A Second Look at Don John, Shakespeare's Most Passive Villain
In William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, all of the main characters experience and participate in some form of deceit designed to dupe another character. However, among the societal members of Messina, Don John particularly stands out as a villain, both in his behavior and in his position as an illegitimate son.
In Much Ado About Nothing, the man of few words emerges as the most disagreeable and iniquitous, at least in other characters’ eyes; yet Shakespeare allots Don John the redeeming quality of his honesty and ensures that he receives ample sympathy from the audience through Don John’s description of himself and through announcing Don John’s ultimate punishment by a hypocritical society which rejects him from the very moment of his birth.
Don John makes a name for himself and forces society to recognize him as a person, even a wicked one.
Due to his positions as a bastard, characters immediately reject Don John and regard him with suspicion. When Don John returns to Messina with his brother, the governor Leonato addresses him with immense hesitation: “If you swear, my Lord, you shall not be forsworn” (I.1.124). Essentially, Leonato questions Don John’s declaration of loyalty to Don Pedro, and although Leonato covers his harsh greeting with a welcoming of Don John, his doubts remain dormant under the surface of his kind words.
Don John notices the undercurrent of distrust directed towards him and responds, “I am not of many words, but I thank you” (I.1.127). Through his simple statement, Don John acknowledges society’s perpetual distrust of him and provides the audience with key insight into his character.
Indeed, Shakespeare informs the audience early on of the significance of the spoken word. The society of Messina shuns Don John not solely due to his illegitimacy, but also owing to his reticence. Most of the other characters in the play prove outgoing, talkative, or at least social, and while such chattiness leads to problems when other characters overhear secrets, Don John’s silence emerges as more disagreeable than willingness to divulge secrets.
After Don John’s initial welcome, Leonato and Don Pedro walk away holding hands, excluding Don John from their conversations and exchanges. Yet Shakespeare does not reveal more information concerning Don John’s background until the third scene, when Conrad asks, “Why are you thus out of / measure sad?” (I.3.1-2). Shakespeare induces feelings of sympathy for Don John in alluding to his overwhelming sadness. Thus far, the audience only knows Don John to be an outcast, a bastard, and nothing more.
However, Don John, in a rather wordy explanation counter to his reserved personality, expresses a keen self-awareness to his “almost” friend, Conrad. He declares, “I cannot hide what I am. I must be sad / when I have cause, and smile at no man’s jests; eat when I have / stomach, and wait for no man’s leisure; sleep when I am / drowsy, and tend on no man’s business […]” (I.3.10-13).
The audience relates to such an honest character, a person who so clearly admits that he can be no one but himself. Don John seems to accept himself, even if his position as an outsider does cause him pain. Conrad voices his acknowledgement of Don John’s true nature; however, out of concern, he warns him not to take actions which will disturb his recent acceptance by Don Pedro. In response, Don John honestly replies that he “had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace” and that any ill behavior stems from the fact that “it better fits my blood to be disdained of all” (I.3.21-22).
Thus, Don John believes that his “blood,” his origins as a bastard, forces him outside of society and renders him “evil.” He feels that in acting the part of a villain, he fulfills a role delegated to him by his own blood.
Although Don John seems rather obstinate, even egotistical, in his embracement of the “cankerous” life he claims he is born to live, Shakespeare portrays Don John’s perpetual struggles with an unkind society. Don John states, “I am trusted with a / muzzle, and enfranchised with a clog” (I.3.25-26). In this instance, Don John recognizes that no one truly trusts him; other characters merely assume he entertains evil thoughts. At best, Don John notes, they proclaim their trust in him and then merely place him in a metaphorical “muzzle” in order to observe his behavior and prevent him from lashing out.
Don John reveals that he actually feels quite hurt by society’s treatment of him; Leonato’s two-sided greeting reflects the manner in which society as a whole treats a bastard son. Don John recognizes his overall lack of freedom, and his ill-meaning behavior stems from his initial state of being an outcast and never being given a chance to develop into a good person.
As aforementioned, Don John’s redeeming quality emerges in his utter honesty, in his announcement, “I am a plain-dealing villain” (I.3.25). However, his redeeming quality, the honesty which makes him so likeable, also represents his downfall. Don John embraces his roots and his subsequent fate of being an outsider so entirely that he deems his behavior irreversible and furthermore, thinks himself incapable of change. He even warns Conrad, who embodies something of a “comrade” to Don John, to “seek not to alter me” (I.3.29).
While one commiserates with such an honest villain, the audience additionally acknowledges Don John’s lack of motivation to change his behavior or mindset. At the same time, Don John cannot function in the society of Messina by acting like everyone else. He cannot participate in rewarding social exchanges like his brother or become married to anyone respectable, like Claudio or Benedick. In fact, his alternative to interacting with society in an evil and manipulative way is not interacting with society at all. Don John would rather be hailed as the “plain-dealing villain” than a “nobody.”
