Shakespeare’s Bastard Nation: Skepticism and the English Isle in King John

Abstract

This essay explores the troublesome question of English national identity in Shakespeare’s King John, a strikingly skeptical history play that often appears to subvert more than support any cohesive notion of English nationhood. I argue, however, that the play’s skeptical attitude toward English identity and legitimacy ultimately leads to a surprisingly robust conception of the English nation, one based less on the monarch than on the material ground of the island of England itself. In dramatizing the historical King John’s loss of his Angevin Empire’s Continental territories, Shakespeare actually endorses the reduction of that nebulous Franco-English realm into “This England,” a providentially ordained and “water-wallèd” island state. Now geographically separated from its French ancestor and rival, “England” as such arrives by the end of King John at a more concrete and clearly defined sense of itself as a nation. In a play whose chief English patriot is the Bastard Falconbridge, however, this new national selfhood also involves a strong and positive sense of England as a “bastard” nation—a heterogeneous mixture of French and English roots that endows Shakespeare’s island race with its own unique character, strength, and possibilities for future adaptation.