Don John in Much Ado About Nothing
In Much Ado About Nothing, love is fickle and volatile. Several pairs of characters fall in and out of love at nearly a moment’s notice and a few accept their emotions without question. Many complex events cause these sudden emotional changes to come about. Each character in Much Ado About Nothing plays some part in changing the feelings of another, but one man, Don John, sets the events in motion that bring about the most drastic of these affairs.
Don John is the bastard brother of Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon. The prince looks down upon him but respects him as a brother. Seeing this, many of the characters follow suit. Leonato tells Don John, “Being reconciled to the prince your brother, I owe you all duty” (Shakespeare, I.i.125-126). In this way, Don John easily slides around in the background of the play without the other characters interacting with him extensively. Thus, he plays a major role in the plot without actually appearing relatively often on stage. This means that each appearance is critical to his development as a character. Before the beginning of the play, the brothers fought a great battle in which Don John’s army was brutally defeated (I.i-iii.). Even with this to sadden him, he admits that he is already predisposed to quiet suffering and stoic depression to his confidant Conrad. He tells him and the audience, “I cannot hide what I am. I must be sad when I have cause” (I.iii.10-11). Don John’s words alone, read from the script, cannot fully portray the true underlying characteristics and motivations of the man, however. The performance of Don John at various moments throughout the play is critical in that it can portray him as a malicious schemer who uses his resources to cause unwarranted mischief, or alternatively as a lackluster individual whose discontent and powerful mind is bent to accomplish other’s dark plans.
In the third scene of the first act, Conrad is discussing with Don John the full measure of his sadness in his current situation. Don Pedro has previously accepted him back into his company after the battle. If Don Jon is to be considered used, Conrad could be portrayed as convincing a sullen and inactive Don John that unless he acts upon his sorrow, the rest of his life will be lived under his older brother the prince. Conrad tells him, “It is needful that you frame the season for your own harvest” (I.iii.19-20). Don John replies, “It better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any” (I.iii.22-23). He simply would rather quietly hate all than to fashion a plan to hurt anyone. Conrad goes on to ask if Don John will let his discontent go wasted instead of used as fuel for some evil act (I.iii.30). “I make full use of it, for I use it only,” he replies (I.iii.31). If performed sadly, drawn out, and monochromatically, Don John appears apprehensive and unwilling to use his sadness for any other task than to wallow in it.
On the contrary, if Don John is to be portrayed as the scheming user, a different performance must be used. With hand to chin and a lighter inflection, as if thinking over the words of Conrad, Don John’s first response appears to be questioning his own disposition. Would he actually rather quietly disdain his brother, or take action to prevent the sealing of his fate as the inferior bastard? After Conrad’s second prod, Don John’s performer may wish to show Don John as interested with more motion and dynamic hand gestures. He becomes prideful and defensive of his own emotion, telling Conrad to stop prodding him because he will indeed make use of it and it is only his to control.
A second point where performance controls Don John’s character is in the second scene of the second act. Borachio and Don John are planning a way to subvert Hero and Claudio’s marriage. In order to perform as the user, Don John will have to show extreme interest in Borachio’s schemes. If the actor kept his focus on Borachio’s face and gestures, occasionally mirrored his actions, and replied with quick excited lines, Don John would appear as if he was in rapt attention, ready to employ whatever strategy his henchman could create in order to stop the marriage. Combined with the payment of one thousand gold coins, this performance demonstrates that Borachio is acting subservient to Don John (II.ii.43-44).
If Don John were to continue his role as the used tool, the performance would require a difference color. Slow to respond with a worried inflection, Don John’s question “What proof shall I make of that?” feels earnest (II.ii.23). He will appear unsure of Borachio’s plan, almost unwilling to comply. Unlike the relationship developed in the user performance, this portrayal highlights that Borachio is manipulating Don John. The plan to deceive Claudio and Don Pedro with Margaret is entirely of Borachio’s doing after all.
In the third act of the play, a third critical moment presents itself in the second scene. At this time, Don John is executing his part of the plan created earlier by Borachio. He must convince Don Pedro and Claudio that Hero has been disloyal and that they must follow him to witness her disloyalty that very night. Don John’s character in this scene can be determined by how a particular line is performed. When he says, “You may think I love you not” (III.ii.78). This line is said just before the beginning of his lie and carries the weight of the performance.
