Let's face it. Shakespeare's plays usually aren't very kind to "bastards." Just look at Edmund in King Lear—the guy takes so much abuse for being born out of wedlock that he begs the gods to "stand up for bastards!" (King Lear, 1.2). (They don't, by the way.)
But King John is a pretty different play. In this one, the Bastard doesn't suffer the torture that usually accompanies being a social outcast. In fact, Shakespeare lets the guy join King John's posse and rub elbows with political leaders. Over the course of the play, the Bastard goes from being an embarrassing love child to one of the most important figures on the stage. Shakespeare even lets him deliver the final lines of the play, which you can read more about in our "What's Up With the Ending?" section.
There's also the coolness factor: the Bastard is totally the most interesting character in King John. Literary critics are always saying that he's way too "big" for this play, sort of like the larger-than-life Falstaff from Henry IV, Part 1 (source).
The Bastard is also the most complex character in the play. He cracks dirty jokes in front of his grandmother and is disrespectful to authority, but he also turns out to be the one character that is completely loyal to England. He criticizes dirty politicians who make decisions based on self-interest, but then he turns around and defends sleazy King John like he's the guy's personal PR rep.
That's why famous literary critic Harold Bloom says that the Bastard is the first Shakespearean character who looks, acts, and thinks like a real person (source). In other words, if you're like Bloom and you think that Shakespeare is the first English writer to create characters that seem really human, then it's a pretty big deal that the Bastard's the dude who gets the ball rolling.
So, who is this guy, anyway?
When we first meet Philip the Bastard, he's in the middle of a nasty legal battle with his jerky half-brother, Robert, who doesn't want the Bastard to inherit his dad's land because the Bastard had a different biological father (1.1). It turns out that Phillip's real biological dad is actually the now dead King Richard I, a.k.a. Richard the Lionheart. Apparently, Richard I hooked up with Lady Falconbridge when her husband was away on a business trip and, well, we all know what happened nine months later.
Why does this matter? Because the play is totally obsessed with family inheritance, that's why. Remember, the whole plot revolves around the question of whether or not King John had a right to inherit the throne. So, the question of whether or not the Bastard has a right to inherit his adoptive father's land echoes the main story line. In other words, Philip the Bastard is a living, breathing reminder of the importance of paternity and inheritance in this play.
By the way, isn't it funny that, in this play where everybody's focused on the nitty-gritty of who's the legal king after King Richard the Lionheart's death, nobody considers Richard's actual son, because he's a bastard? Is the play criticizing the whole system of patriarchal inheritance? Is Shakespeare trying to tell us the whole system is flawed?
One thing the Bastard does get from his paternity switch is King John's attention. The Bastard starts off as an unknown country gentleman, but soon enough, he's hobnobbing with the most powerful people in the realm, and he's right up there with the big-shots when King John goes to France to confront King Philip and his crew.
On that occasion, the Bastard shows that he hasn't quite adjusted to his new social environment: people simply don't see the humor when he speaks out of turn to hurl insults at Limoges, the Duke of Austria.
These medieval people must have been pretty stuffy, because man, we love the Bastard's mad-trash-talking skills. (So do audiences and literary critics, by the way.) In a play that's full of polite and formal smack-talk, the Bastard's earthy style and bawdy sense of humor are pretty refreshing. Even King John seems amused at the Bastard's penchant for dirty jokes: "Why, what a madcap hath heaven lent us here!" (1.1.86).
Later on, though, when he convinces France and England to team up against Angers, his dude's craziness comes in handy—he totally inspires Hubert to suggest the marriage alliance between Blanche and Louis. It isn't clear if the Bastard had this all planned out in advance, but hey: if it works, it works.
Another quality the Bastard reveals during the expedition to France is his courage and prowess in battle; we see this when he kills Austria, thus settling an old score with the man who killed his father. Throughout the rest of the play, the Bastard keeps up his reputation as a guy who never backs down from a fight—and who sometimes actively seeks them out. This fighting spirit also comes in handy: it's definitely a good thing that Pandolf brokered the peace with Louis at the end of the play, but we think the Bastard is right to say that England should still be on guard.
As an outsider, the Bastard has a unique perspective on the play's action. One of his favorite pastimes seems to be speaking to the audience: one outsider to another. During these little chats, the Bastard shares his uncensored thoughts on the nasty workings of the world. For example, in the middle of Act I, Scene 1 (lines 182-219), he talks about social climbing and the strange rules of polite conversation. He also talks about how he plans to become sneaky and deceitful, because that's the way to get ahead in the world.
Then, at the end of Act II, Scene 1 (lines 588-626), he talks about how "commodity" (self-interest) makes the world go round—and also knocks the world off its expected course. The Bastard claims he doesn't like this, but he also says he'd better learn how to play the game if he plans to get ahead.
In both of these speeches, the Bastard comes off as a bit cynical. And yet, he somehow maintains a powerful lust for life—or maybe just plain lust: his speech is bristling with sexual puns and double-entendres. (When reading the Bastard's lines, the rule of thumb is: if you think there's an obscene double meaning, there probably is.)
All of this makes the Bastard a complex, pretty human character. We can almost imagine meeting someone like this on the street, and we sure know that if we had to go out for lunch with one character in this play, it would totally be the Bastard.