Thus, when Borachio enters with news of an impending marriage, Don John proves eager to thwart it, even without yet knowing the involved parties. He immediately asks, “Will it serve for any model to build mischief on?” (I.3.37). Initially, then, Don John searches for any kind of mischief to carry out; later, when he learns that Claudio is the husband-to-be, he becomes inflamed with anger and desires even more to enact ruin on the marriage. His emotions shift from carrying out mere mischief to intending pure malice:
“This may prove food to / my displeasure. That young start-up hath all the glory of my / overthrow. If I can cross him any way I bless myself every way” (I.3.51-53).
Don John feels incensed, the audience learns, because Claudio, along with Don Pedro, defeated him in the war which ended just before the onset of the play. Don John subsequently longs to spoil the happiness of the people who rendered him a defeated outcast in the eyes of all Messina.
Significantly, Don John does not design the plot which ultimately stains Hero’s honor. His evil-minded intents exist; however, he fails to fulfill the role of the typical “evil” mastermind. Instead, Borachio fabricates the plan for Hero’s ruin, and Don John emerges as a relatively minor and passive villain and character. Shakespeare does not provide Don John with many lines and instead, gives Borachio the chance to act the part of the scheming villain. Don John submissively accepts all Borachio demands of him, finally saying to him,
“Grow this to what adverse issue it can, I will put it / in practice. Be cunning in the working this, and thy fee is a / thousand ducats” (II.2.42-44).
Essentially, Don John pays Borachio to act the part of the villain. He feels content to remain in the background, and his passive role in the plot against Hero reflects his lack of freedom and passivity in the society of Messina. Moreover, while he cannot sustain any constructive friendships with any of the main characters of the play, he finds himself able to trust Borachio with the ruin of his brother and his brother’s favorite, Claudio.
He forms a relationship of “partners in crime” with both Conrad and Borachio and even asks them at one point, “You are both sure, and will assist me?” (I.3.54). Once Conrad answers in the affirmative, “To the death, my lord,” (I.3.55) Don John trusts both of his comrades entirely, even while other characters never trust or place any confidence in him.
Interestingly, every character in the play deceives or intends to harm at least one other character in the play at some time. For instance, Hero and Ursula discuss Benedick’s supposed love for Beatrice when they know Beatrice can overhear them speaking. Later, the same Beatrice, out of immense anger, begs Benedick to challenge Claudio to a duel for his mistaken accusation of Hero.
Moreover, at the end of the play, Leonato calls Claudio a villain and blames him for the feigned death of his innocent daughter, Hero:
“Thy slander hath gone through and through her heart, / And she lies buried with her ancestors, / O in a tomb where never scandal slept / Save this of hers, framed by the villainy” (V.1.68-71).
Leonato deems Claudio a villain, granted, before he learns of Don John’s involvement in the scandal. Still, Claudio’s blind anger and rejection of Hero additionally reflects society’s tendency to dismiss and reject people too quickly and without investigation. Indeed, the treatment of Hero after the supposed scandal comes to light echoes the treatment of Don John from his birth onwards.
Yet even while other characters participate in various forms of deception, Don John’s deception induces the harshest punishment. When Don Pedro learns of his brother’s flight from Messina and involvement in the plot against Hero, he declares, “He is composed and framed of treachery” (V.1.233). He deems his brother evil through and through without ever considering the hardships which Don John confronts owing to his illegitimate birth. At the end of the play, all other characters appear completely excused from punishment and easily forgiven even when perhaps, they should not be; for instance, Margaret, who may or may not remain aware of her part in the scandal, is excused from any questioning or punishment. Only Don John does not escape the wrath of the other characters.
The play ends with a celebration, due to the marriages taking place, but also because, in Antonio’s word, “all things sort so well” (V.4.7). In other words, all the scandals and lies become resolved at the end of the play and celebration ensues. As always, however, Don John remains excluded from the festivities.
In fact, characters completely push away the very idea of Don John from their minds; Benedick heartily proclaims, “Think not on him till tomorrow, I’ll devise thee / brave punishments for him. Strike up, pipers” (V.4.121-122). Shakespeare ends the play on the note of Don John’s capture and impending punishment to emphasize the hypocrisy of Messina’s society. He highlights the multi-faceted and quickly dismissed character of Don John, the marginalized victim of a society which only interacts with him in order to punish his wrongs, even while accepted characters act just as villainous at times and escape unpunished.
If Shakespeare ended the play with mere celebration and never mentioned Don John again, the play would indeed represent a true comedy. However, by recalling the somber character of Don John, Shakespeare transforms his play into more of a tragedy. He reminds the audience that while all of the other characters may celebrate together and rejoice in their friendships, Don John will never be able to interact with society in a positive way. He will always be ostracized owing to his illegitimate roots. His only alternative, Shakespeare reiterates, is to act the “plain-dealing villain” and be remembered for his villainy.
In the end, Don John makes a name for himself and forces society to recognize him as a person, even a wicked one. Ultimately, Messina does indeed perceive Don John as the villain, a role Don John feels he must fulfill, but Shakespeare’s audience is not fooled: onlookers of the play identify Don John as the victim of a cruel and often two-faced society.
Greenblatt, Stephen, et al., eds. Essential Plays [&] the Sonnets. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997.