John the Bastard Is Alive and Well
Within the play Much Ado About Nothing lurks a villain Shakespeare has no interest in. The villain’s name is John the Bastard (or Don John, if you prefer — but in the play he’s called both, and “John the Bastard” is more fun to say). We know when Shakespeare is interested in a character because he puts words in the character’s mouth, and when he’s very interested, unhurried poetry. Hamlet, for example, could not stop musing.
But these are the first words of John the Bastard in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing:
I thank you. I am not of many words, but I thank you.
— And that’s all. Though there is nothing about that flat and dull statement that demands Don John actually be a character of few words, he is. Even worse for John than being uninteresting, Shakespeare saw so little value in him as a person that he rarely appears, even though his hateful mischief moves major events. John is quiet, absent, and quick to harm from the shadows. He lurks.
John the Bastard does have a great deal to say, comparatively, at one point. Shakespeare allows him to tell us everything we need to know about him. The character Don John enters the play miserable, having ambitions of his own and having recently been brought to heel by his brother, a prince. In a private exchange, one of John’s minions, Conrade, tries to convince John to hide his sourness and pretend to be content. John must create “fair weather” for himself, Conrade tells him. This is part of John’s answer:
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, laugh when I am merry and claw no man in his humour.
A few things. A person who was humourous was moody or erratic, and very often, melancholy. And to claw someone was to compliment, flatter, or fawn upon them. When Don John says, “[I must] laugh when I am merry and claw no man in his humour,” he’s suggesting that he must laugh whenever he feels like it and not worry about the feelings of the people around him. This is the man who tells jokes at the funerals of people he cares nothing about, among mourners he cares nothing about.
John is a study in self-worship. The only feelings he values are his own, and the only goals he values are his own. To skip to the end of what might be an indefinitely long list, John is the only thing John values.
John the Bastard is alive and well, by the way:
Very early in Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare allows another, much more interesting character to tell us what his play will be about:
He hath an uncle here in Messina will be very much glad of it.
I have already delivered him letters, and there appears much joy in him; even so much that joy could not show itself modest enough without a badge of bitterness.
Did he break out into tears?
In great measure.
A kind overflow of kindness: there are no faces truer than those that are so washed. How much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at weeping!
John the Bastard laughs at weeping, laughs at laughing, laughs whenever he’d like.
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