The assertion that Don John is a plot device, rather than a truly complex character, is true. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy in which the conflicts are intended to engender humor and levity later in the play. Don John’s character is a plot device that Shakespeare uses to bring about Hero’s conflict that eventually allows the play to end in an atmosphere of blitheness.
Throughout the play, Don John shows no real emotion or motives for his actions. In his conversation with Conrade, Don John asserts that he must be sad because he “cannot hide” (1.3.12) who he is. Don John claims that he must be sad when he has cause and must remain sad even when hearing cheerful words. Don John is like an automaton that is programmed to be sad: his mind is set to live a gloomy life. Thus, he doesn’t give reasons for his grief but merely constrains himself to feel only grief. Don John is not a complex character who has a sound reason to conduct his “evil” actions. Rather, he believes that fate is responsible for his morose life: “let me be that I am and seek not to alter me” (1.3.34). If Shakespeare intended to give Don John a complex character, we would see strong emotional motives in Don John’s scheme to trick Claudio into thinking that Hero is dishonest. However, when Borachio comes to him with the news that the Prince intends to “woo” Hero for his friend Claudio, Don John responds, ” This may prove food to my displeasure” (1.3.64). To him, his scheme is only something that is done out of necessity to maintain his lifestyle: Don John lives a life of “displeasure,” and he desires others’ lives to be displeasing as well. By plotting a scheme only indirectly against the Don Pedro, Don John portrays that he not only wants his half-brother to suffer from grief but also everyone else in the world.
Much Ado About Nothing, as the title suggests, is replete with misunderstandings. Don John’s scheme brings about the misunderstandings that portray the levity with which the characters of the play deal with conflicts. Claudio seems to abhor even the thought of the Hero when he reasons that she is disloyal. However, when he finds out that she is innocent he immediately casts off his hate and loves her again. Thus, through Don John’s scheme, we see how quickly characters in the play accept that which seems to be right. Much is the same for Leonato: when Hero is first accused by Claudio during the wedding that she is disloyal, he immediately accepts the accusation and weeps for his seemingly tainted reputation. However, when he finds out that his daughter is innocent, he immediately accepts the friar’s plan to reunite Claudio and Hero. Thus, we see how fickle the characters in the play can be. Even when Claudio is “fooled” into marrying Hero, we see how easily Claudio accepts the marriage. He gives no thought of denial at all but accepts what is given to him immediately. Thus, Shakespeare portrays a lack of thinking that is portrayed throughout the play.
Having no real emotional motives, Don John is used by Shakespeare as a plot device to precipitate the conflict of the play that is included to add further humorous aspects later in the play. Although the mood seems to shift from light to dark during the scenes when Claudio belies Hero’s innocence, the friar’s plan for their reunion has humorous elements. The fact that Claudio is marrying Hero without actually knowing it until during the marriage is part of Shakespeare’s clever comedy. When Hero reveals herself to Claudio, his reaction is humorous and again the mood shifts back to the original.
The way in which Hero and Leonato deal with Claudio’s misjudgement about Hero’s innocence also adds to the levity of the play as a whole. Neither Leonato nor Hero feels intensely emotional towards Claudio; they feel neither extreme hatred nor vengefulness but merely trick Claudio into marrying the woman that he wants to marry. The last line of the play, spoken by Benedick, is also spoken in a blithe manner: when news reaches the Prince that Don John has been brought back to Messina, Benedick tells Don Pedro, “Think not on him till tomorrow. I’ll devise thee brave punishments for him. – Strike up, pipers!” (5.4.131). The last line is definitely humorous and keeps up the carefree and happy atmosphere of the play: the play ends with jestful singing and dancing, and although Don John will be punished, no one is too vindictive or serious as to deal with him immediately.
As portrayed by how the characters react to the given conflicts, Don John is merely a plot device that Shakespeare uses. Unlike Iago, Don John does not “destroy the comic assurance that all will be well for the crossed lovers,” but is actually essential to the comical elements in the play. The conflicts that Don John brings to the plot assure us that Shakespeare’s comedy and cheerful tone will be maintained even to the end of the play.