Don John is the half-brother to Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and the main antagonist of the William Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing. A malcontent resentful of his brother, he tries to combat the merriness of those around him by ruining the upcoming marriage between Claudio, a soldier and friend to Pedro, and Hero, daughter to Leonato, Governer of Messinia and another friend of Pedro's.
Don John is an illigetimate 'bastard' child, and one of the soldiers returning to Messinia from war. A sullen, moody and bitter man, he was jealous and resentful of his loving, good brother and thus raised an army against him, causing the war that the soldiers went to ("You have of late stood out against your brother..." - Conrade, Act I Scene III). Though Don Pedro, along with his fellow friends and soldiers Claudio and Benedict defeat Don John, Don John claims to be reconciled and reformed, and makes amends with them, but it turns out that he is more bitter and hateful then ever, and plotting revenge.
In Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing begins with the soldiers who have fought the war against Don John, including his half-brother Don Pedro, Claudio, Benedict, Don John's followers Borachio and Conrade and Don John himself, the latter three now reformed friends. Leonato, fully believing that Don John has had a change of heart welcomes him to his estate as equal to his friends the other soldiers ("Let me bid you welcome, my lord. Being reconciled to the Prince, your brother, I owe you all duty." - Leonardo, Act I Scene III). Don John accepts this and makes himself at home.
Whilst everyone is being merry however Don John sulks in his lodgings, discussing his hate and resent to Conrade, and how he is as evil as ever, believing that due to being a 'bastard' he should live up to the streoptype of the time that all illegitimate children are evil ("I had rather be a canker in his hedge than a rose in his grace... In this, though I cannot be said to be a flattering, honest man, it must not be denied that I am a plain-dealing villain." - Don John, Act I Scene III). Borachio then turns up and informs him that Claudio has fallen in love and chosen to marry Leonato's daughter Hero. Don John, who hates Claudio (it is implied this is solely because he is a friend to his brother) decides to use this as an oppurtunity to use his sullen evil to produce evil trickery, and plots how to create the same feelings of sad bitterness that he feels in the state around him.
He first attempts to convince Claudio that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself, but the issue is quickly rectified when Claudio confronts him about it, and Don Pedro helps Claudio win Hero and the two decide to get married. Furious, Don John decides that for no other reason than he loves being a villain (and feels it to be his obligation as a bastard) he will ruin the wedding, and this time his plan is successful. He sends Borachio to woo Hero's attendant Margaret, and the two start making out. Don John meanwhile approaches Don Pedro and Claudio and tells them that Hero is being unfaithful. He leads them to Hero's bedchamber, and sees Borachio making out with Margaret, and they believe her to be Hero. Enraged, Claudio vows to leave Hero at the alter, and publicly shame her, with Don Pedro promising to do the same.
On the day of the wedding Claudio and Don Pedro make good on their promise, and publically shame Hero and leave with Don John in disgust. Hero's cousin Beatrice is horrified, and pleads with Benedict, who by this point have fallen in love with each other to kill Claudio. Though Benedict is a good friend of Claudio he reluctantly agrees to challenge him, as does Leonato and his brother Antonio.
All is put right however when the watch of Messina spot Borachio and Conrade and overhear them discussing their evil plans. The Watch eventually apprehend them and get a confession out of them, though by this point Don John has fled. The Watch sends men out to apprehend him as well.
Don John's trickery is finally revealed, and Hero is proven innocent, and Claudio and Don Pedro are incredibly remorseful, believing that Hero has commited suicide in grief. As a reconciliation Claudio agrees to marry Antonio's daughter, who is meant to bear a complete resemblance to Hero. He finally discovers that Antonio's daughter was actually Hero the whole time, and the two reconcile and agree to be married, as do Beatrice and Benedict. The joyous mood is briefly threatened again when Don John is finally captured and brought to them, unrepentant and as evil as ever, but Benedict decides to not let him ruin the happy atmosphere, and tells them to take him away, and he will deal with his punishment later. Everyone decides to deny Don John the misery he wants and make him more miserable by happily singing, dancing and celebrating the married couples.
Don John is a sullen, moody bitter man. He has no real motive for his evil, no real reason to be miserable and, having been forgiven for his past treachery, no real reason to hate anyone. He decides however to stick true to his own morals that he loves being evil, and it suits him on account of that fact that he is an illegitimate child (much like how Aaron loves being evil due to back then it was believed that all black men were). He has no care for anyone else, spitting in the face of authority, believing that he can and will do what he wants when he wants (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 humor." - Don John, Act I Scene III).
Being the villain of a Shakespearean comedy, he lacks the depth and development of some of Shakespeare's darker villains from tragedies such as Iago, Edmund or Aaron. There is not a lot to him, and there is no real reason given for why he hates everyone and everything so much, why he wants to ruin the happiness of others, or even how he is affected when things happen, leaving him as something of an underdeveloped and even perhaps uninteresting villain. Though this can be justified in that the play is a comedy, and there is not meant to be any great analysis of evil or depth of character, but rather just display the comic and follies of misunderstandings, only where other trickeries in the play (Beatrice and Benedict being tricked into falling in love, everyone tricking Claudio into thinking Hero is dead) serve to make things better for the characters or make comedy, Don John's trickery aims to cause suffering and misery in everyone else, making him a foil to all the other lighter-hearted characters in the play.
- Don John bears many a resemblance (and could almost be seen as the comedic play counterpart) to Edmund, the villain of King Lear (a tragedy). They are both illegitimate children who use evil to achieve their goals, but as he is from a tragedy Edmund has more depth. Where Edmund genuinely believes it is unfair he is treated badly on account of his birth status and uses evil to try prove himself and gain his rights, Don John just uses it as an excuse to cause misery when no-one has done anything wrong to him, and as it is a comedy the results of his plans are stopped and there is a happy ending (the same cannot be said for the results of Edmund's actions).
- Don John is played in the Kenneth Branagh 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing by Keanu Reeves, in what is accepted to be the most well known (for better or worse) performance of Don John. He is later played in the 2013 Joss Whedon adaptation by Sean Maher.