One of the most delightful aspects of "Much Ado," for me, is the characterization of the villain, Don John. In what ways have villain's changed over the years, if at all? If you were to cast someone today in the role (life or an actor) why would you do so? What commonalities do the two share?
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Well, I have always found it hilarious that one version of Much Ado, the one with Emma Thompson as Beatrice, has Keneau Reeves as Don John! Who could be a more unlikely Shakespearean character? I do not think Don John a particularly interesting character. Perhaps the director of this version had the same thought and therefore casted Reeves as the likely guy. The Riverside Shakespeare describes Don John as "a malcontent, pure and simple," a guy who is wicked for no apparent reason except possibly the fact that he is a bastard, which hardly explains him. He gets nothing out of causing harm to Hero and Claudio; I guess he just can't bear to find happiness in others. The Riverside also calls him a "plot mechanism" to offset the comedy, and maybe that, too, is why I find him uninteresting. Villains changing over the years? There's all sorts of villains, but he seems one of the least interesting. Give me Iago any day.
Oh, I dunno. Of course I prefer Iago for complexity, but you can't beat the Snidely Whiplash aspect of Don John...I don't find any of the characters particularly complex, though I think they're all fun. I consider "Much Ado" to be sort of the matinee popcorn Shakespeare. And who's gonna turnt that down? Sure he's a plot mechanism, but so too are many Shakespeare characters, esp in comedy. I don't think that means he isn't fun.
But you don't say what you find "delightful" about Don John, the observation which started the conversation.
And I think the matinee and popcorn simile is a perfect way to describe this comedy. I love teaching it, however, because students have so much fun with it, and the witty banter between Beatrice and Benedick is not duplicated anywhere. As You Like It has some of the same conventions, but the relationship between the two leads lacks the edginess of the B & B duo.
Don John is delightful because of his simplicity. He is pissed off at the world because his social status has left him feeling impotent, so he is just going to try to spend his time making other people unhappy. Misery loves company. We all know people who behave the same way, they just can't allow others to be happy around them and find little ways of undermining joy. I would imagine we all have relatives that way! So D.J. is a recognizable and annoying - but not destructive villian - that the audience can simply roll their eyes at without being distracted from the more entertaining love stories.
Side note: I agree it is a matinee smile, but I think B and B have much more complexity than many of the comedy characters. I also think there is an underlying depth that gives it an edge. Consider the last lines, when D.J. is reported "turned in flight." Has he been captured, or is he returning to fight? Will there be more war? Critics disagree, and the ambiguity lends a seriousness to the whole.
I think one aspect of villainy that hasn't changed is their ability to fool, manipulate and trick others. Though interestingly in this case, I think Don John's success in tricking Don Pedro and Claudio perhaps says more about them than it does about Don John, to be honest. However, he does show an ability to be trusted and to work his way into the confidence of those he wants to deceive.
I am currently writing a research paper about the purpose of Don John and Don Pedro in the play. My argument is that they are left without love in the end to leave the audience wondering what their purpose was. Aside from the obvious, Don John being the villain and Don Pedro being the matchmaker, I think shakespeare put them in the play to reflect the human state. The brothers represent good and evil, an internal struggle we are all born with. Don Pedro uses his abilities for good, and Don John harms people. I have not found many discussions about this observation. Shakespeare is famous for including subliminal messages in his plays regarding the human experience, and I find Don John to be intriguing because we are left wondering why he is such a simple character.
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