Selfish Bastards? A Corpus-Based Approach to Illegitimacy in Early Modern Drama


  • Jakob Ladegaard
  • Ross Deans Kristensen-McLachlan



This paper presents a study of bastardy in a corpus of 19 dramatic works from 1590 to 1642, including 4 plays by Shakespeare (King John, Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear and Troilus and Cressida). Inspired by the work of Jonathan Culpeper, we use keyword analysis, a corpus-based approach to stylistics, to study the characterization of bastard characters compared to other characters in the same plays. Furthermore, the study compares the characterization of bastard characters in different genres (tragedy, comedy, history). Log-likelihood and log ratio is used to measure the statistical significance and effect size of the keywords, and we draw on historical scholarship and literary close reading to interpret the results. We find that bastard characters are distinguished by two semantic clusters, one relating to first person pronouns, the other to the negative cultural associations of bastardy. This result confirms claims by Alison Findlay and Michael Neill that bastard characters are typically self-centered and concerned with their illegitimacy. However, we also find significant differences between genres that have not previously been described systematically. While both semantic clusters have a strong presence in the tragedies, the cluster related to bastardy is largely absent from the comedies and histories. There are also more subtle but telling differences relating to the first-person cluster. Tragedies thus tend to characterize bastards through the negative stereotypes of illegitimacy in the period, sometimes uncritically, sometimes critically. Edmund in King Lear is an early trend-setting example of this kind of character. The comedies and histories vary more in their characterization, but towards the end of the period, particularly in the comedies of Richard Brome, we see a more positive characterization of bastards. We illustrate these differences in a brief comparison of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear (1606) and Richard Brome’s comedy A Jovial Crew (1641).

Keywords: Bastardy, Illegitimacy, Early modern drama, Keyword analysis, Corpus stylistics




How to Cite

Ladegaard, J., & Kristensen-McLachlan, R. D. (2020). Selfish Bastards? A Corpus-Based Approach to Illegitimacy in Early Modern Drama. Memoria Di Shakespeare. A Journal of Shakespearean Studies, (7).