Aragon Family Dynamics: Weak Villain, Weaker Prince?

A couple of days back, we took a look at the family dynamics of the family of Leonato, the Governor of Messina, our central family of Much Ado About Nothing. Today, let’s take a look at the other family unit, the dysfunctional fraternity that is Don Pedro of Aragon and his (half-) brother, Don John the Bastard.

We know nothing of the past lives of the two brothers. We don’t even know definitively who is the elder brother, only that Pedro is the legitimate prince, and John the illegitimate bastard son of their father. We know that that John has been “reconciled with the prince (his) brother” (I.i.148), or “restored to friendship” (“reconciled, adj.; A1” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 9 October 2014.) with the prince. The prince has welcomed John back “into his grace” (I.iii.20), which we can take to mean that John attempted some kind of rebellion or usurpation against Pedro (and lost).

They obviously do not have the same brotherly love as Leonato and Antonio. In the play, the word “brother” is used 39 times (more than any other comedy, save As You Like It–another play with two sets of brothers, one a usurper–which uses the word 47 times; the two York brothers-related histories, Henry VI, Part Three and Richard III both have more uses, as does the “problem play” Measure for Measure). Of Much Ado’s 39 uses, 11 are–for lack of a better term–directed pronouns, as in Leonato saying to Antonio, “The revellers are entering, brother: make good room” (II.i.78-9). And of those 11 uses, ten are between the Messina brothers. Only once does Pedro call John “brother” (III.ii.73), and the only time John calls Pedro brother, it’s part of the seemingly sarcastic phrase, “My lord and brother” (III.ii.72). (Compare this to the single “directed pronoun” use in As You Like It: Rosalind/Ganymede to Oliver,the newly reconciled brother of her love Orland0, to which Oliver responds with a playful “sister” reference [As You Like It, V.ii.17-8]).

It’s also interesting to note that the word bastard is used twice in the play, both in reference to Don John (duh), and both by Benedick. No other comedy has more than a single use of the word (of course, this is the only comedy with a bastard character); the two histories, one “problem play,” and one tragedy (Henry VI, Part One and King John, Troilus and Cressida, and King Lear, respectively) that have bastard characters, all have more uses of the word (but all under a dozen uses).

I find it interesting as well that as Benedick is not only the only character to use the word “bastard,” he is also the character who takes control at the end of the play, announcing that it is he, and not the prince–who will “devise … brave punishments for” (V.iv.125-6) the newly captured John. In a sense, Benedick has usurped Don Pedro’s power. Is the ease with which Benedick takes over at the end of the play analogous to the ease with which John fools the prince? Could this be subtext for casting a Pedro who younger than both Benedick and John? Or is it just showing how weak Pedro is, and thus setting John up as a relatively weak villain in a comedy (as opposed to a strong villain who might have turned the play into a tragedy)?

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