself to be — “I grow; I prosper. / Now gods, stand up for bastards!” — from the perspective of the legitimately born, he can always be shunted back to the “dark and vicious place” of his racial/sexual origins, a place upon which the gods can only be expected to exert their terrible justice.

  1. Benjamin Minor and Ayanna Thompson, “‘Edgar I Nothing Am’: Blackface in King Lear,” in Staged Transgression in Shakespeare’s England, ed. Rory Loughnane and Edel Semple (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2013), 153.
  2. Minor and Thompson, “‘Edgar I Nothing Am,’” 153. Studies of race in King Lear have mostly been confined to adaptation studies. See Frederick Luis Aldama, “Race, Cognition, and Emotion: Shakespeare on Film,” College Literature 33, no. 1 (2006): 197–213; Sylvaine Bataille and Anaïs Pauchet, “Between Political Drama and Soap Opera: Appropriations of King Lear in US Television Series Boss and Empire,” in Shakespeare on Screen: King Lear, ed. Victoria Bladen, Sarah Hatchuel, and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 202–18; Pierre Kapitaniak, “Negotiating Authorship, Genre and Race in King of Texas (2002),” in Shakespeare on Screen: King Lear, ed. Victoria Bladen, Sarah Hatchuel, and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 111–24; Baron Kelly, “Ira Aldridge: Prophet of Protest,” in Ira Aldridge, 1807–1867: The Great Shakespearean Tragedian on the Bicentennial Anniversary of His Birth, ed. Krystyna Kujawińska Courtney and Maria Lukowska (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 33–39. See also Martin R. Orkin, “Cruelty, King Lear, and the South African Land Act, 1913,” Shakespeare Survey 40 (1988): 135–43. Urvashi Chakravarty, “Race, Labour, and the Future of the Past: King Lear’s ‘True Blank,’” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 11, nos. 2–3 (2020): 204–11, uses the Earl of Kent to “examine the ways in which ‘good’ service is always already implicated in a racial project” of reproducing whiteness (209).
  3. In his wide-ranging survey of bastardy in early modern English drama, Michael Neill explores in colonial/racial terms the attribution to bastards of sexual and bodily impurity: the “type of such adulterate mixing,” he notes, is Caliban, who prefigures the fantasy of the “black rapist” (“‘In Everything Illegitimate’: Imagining the Bastard in Renaissance Drama,” in Putting History to the Question: Power, Politics, and Society in English Renaissance Drama [New York: Columbia University Press, 2000], 135). Building on Neill’s foundational insights, I develop a racial interpretation of bastardy in the case of a non-Black character.
  4. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds., “Introducing the New Materialisms,” in New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010) 2, 19.
  5. I cite throughout from William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Lear: The Norton Shakespeare, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: Norton, 2015).
  6. Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 27 original emphasis. To mark my indebtedness to Heng’s definition, I will continue to italicize her terms when I cite them.
  7. “Racial formation” refers to “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed” (Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd ed. [London: Routledge, 1994], 55).
  8. Patricia Akhimie, Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World, (London: Routledge, 2018), 4–5. Sydnee Wagner, Outlandish People: Gypsies, Race, and Fantasies of National Identity in Early Modern England (PhD diss., City University of New York Graduate Center, 2019), discusses sixteenth-century laws that called for the branding of “Egyptians” or gypsies. Neill describes the dramatic bastard as a “member of a hybrid genus,” a “creature whose mixed nature is expressed in an idiom that systematically subverts the ‘natural’ decorums of kind” (“‘In Everything Illegitimate,’” 129–30). Neill cites Sir John Fortescue’s racializing account of the bastard as one who draws “a certain corruption and stain from the sin of his parents”; thus nature “mark[ed] the natural or bastard children as it were with a certain privy mark in their souls” (Fortescue, qtd. in Neill, “‘In Everything Illegitimate,’” 132).
