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Sometimes, the villain of the piece has things to say that can throw light on our understanding of more obviously virtuous characters, says Helen Mears...
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Don John is often seen simply as the ‘baddie’ in Much Ado About Nothing – the one who causes all the problems in the play through his lies and deception.
However, although he says little, and disappears part way through Act 4 Scene 1, his character offers some important insights into the key theme of appearance and reality, or truth and lies, that runs through the play.
“It must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain”
(Act 1, Scene 3, lines 23-24)
Don John is Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, and this would automatically have identified him as evil for an Elizabethan audience. His status also makes him the outsider in the play.
Don John admits to Leonato that he is “not of many words” (Act 1, Scene 1, line 116), and therefore everything that he says is worth noting.
He confirms his evil nature to his associates, Conrade and Borachio, and therefore to the audience, but it would be too simplistic to accept his self-definition without further analysis.
“If I had my mouth, I would bite: if I had my liberty, I would do my liking. In the mean time, let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.”
(Act 1, Scene 3, lines 25-27)
This war between Don John and Don Pedro is parallel to the “merry war” between Benedick and Beatrice (Act 1, Scene 1, lines 45-46), although with more serious consequences.
Where Benedick and Beatrice battle using their wit, Don John’s battle with his brother has clearly been much more violent, and his defeat still causes him anger. His words in private are honest, and show how angry he is at having to submit to his sibling.
“That young start-up hath all the glory of my overthrow: if I can cross him any way, I bless myself every way.”
(Act 1, Scene 3, lines 48-49)
Don John is also intensely jealous of Claudio, who has become Don Pedro’s favourite, usurping the place Don John believes to be his own, as Don Pedro’s brother. It is this jealousy that provides the impetus for the plot to thwart Claudio’s marriage to Hero.
“I pray you dissuade him from her, she is no equal for his birth: you may do the part of an honest man in it.”
(Act 2, Scene 1, lines 122-123)
Don John is as much a meddler as Don Pedro in trying to prevent the marriage of Claudio to Hero that his brother has arranged. His first attempt is by pretending that Don Pedro has wooed Hero for himself, rather than in Claudio’s name.
“You may think I love you not, let that appear hereafter, and aim better at me by that I now will manifest.”
(Act 3, Scene 2, lines 70-71)
This attempt is thwarted by the truth, and Claudio is betrothed to Hero.
Don John then agrees to Borachio’s plan to pretend that Hero has been unfaithful to Claudio, manipulating the lovers in a very similar way to how Don Pedro manipulates Benedick and Beatrice into loving each other, through the device of overhearing lies.
Although one brother is seen as evil and the other as good, their behaviour is very similar.
When Don John tells Claudio that Hero has betrayed him, the audience has just witnessed both Claudio and Hero lying in turn, to trick Benedick and Beatrice, as a result of Don Pedro’s plot “to bring Signor Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection, th’one with th’other” (Act 2, Scene 1, lines 275-277).
Don John’s seriousness clearly suggests to Don Pedro and Claudio that he is telling the truth.
“Fie, fie, they are
Not to be named my lord, not to be spoke of.”
(Act 4, Scene 1, lines 88-89)
Claudio is young and angry at having been betrayed, and accuses Hero of infidelity publicly. Don John’s restraint during the wedding scene is in direct contrast to Claudio’s lengthy accusations.
When Don Pedro comes to him for confirmation of Hero’s behaviour, he makes a dignified refusal.
Although the audience is fully aware that Don John and his associates have manufactured the evidence against Hero, Don John’s words set him apart from the other characters on stage, who are clearly highly emotional.
Don John is briefly in control, having manipulated not only Claudio but also his own brother, in a clear act of revenge. Don John then runs away, leaving Hero for dead.
He is captured at the end of the play, when Benedick promises Don Pedro that he will “devise thee brave punishments for him” (Act 5, Scene 4, lines 119-120). Don Pedro and his soldiers have won again.
However, Don John, like Malvolio in Twelfth Night, remains unsatisfied – one of Shakespeare’s characters who continue to unsettle and disrupt the plot’s resolution.
Helen Mears is an English teacher who sits on the education committee of the British Shakespeare Association. Follow her on Twitter at @shakesmears.
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