A melancholy inflection, relaxed body position, and perhaps resting a hand on the shoulder of his brother would support the used characterization. This performance would show Don John’s apprehensive feelings in tricking his brother and Claudio. I see this as his attempt to relate to Don Pedro and apologize internally for the wrongdoing he is about to commit for Conrad and Borachio. Throughout this scene, Don John would be portrayed as passive, slow moving, pensive, and slow to deliver the bad news in order to create a saddened character who is acting outside of his own interests.
Many of the opposite traits would be applied to create the user characterization. When he tells the two men that they believe he loves them not, a boastful tone, over-exaggerated body movements, and a quick delivery would together portray to the audience a clever villain attempting to hide his lies in his enemies’ guilt. The entire scene would be performed as if Don John were attempting to clearly deliver the bad news to Claudio and Don Pedro as smoothly and efficiently as possible. The line about love was conceived by Don John merely to grab their attention and inspire them to listen fully. A sly smile may grace his lips as the three men exit, signifying the users happiness in the effectiveness of is words.
A fourth and final moment of importance for the portrayal of Don John occurs in the beginning of act four. In this moment, Claudio accuses Hero of being unmoral and impious. The plan enacted by Borachio and Don John is finally coming to fruition. Throughout most of the scene, Don John remains silent, matching his usual disposition. He speaks once during the entire scene, sealing his fate as either the user or the used. Don John does not appear again for the rest of the play.
Don Pedro tells of Hero of how he and Claudia witnessed the entire exchange between her and another lover the night before, in which they retold the “vile encounters they have has a thousand times in secret” (IV.i.92-93). As the user, Don John would quickly rush between the men and Hero and hold up a hand to stop the conversation from moving in a dangerous direction. He interrupts in order to keep Don Pedro from going into detail of the vile encounters. Don John would surely have imagined that Hero’s reaction to the specifics or any question she might ask would tip off the accusers to the trick. To match his swift movements, the performer should speak fast and worriedly. “Fie, fie, they are not to be named my lord, not to be spoke of” (IV.i.94). This sentence will be directed towards Don Pedro as a plea to stop him from revealing everything. In order to portray no remorse, he may ignore Hero entirely and relish in the anger he has caused to his brother and Claudio.
As for the used performance, this moment represents a very different chain of thought for Don John. In the previous performance, when he goes on to say, “Thus, pretty lady, I am sorry for thy much misgovernment,” he sounds as though he is sarcastically apologizing for her failure to remain well self-governed and pure (IV.i.97). In this performance, however, Don John will insert himself into the discussion not to protect himself, but to protect Hero. His lines, directed at Hero, will mean that he is legitimately sorry for the situation that she cannot know. The misgovernment is the injustice that Borachio, Conrad, and he had together put into action. The actor may play Don John as tense and nervous, worried about how the situation may go wrong. He will again be quick to cut off Don Pedro, but only in order to save Hero from having to hear the vulgar activities that Borachio and the maid imagined. Again, in the used characterization, Don John may not receive any emotional relief from his nefarious activities. He will continue to show poor body posture, diverted eyes, a small amount of gestures, and slowed movement to emphasize his depression.
In every situation in which Don John is present, his performance and presentation tells a much greater tale than his words alone. His portrayal can create a character that is self-motivated by his sadness to subvert the happiness of his brother and all who associate with him. In contrast, he can be played as a character that prefers to wallow in his grief whose depression is twisted by others to complete their own nefarious plans. The performance arguably plays a much greater role in the play than the words themselves. How the actor moves across the stage, raises his voice, interacts with the other characters, and differs his gestures can redefine Don John into two separate men with distinct motivations and purposes. His performance throughout Much Ado About Nothing could even change to show his development over time. The transpiring events could morph him from the villain to the tool or from passive to scheming. Whether the user, the used, or some combination, it is not the words that are spoken, but how they are spoken that defines Don John.
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton, 2009. 322-376. Print.
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