  9. Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, 15. An echo of this history might be present in Shylock’s declaration that “sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.” Both the notion of an outward racial mark (brand/badge) and the unusual Shakespearean word “tribe,” as I will discuss, connect Edmond’s soliloquy to The Merchant of Venice. Tellingly, “tribe” appears four times in The Merchant of Venice, as well as three times in Othello; it appears twice in Coriolanus, and once in King Lear. Writing of Charles Macklin, the eighteenth-century actor who played Shylock with a red beard, Stephen Orgel describes the beard as the “badge of all our tribe” for stage Shylocks. Orgel’s use of Shylock’s phrase suggests that red hair functioned theatrically as a physiological marker of the Jewish tribe or race (“Imagining Shylock,” in Imagining Shakespeare: A History of Texts and Visions [New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003], 145). Gabriel Egan also connects Edmond’s soliloquy to Shylock: the “belief that what happens to the couple during the act of conception shapes the individual conceived has a long history, from the story of Jacob setting parti-coloured wands before Laban’s sheep to make them conceive parti-coloured lambs (Genesis 30.31–40) told in The Merchant of Venice (1.3.70–89)” (Green Shakespeare: From Ecopolitics to Ecocriticism [London: Routledge, 2006], 135). Carmen Nocentelli claims that in early modern Europe “sexual practices and erotic proclivities became badges of identity that could evince the truth of one’s racial belonging” (Empires of Love: Europe, Asia and the Making of Early Modern Identity [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013], 9 emphasis added).
  10. Respectively, OED Online, s.v., “base,” adj. 6.b, adj. 7.a. On degree as a marker of racial difference in the Renaissance, see Lara Bovilsky, Barbarous Play: Race on the English Renaissance Stage (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2008), 14 and (in relation to Othello) 45–49. In an influential essay with a titular nod to bastardy, Kim F. Hall, “‘These Bastard Signs of Fair’: Literary Whiteness in Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” in Post-Colonial Shakespeares, ed. Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin (London: Routledge, 1998), 64–83, also discusses social degree and/as race. According to Jean E. Feerick, during this period “race is most frequently used and understood as a mode of social differentiation that naturalizes a rigid social hierarchy within a polity”  (Strangers in Blood: Relocating Race in the Renaissance, [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010], 6 original emphasis). In arguing that bastardy is figured as race in King Lear, I depart from Feerick, who argues that in early modern England “race” signified primarily membership in an elite: “To be of ‘base race’ was an oxymoron; baseness precluded membership in a race” (8). Nonetheless, it is significant that in Edmond’s soliloquy his membership (or not) in an elite lineage is precisely what is at stake.
  11. Akhimie, Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference, 78.
  12. Akhimie, Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference, 78, 14.
  13. Akhimie, Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference, 14.
  14. Akhimie, Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference, 78.
  15. On the early modern view that bastards enjoyed “exceptionally passionate energies” due to the lustful conditions of their birth, see Neill, “‘In Everything Illegitimate,’” 131–32; Allison Findlay, Illegitimate Power: Bastards in Renaissance Drama, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 129–36. Findlay notes of the expression “natural child,” a euphemism for bastard, that “‘natural’ denotes a bastard’s metaphorical exclusion from culture, from divine spirit and human law” (129).
  16. OED Online, s.v., “composition,” n. 16.a.–b.
  17. OED Online, s.v., “fierce,” adj. 2., 3.
  18. As Patricia Akhimie notes of this speech, “‘[q]uality’ is a heritable trait related to rank and legitimacy” (“‘Qualities of Breeding’: Race, Class, and Conduct in The Merchant of Venice,” in The Merchant of Venice: The State of Play, ed. M. Lindsay Kaplan [London: The Arden Shakespeare/Bloomsbury, 2020], 156). The agency of law in creating and sustaining racial inequality is a central tenet of Critical Race Theory; see Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, eds., Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement (New York: New Press, 1995).
