In the slave market of Constantinople, Don Juan meets Johnson, an Englishman who had been a mercenary in the Russian army and who had been wounded and captured by the Turks. Johnson freely tells Juan about his wife trouble, just as Byron would tell casual visitors about his own marital troubles. Johnson's first wife had died, his second wife had left him, and he had left the third. Juan tells Johnson that his present troubles are related to his having fallen in love.
The pair are bought by a black eunuch who brings them by boat to a palace. There he has Johnson dress as a Turkish gentleman and has Juan put on woman's garb. Juan objects and Baba, the eunuch, threatens. Four slaves then lead Johnson off to dinner, but Juan is commanded to follow Baba to an apartment in which a lady reclines under a canopy. The lady, Gulbeyaz, who is the sultan's fourth wife, dismisses her attendants. Baba tells Juan to kiss the sultana's foot, but Juan refuses. He "could not stoop / To any shoe, unless it shod the Pope" (St. 102). Baba then proposes that Juan kiss her hand, and that he is willing to do. The sultana now dismisses Baba and addresses Juan. "Christian, canst thou love?" Her words bring the thought of Haidée to Juan's mind, and he bursts into tears.
Surprised by his tears, Gulbeyaz lays her hand on his and looks into his eyes but finds no sign of love there. Then she throws herself on Juan's breast, but Juan gently disengages himself. He tells her that he does not love her, that love is only for the free. His rejection of her embrace and his words surprise, humiliate, and anger her, and for a moment she thinks of killing him but instead begins to cry. Juan, who was prepared to die, regrets that he has hurt the beautiful young sultana and begins to "stammer some excuses." At this crucial moment Baba returns to announce that the sultan is coming to visit his favorite wife. The sultana's attendants are summoned, Juan joins them, and the sultan enters. The sultan notices the new lady-in-waiting and remarks that it is a pity that a mere Christian should be so pretty. The compliment draws all eyes to Juan. "There was a general whisper, toss, and wriggle" (St. 156), and the canto comes to an end with a promise by Byron that the sixth canto will "have a touch of the sublime."
The fifth canto introduces a number of new characters into the story. Johnson, the English soldier of fortune, is a cheerful stoic and cynic. He believes that life brings only illusion and disappointment. Love, ambition, avarice, vengeance, glory only draw us on to folly. Johnson is, in part, Byron self-portraiture, but he is less prone to melancholy than Byron. He has a good sense of humor and is practical. Byron does not tell us why Baba buys him.
The other chief characters are Baba, the eunuch; Gulbeyaz, one of the sultan's wives, and the most beautiful of the four; and the sultan. Baba is a rather conventional character. He is the chief servant of the pampered Gulbeyaz and carries out her commands with prudence and efficiency. In Canto V he must cater to a whim of the sultana, which is to buy Don Juan, whom she had seen on his way to the slave market and whom she immediately wished to acquire. Byron amusingly makes Baba a proselytizer for Mohammedanism: he suggests to Johnson and Juan that they be circumcised, but he would leave the matter up to them. Johnson
. . . thanking him for this excess
Of goodness, in thus leaving them a voice
In such a trifle, scarcely could express"
Sufficiently" (he said) "his approbation
Of all the customs of this polished nation.
"For his own share — he saw but small objection
To so respectable an ancient rite;
And, after swallowing down a slight refection
For which he owned a present appetite,
He doubted not a few hours of reflection
Would reconcile him to the business quite." (Sts. 70-71)
Juan is not so diplomatic as Johnson:
"Will it?" said Juan, sharply: "Strike me dead,
But they as soon shall circumcise my head!"(St. 71)
The sultan is of no special interest. He is merely an all-powerful Mohammedan potentate with a large harem and a large family who holds other people's lives cheap. Byron characterizes him satirically.
Gulbeyaz is, of course, the character of chief interest in the canto. She is a very special type of woman representing, in the society Byron knew, the wife who because of her means and power could buy herself a lover. Besides wealth and power she also has beauty and youth. She is twenty-six, just three years older than Donna Julia, and like Donna Julia she is love-starved and not disposed to remain so if she can help it. Not having had the experience of having her whims thwarted by anyone less than a sultan, she adopts the wrong approach to Don Juan: she commands him to be her lover. Juan can still be moved to tears by the memory of his lost Haidée, a fact which puts a barrier, at least a temporary one, between him and Gulbeyaz, and he has had no experience in being commanded to love by a queen. Besides, he has his pride. Donna Julia had seduced him, or at any rate encouraged him to seduce her; Haidée had won him from the sea, and she and Juan were on the same footing so far as youth, rank, and freedom to love were concerned; but being bought by a woman and told to love her, even though she is a beautiful young woman, arouses his stubbornness. Gulbeyaz uses the wrong technique, but because of her harem background she knows no other. Juan's proud refusal rouses her anger, and her frustration and shame reduce her to tears. Her tears move Juan to pity and are far more potent to overcome his will (not very strong when it came to women), than her commands. But the situation does not allow very much time. Gulbeyaz must act quickly, and the sultan's coming makes her gambit of no avail. She has loved and lost in a matter of minutes. Byron cleverly teases the reader by leading him to expect another affair and then abruptly shuts off the canto.
In Canto V Byron has moved his hero eastward into an entirely new environment out of which he may spin numerous stanzas and present a mode of life on which he may comment freely. In Canto V Byron is back in the mood with which the poem began, the mood of comic irony.
There is much that is entertaining in the canto. The admission in Stanza 4 of his love for the name of Mary reminds us that at sixteen Byron had fallen in love with Mary Chaworth and perhaps never quite recovered from the affair. The slave market is interestingly presented. The reader welcomes the appearance on the scene of Johnson, the practical acceptor of life as it comes, who tells Juan (when the latter proposes that they knock out Baba and escape) that he is hungry and would like to eat first
The stanzas (33-39) on the murder of a military commandant in Ravenna, which was brought to Byron's attention in the way he describes while he was living in Ravenna, tell us something about Byron's religious problems. The long walk through the sultan's palace; Byron's comments on how huge rooms and huge houses dwarf men; Juan's natural reluctance to don ladies' clothing and his transformation into a girl; the comment of Juan, who has shown no great piety, when told to kiss the sultana's foot that that act of homage was reserved for the pope; the interview between Gulbeyaz and Juan; and Byron's introduction of the sultan into the story, all contribute to make Canto V an interesting and amusing if not an exciting one.