Much Ado about Nothing is a play about socialization and control of others. This means establishing relations with others, some of them peers, like Benedick and Claudio who have sworn brothers in Act 1.1.71-72. Some others are hierarchical superiors, like Don Pedro, Benedick, and Claudio. With this design, it is clear why Shakespeare puts Don John, the bastard to be alienated from the society. As early as the beginning of the play, when everybody welcomes Don Pedro and the companions, Don John remains sober, saying “I am not a man of many words, but I thank you” (1.1.127).
Don John may be the easiest character to describe, because he describes himself to the audience. He does not want to be controlled by anybody, even by his brother. He does not want to hide behind the masquerade, therefore he does not join the masked party. Don John tells his followers:
I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, and it better fits my blood to be
disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any…it must not be denied but I am a
plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with a muzzle, and enfranchised with a clog…If I had my mouth I
would bite. If I hade my liberty I would do my liking...let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me
Yet, Don John plays an important role in setting the plot of the play, and he is “the author of all” (5.2.83). With a figure of distrusted Don John in our mind, we can see the foolishness of Don Pedro and Claudio. Logically, they must have known Don John’s character for long. Still, they easily fall into a mouse trap set by Don John. Claudio may be in love and feels betrayed, but he can at least behave like a gentleman instead of disgracing Hero before the people on the wedding day. To hear him say, “If I see anything tonight why I should not marry her, tomorrow, in the congregation where I should wed, there will I shame her” (3.2.103-5), I see that his love to Hero is merely superficial. As a prince, Don Pedro could have been wise enough to act as a role model rather than emotionally tailing behind Claudio and saying, “And as I wooed for thee to obtain her, I will join thee to disgrace her” (3.2.106-7).
Some other characters also fall into Don John’s trap. Leonato, who could have understood his daughter better than anybody, thinks that Hero is too shamed for redemption (4.1.120-142) and choose to believe the gentlemen. In short, the grand design of social bond is ruined, and everybody declares war. Leonato cut ties with both the prince and Claudio, Benedick pledges to kill Claudio and states his withdrawal of allegiance with the prince, “My lord, for your many courtesies I thank you. I must discontinue your company” (5.1.179-80). Among all the male characters, the Friar now stands up as the most sensible figure. Just as the Duke who disguises as a friar sets the bed trick in Measure for Measure, the Friar in Much Ado sets a death trick to save the stage from being torn down. Finally, Don John’s design of anti-socialization is doomed, and the social bond is resolved in the marriage of Claudio-Hero, the announced love of witty Benedick and Beatrice, and the friendship of Claudio and Benedick within closer ties of comrades and marriage. As for Don John, he has from the beginning chosen not to cooperate, and his punishment is yet to come. Shakespeare may have been conservative about social norms, therefore he chooses to alienate a bastard from social bond, because he does not belong to his time.