  19. According to Emily C. Bartels, “In asking ‘why brand they us,’ [Edmond] embraces us as his confidantes and supporters, if not his next of kin. In so doing, he also sets us apart from an unappealing ‘they’ who privilege tribes of fops bred of dull, stale, tired beds over bastards of ‘fierce quality.’ If we resist, we become ‘they.’ If we comply, we join the ranks of a victimized and knowing ‘us’ — just the sort of subject we (especially non-aristocratic spectators) love to love, the sort of subject we might resemble, and the sort of subject who, therefore, resembles us” (“Breaking the Illusion of Being: Shakespeare and the Performance of Self,” Theatre Journal 46, no. 2 [1994]: 177). Unlike Bartels, I am arguing that Edmond’s “us” functions not to interpellate the audience as his kin, but to recognize other bastards as sharing his “base” racial designation.
  20. OED Online, s.v., “issue,” n. I.1.
  21. The OED Online cites an example from 1620 as the first illustration of “issue” in the sense of “a race or people” (s.v., “issue,” n. II.5.b). The pressure on lineage in Edmond’s soliloquy arguably makes his use of “issue” intelligible not only as “offspring,” but also as “race.” On revulsion at the corrupting maternal body in Shakespearean tragedy, see Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare, Hamlet to The Tempest (London: Routledge, 1992).
  22. Robert J. Bauer, “Despite of Mine Own Nature: Edmund and the Orders, Cosmic and Moral,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 10, no. 3 (1968): 359, 360.
  23. Along with allusions to Jews in Edmond’s soliloquy, there might be the suggestion of paganism in his devotion to the “goddess” Nature. Nocentelli remarks that “in early modern Europe notions of ‘nature’ were never too far apart from the image of ‘Nature’ as the goddess of procreative sex” (Empires of Love, 21). According to Peter Harrison, Religion” and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), English Protestants commonly identified “heathens,” “idolaters,” and “pagans” with the worship of nature. The Cambridge Platonist Nathaniel Culverwel writes that “Nature’s Law” would be more readily found in a “naked Indian,” a “rude American,” or a “mere Pagan,” than in a Greek, Roman, Jew, or Christian” (qtd. in Harrison, “Religion” and the Religions in the English Enlightenment, 42). John Drakakis, “Jews, Bastards, and Black Rams (and Women): Representations of ‘Otherness’ in Shakespearean Texts,” SEDERI 13 (2003): 55–75, argues that Jews, bastards, and Blacks are structurally similar as “others” in Shakespeare. I thank John Kuhn for referring me to Harrison.
  24. Michael Neill, “Bastardy, Counterfeiting, and Misogyny in The Revenger’s Tragedy,” in Putting History to the Question: Power, Politics, and Society in English Renaissance Drama (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 135.
  25. Findlay, Illegitimate Power, 40.
  26. OED Online, s.v., “curiosity,” n. 4.b: “Unduly minute or subtle treatment; nicety, subtlety.”
  27. OED Online, s.v., “generous,” adj. 1.a, 2.a.
  28. In stressing his prosperity, Edmond seems to claim the respectable status of industrious, profitable provider that was a central tenet of early modern patriarchal manhood. See Alexandra Shepard, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 186–87.
  29. If we read this textual crux as “top the legitimate” instead of “to the legitimate,” we activate the possible image of racialized male–male sodomy/bestiality that Jeffrey Masten identifies in Othello’s language of topping/tupping (Queer Philologies: Sex, Language, and Affect in Shakespeare’s Time [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016], 214–22). Making himself erect (“I grow”), Edmond will screw his brother. Or, to activate a common early modern pun, Edmond, who now “[s]tands in the plague of custom,” will “stand” or erect himself, whether or not the gods “stand up” for him.
  30. Carol Mejia LaPerle, “‘If I Might Have My Will’: Aaron’s Affect and Race in Titus Andronicus,” in Titus Andronicus: The State of Play, ed. Farah Karim-Cooper (London: The Arden Shakespeare/Bloomsbury, 2019), 138. I thank Carol Mejia LaPerle for sharing with me her work and her thoughts about this project.
  31. LaPerle, “‘If I Might Have My Will,’” 139.
  32. LaPerle, “‘If I Might Have My Will,’” 142.
  33. LaPerle, “‘If I Might Have My Will,’” 142.
  34. Joyce Green MacDonald, Women and Race in Early Modern Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 42; Adelman, 107.
