Don John’s Bastardy

Don John’s Bastardy

  D. John.  I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, and it better fits my blood to be disdain’d of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any. In this (though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man) it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with a muzzle, and enfranchis’d with a clog, therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking. In the meantime let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.

Much Ado About Nothing, 1.3.27-37

When watching the play in performance, something clicks about halfway through Much Ado About Nothing when we hear someone say, for the first and only time, that Don John is a bastard. What clicks is that Don John belongs to the same dramatic tradition as Shakespeare’s earlier stigmatized characters – from Richard III and Aaron the Moor to Shylock the Jew and Philip Faulconbridge the Bastard – and Don John is himself tagged and treated as inferior on the basis of some innate aspect of his identity. If so, then Don John's earlier statement that it "fits [his] blood to be distain'd" is not simply a vice-like declaration of a sour disposition. It is a reference to the social standing written into the "blood" of a bastard. The earlier line about Don John's "blood" points forward to the later line about him being a "bastard"; that later, symbolic, ethical bastardy points back to the earlier, literal, familial bastardy. Indeed, by calling Don John “bastard” in the stage directions throughout Much Ado, Shakespeare elevated stigma to the level of structure. Shakespeare branded Don John with bastardy at the start of the play, and Shakespeare recalled that figuration by having Benedick brand Don John with bastardy immediately after actualizing John’s villainy, the shaming of Hero, and immediately before revealing John’s destiny, exile from Messina. Bastardy dramatically links Don John’s earlier villainy and his upcoming tragedy, gesturing toward the system I have called the figure of stigma: abnormality, villainy, irony, tragicomedy. 

Shakespeare used this system to structure his treatments of other stigmatized individuals, such as Richard and Aaron who each – like Don John – avouches his own immitigable villainy, but with Don John there is an important difference. He does not speak directly to the audience and (consequently) is much less fun. His drollness is not the same difference exhibited by the Bastard Faulconbridge, who does speak to the audience, but the Bastard Faulconbridge also exhibits an important difference from Shakespeare’s other stigmatics: he is not a villain who is punished at the end of the play but a hero who is celebrated. Similar to each other, and also similar to the other stigmatics – yet not totally identical – the examples of Faulconbridge and Don John suggest that Shakespeare did indeed think of bastardy in the terms of stigma, yet the subtle differences between these bastards and Shakespeare’s earlier instances of the figure of stigma suggest that he used bastardy to think through his changing attitudes about stigma during the middle period of his career. For example, by having both Benedick and Leonato immediately suspect Don John, not Borachio (who was, in fact, responsible for conceiving and carrying out the plot against Hero), Shakespeare showed the suspicions society holds toward stigmatics. And because Don John’s bastardy is not as pronounced as Faulconbridge’s or Edmund’s, Shakespeare could be illustrating the way that stigma is often cited as an explanation in situations to which it bears no relevance, such as Don John’s. These thought experiments continue to operate, however, within the general framework of the figure of stigma. The stigmatic must be excluded from whatever felicitous resolution is reached at the end of a play, which is why the stigmatized are exiled, sometimes slaughtered, often by the stigmatizers themselves: think of Richmond, Lucius, and Edgar killing Richard III, Aaron the Moor, and Edmund the Bastard. For, in Much Ado, it is Benedick himself, the stigmatizer, who (in the final line of the play) promises to punish and torture Don John, the stigmatized.


Bastardy in the Renaissance
Bastardy in the Elizabethan Age
Bastards in Shakespeare 


Spivack, Bernard. “The Hybrid Image in Shakespeare.” Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1958. 386-407.

Berger, Jr., Harry. “Against the Sink-a-Pace: Sexual and Family Politics In Much Ado About Nothing.” Shakespeare Quarterly 33.3 (Autumn 1982): 302-313.

Howard, Jean E. “Renaissance Antitheatricality and the Politics of Gender and Rank in Much Ado About Nothing.” Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology. Ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor. New York, NY: Methuen, 1987. 163-87.

Neill, Michael. “ ‘In Everything Illegitimate’: Imagining the Bastard in Renaissance Drama.” The Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993): 270-92.

Findlay, Alison. “Unnatural Children.” Illegitimate Power: Bastards in Renaissance Drama. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994. 85-128.