Alison Findlay. Illegitimate Power: Bastards in Renaissance Drama Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994. 282 pp.
Review by
Sonia Nolten,
Oriel College, Oxford.

Nolten, Sonia. "Review of Illegitimate Power: Bastards in Renaissance Drama." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.1 (1995): 9.1-5 <URL:

  1. The gods may not have responded to Edmund's appeal to "stand up for bastards," but it is surprising that students of Renaissance drama have hitherto been equally remiss, for Alison Findlay's study reveals that there is a wealth of material to be addressed. The great strength of Illegitimate Power lies in the comprehensive nature of its author's research; Findlay shows a commendable determination to dig far deeper for material than King Lear or The Revenger's Tragedy, whose scene-stealing bastards are familiar to most students of the period. No less than seventy-one plays featuring bastard characters are listed in the appendix, beginning in 1588 with Thomas Hughes' The Misfortunes of Arthur and ending, appropriately enough, with the anonymous The Bastard: A Tragedy (1652), "not so Wise to know's own father."

  2. Findlay sets out to "read bastardy from a positive perspective as a subversive presence in Renaissance drama . . . focusing on their power to challenge the patriarchal culture" (1). Understandably, bearing in mind the diversity of her material, she has chosen to impose a thematic rather than a chronological or author-based structure upon her study. An introductory chapter on illegitimacy in Renaissance England is followed by discussions of evil and heroic, "natural" and unnatural bastards, and, most intriguingly, a final chapter which traces the relationship between the bastard character and the medium of the theatre in which he is discussed, an institution regarded by antitheatrical pamphleteers as "illegitimate . . . at best, an embarrassment if not a threat" (214).

  3. Unfortunately, however, exhaustive research has not been transformed into authoritative, or even particularly perceptive comment on the subject at hand. Findlay's explication of her thesis and methodology is at times pedestrian in the extreme: even an undergraduate with the most passing acquaintance with historicist theory is unlikely to need to be told that the author's "selection and reading of the material is subject to my own socio-historical identity of course and so cannot hope to recreate a 'factual' view of illegitimacy in Renaissance England" (5-6). More seriously detrimental to the argument as a whole is the noticeable unwillingness to engage with the secondary sources which are used to provide much of the material for the first chapter. Uncritical quotation from a string of critical opinions is no substitute for a personally considered reading. While Findlay is rightly wary of imposing a monolithic overview upon her material, a more distinct critical perspective would surely have lent her thesis the direction which it lacks.

  4. It must also be said that much of the detail which one might have expected to be present is omitted. Shakespeare, in particular, suffers from the way in which the book is structured, popping up in a paragraph here, a quotation there, leaving his plays strangely isolated from one another: how, for example, does Lear's obsession with the legitimacy of his daughters relate to Leontes, Posthumous Leonatus, even Prospero? Most incomprehensible of all is Shakespeare's exclusion from a discussion of "bastard texts," which never mentions the fact that he, unlike Thomas Heywood, saw fit to allow all but his poems to "passe as filius populi. . .bastard [and] without a father to acknowledge [them]." The Two Noble Kinsmen, important for this and other aspects of the discussion, is never mentioned at all, despite the fact that concern is expressed in the Prologue that its authors will "let fall the nobleness of this, / And the first sound this child hear be a kiss."

  5. Omission of such intriguing lines of enquiry as this leaves us with a book which purports to be aware of complexity and yet leaves such complexities without adequate expression. The notion that illegitimacy represents the "other" is accepted to such an extent that Findlay never quite makes the connection that bastards are so consciously labelled as being "other" precisely because they are not. As Edmund observes, his shape is "as true / As honest madam's issue"; thus, defining oneself in terms of what one is not becomes much more difficult when the perceived "other" stubbornly persists in looking so similar. Although the breadth of research contained in this volume shows the potential of bastardy as a subject for extended critical investigation, it is regrettable that such potential is far from being fulfilled by the end of the book.
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(RGS, 12 December 1997)