  35. Peter L. Rudnytsky, “‘The Darke and Vicious Place’: The Dread of the Vagina in King Lear,” Modern Philology 96, no. 3 (1999): 291–311. See also Adelman: “the female sexual place is necessarily the place of corruption, the ‘sulphurous pit’ … that is Lear’s equivalent to Edgar’s ‘dark and vicious place’; present only as a site of illegitimacy, the mother … transmits her faults to her issue, the children whose corrupt sexuality records their origin” (Suffocating Mothers, 108); and Bovilsky: “Patriarchal logics, after all, as frequently take the form of overemphasizing the mother’s responsibilities in guaranteeing the reputation and moral inheritance of her children as with common ideologies that attribute a presumed and unalterable immorality of children conceived or born outside of ‘wedlock’ to their mother’s faults” (Barbarous Play, 48).
  36. Rudnytsky, “‘The Darke and Vicious Place,’” 297.
  37. Rudnytsky, “‘The Darke and Vicious Place,’” 303. Rudnytsky seems to assume that Edmond’s mother is literally a prostitute, even though “whore” might only signify a promiscuous woman (304).
  38. Lynda E. Boose, “‘The Getting of a Lawful Race’: Racial Discourse in Early Modern England and the Unrepresentable Black Woman,” in Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period, ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (London: Routledge, 1994), 35-54. On the representation of Black women as lustful and seductive in medieval and early modern European texts, see Valentin Groebner, “The Carnal Knowing of a Colored Body: Sleeping with Arabs and Blacks in the European Imagination, 1300–1550,” in The Origins of Racism in the West, ed. Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, and Joseph Ziegler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 217–31.
  39. In one of many contradictions structuring Edmond’s bastard status, he is doubly untimely: both too early — born “before he was sent for” (1.1.19–20) — and too late — born twelve or fourteen months “[l]ag of a brother” (1.2.6).
  40. On fear as an embodied experience, particularly with regard to race, see Sara Ahmed, “The Affective Politics of Fear,” in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 62–81.
  41. OED Online, s.v., “tribe,” n. 1.a: “A group of people forming a community and claiming descent from a common ancestor; spec. each of the twelve divisions of the people of Israel, claiming descent from the twelve sons of Jacob.”
  42. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice: The Norton Shakespeare, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: Norton, 2015), 5.2.356-7.
  43. An extremely capacious religious/geographic/racial term in the early modern period, “Indian” might refer to Native Americans or to East Indians/Moors. See Michael Neill, “‘Mulattos,’ ‘Blacks,’ and ‘Indian Moors’: Othello and Early Modern Constructions of Human Difference,” in Putting History to the Question: Power, Politics, and Society in English Renaissance Drama (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 269–84.
  44. According to Jessica Landis, “[t]he unifying characteristics between fop figures, these sometimes seemingly disparate representations of affectation and self-presentation, include excessive tendencies, affected manners, and irrepressible ambition. Fops ape the behaviors of their social superiors in attempts to better their positions among courtiers, gentlemen, soldiers, gallants, and arguably other types of successful men. In their mimicry, however, they get distracted by frivolous aspects of masculine cultural identities” ( “Affecting Manhood: Masculinity, Effeminacy, and the Fop Figure in Early Modern English Drama” [PhD diss., University of Massachusetts, 2015], 8).
  45. On the type of the effeminate courtier specifically and for the idea of sexual types more generally, see Mario DiGangi, Sexual Types: Embodiment, Agency, and Dramatic Character from Shakespeare to Shirley (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), esp. Chapter 3.
  46. OED Online, s.v., “fine,” adj., adv., and n.2 A.I: “Pure, perfect; of the best or very high quality”; II.11: “Characterized by or affecting refinement or elegance; (affectedly) dainty or genteel; fastidious, prim”; II.12.a: “Flattering, complimentary; deceptively or insincerely approbatory; (also) of the nature of empty rhetoric.”
  47. Feerick, Strangers in Blood, 16.


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