Inside his house, Leonato runs into his elder brother, Antonio. Antonio says that a servant of his overheard Don Pedro talking with Claudio outside. The servant thinks that he overheard Don Pedro professing his love for Hero and that he means to tell her that very night, during the dance, and then ask Leonato himself for Hero’s hand in marriage. Obviously, Antonio has misheard the truth: Claudio, not Don Pedro, loves Hero. Nevertheless, the only part of the conversation Antonio has intercepted is that Don Pedro will woo Hero that evening. Leonato’s prudent reply is that he will not consider the rumor to be true until his daughter is actually courted. But he declares that he will tell Hero about it, so that she may think about what she wants to say in response to Don Pedro, should this bit of information prove true.Read a translation of Act I, scene ii →
Elsewhere in the house, Don John converses with his servant, Conrad. Conrad asks Don John why he appears angry and melancholy. Don John replies that he is naturally depressed and somber; he lacks the skills—or the willpower—to change his face to suit other people. Conrad reminds Don John that Don Pedro has only very recently started to be friendly with him again, and if Don John wants to remain on good terms with his powerful brother, he ought to show a more cheerful face. But, bitter that he must depend both socially and economically on his much more successful and highly ranked brother, Don John bristles at having to conform to Don Pedro’s expectations.
Borachio, another of Don John’s servants, enters to tell Don John that he has overheard rumors of the upcoming marriage between Claudio and Hero. Borachio, like Leonato’s servant, has also overheard Don Pedro and Claudio making plans, but Borachio correctly understands what he has heard. He realizes that Don Pedro plans to court Hero in order to give her to Claudio. Don John, who hates Claudio for being so well loved and respected, decides to try to use this information to make trouble for Claudio. Conrad and Borachio swear to help him.Read a translation of Act I, scene iii →
Overhearing, plotting, and misunderstanding occur frequently in Much Ado About Nothing, as characters constantly eavesdrop or spy on other characters. Occasionally they learn the truth, but more often they misunderstand what they see or hear, or they are tricked into believing what other people want them to believe. In these scenes, Antonio’s servant and Don John’s associate both overhear the same conversation between Don Pedro and Claudio, but only Borachio understands it correctly, while Antonio’s servant (and, consequently, Antonio himself) misunderstand. He carries this incorrect information onward, first to Leonato and then to Hero.
It appears that Don John has no strong motive for the villainy he commits and that his actions are inspired by a bad nature, something he acknowledges fully: “though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain” (I.iii.23–25). Yet, the fact that Don John is Don Pedro’s bastard brother—that he is of a much lower station than Don Pedro and possesses little chance of rising in society because of his bastard birth—suggests that there is more to his behavior than his evil character. He most likely resents Don Pedro, the most powerful figure in the play’s social hierarchy, for claiming the authority and social superiority of a legitimate heir. His jealousy of his brother’s success is most likely what drives him to wreak havoc on Claudio and Don Pedro. His insistence on honesty in this scene might appear admirable, but he lies to many people later on, casting his statements here about being harmless into doubt.
To understand Don John’s claim of natural evil, we should remember that he stands in a very difficult position. As the illegitimate brother (or half-brother) of Don Pedro, Don John is labeled “the Bastard.” Illegitimate sons of noblemen found themselves in a tricky position in Renaissance England. Often, their fathers acknowledged them and gave them money and an education, but they could never be their fathers’ real heirs, and they were often excluded from polite society and looked upon with disdain. In plays, bastard sons were sometimes admired for their individualism, enterprise, and courage, but in Shakespeare’s works, their anger about their unfair exclusion often inspires them to villainy. Like Edmund in Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, Don John seems to be a villain at least in part because he is a bastard, and like Edmund he is determined to cross his legitimate brother in any way that he can.