A couple centuries worth of editorial work have worked marvels in cleaning up the text of Shakespeare’s plays. Elizabethan foibles, errors, and hack jobs have been turned into polished, perfected texts — the result of perhaps the most thorough and extensive analysis of any text in the history of civilization. (Only the King James’ Bible would be likely to give it a run for its money in English.)
This work is important because it’s helped to keep the texts accessible and performable. But a lot of interesting details can get swept away in the search for standardization.
Take, for example, the characters of Don Pedro and Don John. The common title for the two brothers is certainly an appealing and consistent one, but the truth is that neither of them are often referred to as such in the play itself. Pedro, for example, is referred to as “the Prince” 50+ times, but as “Don Pedro” only 6 (and that includes two references to him as “Don Peter”).
Switching “Don Pedro” to “Prince Pedro” is only to realign our identification of the character to match Shakespeare’s, but a change that has, in my opinion, important dramatic consequences is Don John: Although he’s referred to as “Prince John” almost as frequently as “Don John”, the overwhelming identification of John is as “John the Bastard”. He is referred to as such in virtually every stage direction and his speech headings are always either “John” or “Bastard”.
It has become easy to dismiss John as “evil ’cause he’s evil”. After all, he says as much:
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.
But once you identify John as “John the Bastard” — once you make “Bastard” his defining trait — much of the character seems to come into focus. In fact, all one needs to do is make him the elder brother — disinherited only because of his birthright — and both John’s rebellion against his brother and his instinctual hatred of marriage suddenly make sense. They might even be understandable.
In fact, referring to John’s bastardy as his “defining trait” is perhaps illuminating in its own way: Certainly every one else in the play seems to think of him as such. Or, rather, dismiss him as such.
Consider, for example, Act II, Scene 1 when Prince Pedro returns to tell Claudio that Hero has agreed to marry him. Although modern texts delete the stage direction, the original texts have John re-enter with his brother to witness the fruits of his plan to convince Claudio that the Prince has wooed for himself. John’s presence onstage yields surprising fruit a few minutes later when Beatrice and Prince Pedro start talking:
BEATRICE Good Lord for alliance: Thus goes every one to the world but I, and I am sun-burnt; I may sit in a corner and cry heigh-ho for a husband!
PEDRO Lady Beatrice, I will get you one.
BEATRICE I would rather have one of your father’s getting. Hath your grace ne’er a brother like you? Your father got excellent husbands, if a maid could come by them.
John is standing right there.
Ignored. Passed over. Treated as irrelevant and forgettable and unimportant.
It’s not hard to hear John proclaim with Edmund from King Lear, “Now gods stand up for bastards!” Nor difficult to imagine the rage he must keep bottled up for the rest of the scene until it explodes anew at the top of the next scene:
JOHN It is so, the Count Claudio shall marry the daughter of Leonato.
BORACHIO Yea my lord, but I can cross it.
JOHN Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be med’cinable to me: I am sick in displeasure to him, and whatsoever comes athwart his affection ranges evenly with mine; how canst thou cross this marriage?
John may be denied his birthright, but let’s not do him the dishonor of denying the true baseness of his villainy: Let it fester. Let it boil. And let it burn.