It is possible to ascertain that Don John serves to entertain the audience with dramatic irony, playing the instrumental antagonist to the theme of deception and slander underlying the play’s narrative. The employment of specific literary devices and melodrama illustrates Don John’s conformation to the stereotypical role of the villain and illegitimate offspring, evident in Shakespearean times. The Elizabethan villain was entirely self-conscious and often a complete embodiment of evil.
With the growing consciousness that revenge was evil, revengefulness – particularly for injuries less than blood – became almost exclusively a villainous characteristic.
Envy was considered the greatest Elizabethan vice, and it may be one of the most powerful of the passions inducing revenge. Envy’s passion was so great that, in contrast to anger, no wrongs were necessary for a person to become the recipient of its malice; indeed, it was often directed against the most virtuous and peaceful of people.
In the case of “Much Ado About Nothing” Don John was envious of his brother, Don Pedro, his position and rights as the legitimate son as well as Claudio, who was in his brother’s favour, because he helped to quell the rebellion.
This compelled him to wrongfully slander Hero’s name, a woman considered to be nai??ve, innocent and the quintessential meaning of righteousness. In Elizabethan literature the villain performed the function of setting in motion the awesome and terrifying forces of chaos that threatened the existence of social order.
Elizabethan society was concerned that if Elizabeth I did not marry, a weak or illegitimate heir would rise to the throne.
This fear is echoed through “Much Ado About Nothing”. Leonato wishes his daughter, Hero, to marry in order to secure the succession of property and social status. Don John, as the villain, feeds the fears of the Elizabethan audience, as he plots to slander Hero and deem her a whore. If Hero had broken the vows of the betrothal, there was the risk that an illegitimate child could inherit the family’s wealth.
In Elizabethan times, bastards could not legally own or inherit property, hold public or ecclesiastical office, or marry. It was not a romantic thing to be. It is, therefore, possible to infer that Don John was jealous of Claudio’s engagement to Hero, as he was unlikely to ever experience love, other than that out of wedlock. It was the fear that, if the villain ultimately prevailed (or went unpunished for his deeds), chaos and disorder would reign forever; life thereafter would be rendered meaningless, and mankind would be doomed to an existence, void of hope and purpose.
It is this chaos, expressed by way of prophecy, soliloquy, and other literary techniques, which captured the Elizabethan fears of villainy and illegitimacy. Shakespeare developed the function of the villain through the character Iago in “Othello”. Don John is also a self-proclaimed “plain-dealing villain,” similar to Richard III who states in his opening soliloquy that, “I am determined to prove a villain. ” The role of the illegitimate son was further explored through Edmund in “King Lear”.
Concentrating on the text of the play, it is possible to see that the language employed serves to illustrate Don John’s portrayal as the villain and illegitimate son. The audience is first able to build up a picture of Don John, with his awkwardly, repetitious words “I thank you, I am not of many words, but I thank you” in response to Leonato’s welcome. It is possible to infer that Don John appears to the audience as very brooding and potentially threatening. He is truthfully a man of not many words, but one who listens intently for any information or knowledge that may serve his own purpose.
Very early on, the central characters establish his speech as often ambiguous. Later on in Act 1 Scene 3, he airs his grievances to his followers Conrade and Borachio. Borachio falsely relays information of a plan for Don Pedro to woo Hero for himself and give her to Claudio. Don John subsequently dedicates himself to revenge against Claudio, for placing himself in his brother’s favour. Don John’s resentment of Claudio is bitter; “that young start-up hath all the glory of my overthrow. ” His scheming nature conforms to the stigmatised prejudice against bastards in Elizabethan society.
The audience is able to establish that whilst Don John is inherently evil, he is in addition an opportunist, who will prey on any suitable situation that comes his way; “will it serve for any model to build mischief on”. His overuse of the first person, serves to illustrate his egocentricity and self-dramatisation; “I am a plain dealing villain, seek not to alter me”. His refrain from use of euphemistic language which is still very metaphorical, emphasises his role in the play as the villain, driven by jealousy of Don Pedro and Claudio for his illegitimate status; “I am trusted with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog”.
Whilst one can appreciate that the characters do not understand the extent of Don John’s nature, it is possible to say that some of the more reserved yet intelligent and observant characters, namely Hero, recognise him as undiscovered serving for some discomfort; “He is of very melancholy disposition”. Although Don John causes distress at the masked ball by hinting to Claudio that Don Pedro has wooed Hero for himself, it is possible to ascertain that he cannot conduct any mischievous plan to his amends because it is Borachio who architects the scheme.
His lack of ingenuity makes him even more despised and the audience is unimpressed by his failings to govern even a simple plan. His use of language is over-elaborate, flat and rigid, with minimal emotion, except that of annoyance and envy. His use of antithesis, alliteration and parallel syntax would gain him respect, nevertheless his speech is self-involved; “I must be sad when I have cause, and smile at no man’s jests: eat when I have stomach… laugh when I am merry, and claw no man in his humour”. Like a true Elizabethan villain, he directs doubt onto issues that were of important moral value to society at the time i. . chastity, honour and virginity. This is where he displays his true intelligence. The descent from the comedy of Benedick to the tragedy of Hero’s slander serves to demonstrate the ease of the deception. His use of ambiguous language seduces Don Pedro and Claudio and the possibility of visual confirmation becomes irresistible. With the words “oh plague right well prevented”, Don John evolves into the melodramatic villain and there is incredible irony that he has deceived those who tricked Benedick into falling in love with Beatrice.
Knowledge of his brother serves to his purpose, as he seen to be honourable by claiming that he “will disparage her no farther”. He shows initiative and quick-thinking as he leads the men away after the denunciation of Hero, before she can respond in protest. Don John has exaggerated her crimes and then proceeds to justify them, in order to show compassion on his part; “There is not chastity enough in language, without offence to utter them: thus pretty lady, I am sorry for thy much misgovernment”. Presently the watch makes the people of Messina aware of Don John’s dishonesty, however he manages to escape.
The play concludes with news that Don John has been captured. This is a conventional ending because it served to reassure Elizabethan society that villains would be punished for their wrongdoings. In conclusion, Don John, although he is not one of the main protagonists, he provides the epitome of the theme of deception which links all the central characters by the various methods in which they are deceived. He is portrayed as the archetypal Shakespearean villain, motivated in wickedness by the fact that he is an illegitimate child.
His underlying antagonism is the catalyst for the slander of Hero and Claudio’s denunciation of her at the church. However, the role of the villain was essential to Elizabethan society because it served to reassure the constant victory of good over evil. In a society and historical period where England was under the threat of invasion from Spain and France and likely to be subjected to religious unrest, it restored confidence to people that the triumph over villainous characters and ideals was inevitable.