Literature

An Interesting Character Study: Faulconbridge from Shakespeare’s King John

For Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention Of The Human, the Bastard, Faulconbridge, is one of Shakespeare’s first truly ‘Shakespearean’ characters, because with this character Shakespeare was not trying to emulate Christopher Marlowe’s rhetoric from Tamburlaine but drawing on ‘nature’ and reality for inspiration. As a result, Faulconbridge is the most living, breathing character in King John: indeed, for Bloom, he’s too good for the play he finds himself in. Frank Kermode, in one of the best books on the language of the plays, Shakespeare’s Language, goes as far as to suggest (though only tentatively) that one might even mount an argument that, with the Bastard Faulconbridge, a new understanding of ‘character’ entered Elizabethan theatre. The Bastard is not a character type: he is a character. He is the most complex character in the play, giving a long speech (one of the most memorable in the play) railing against the notion of ‘commodity’, before explaining, like a good Machiavellian politician, that he intends to profit from commodity wherever possible. As he says in this speech, at the end of Act II:

And why rail I on this Commodity?
But for because he hath not woo’d me yet:
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand,
When his fair angels would salute my palm;
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.

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In other words, ‘I have no moral objections to commodity as such; I’m just jealous because none of its fruits have come my way yet. I’d soon change my tune then, and I know it.’

As his ‘commodity’ speech suggests, the extent to which the Bastard Faulconbridge is meant to be a comic character is a vexed question, much as it is for the whole play. (As we’ve discussed elsewhere, one school of thought sees King John as a comic satire rather than a serious historical play.) William Hazlitt, so sensible about character in Shakespeare on so many occasions, sees Faulconbridge as comic relief:

The accompaniment of the comic character of the Bastard was well chosen to relieve the poignant agony of suffering, and the cold, cowardly policy of behaviour in the principal characters of this play. Its spirit, invention, volubility of tongue, and forwardness in action, are unbounded.

But it goes deeper than this, since for Hazlitt the character of Faulconbridge is closer to the spirit of Shakespeare’s out-and-out comic characters than we might at first be led to believe:

The character of the Bastard’s comic humour is the same in essence as that of other comic characters in Shakespeare; they always run on with good things and are never exhausted; they are always daring and successful. They have words at will and a flow of wit, like a flow of animal spirits. The difference between Falconbridge and the others is that he is a soldier, and brings his wit to bear upon action, is courageous with his sword as well as tongue, and stimulates his gallantry by his jokes, his enemies feeling the sharpness of his blows and the sting of his sarcasms at the same time. Among his happiest sallies are his descanting on the composition of his own person, his invective against ‘commodity, tickling commodity’, and his expression of contempt for the Archduke of Austria, who had killed his father, which begins in jest but ends in serious earnest.

The fact that the Bastard Faulconbridge is given the last lines of King John – he literally has the last word – strengthens the idea that he is the human focus of the play, far more than its titular protagonist or the sickly Arthur.

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