Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)

by Ann-Marie Macdonald

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In Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), how does Constance use Desdemona and Juliet for the alchemical process of turning “base metals into gold”? Discuss with specific references to the play.

At the beginning of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), Constance takes out her unremarkable pen and reads aloud from her dissertation that the tragic characters of Romeo and Juliet and Othello are actually unintentional victims of a “disastrous practical joke” (I.i). Furthermore, Constance posits that “any grains of authentic tragedy must be seen to reside in the heroines, Desdemona and Juliet” (I.i). First, Constance is transported into the action of Othello as Iago tries to convince Othello that Casio has Desdemona’s handkerchief.

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Academic Constance Ledbelly has a theory that the plays Othello and Romeo and Juliet are not actually tragedies. Through her interactions with Desdemona and Juliet, Constance turns “base metals into gold” by illustrating how these supposed tragedies can be seen as comedies. The “base metals” are the original plays as written, studied, and viewed for centuries. The “gold” is each play with revised plot action due to the intervention of a Wise FoolConstance herselfthat reveals comedies of error, mistaken identity, and fluidity of gender roles.

At the beginning of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), Constance takes out her unremarkable pen and reads aloud from her dissertation that the tragic characters of Romeo and Juliet and Othello are actually unintentional victims of a “disastrous practical joke” (I.i). Furthermore, Constance posits that “any grains of authentic tragedy must be seen to reside in the heroines, Desdemona and Juliet” (I.i).

First, Constance is transported into the action of Othello as Iago tries to convince Othello that Casio has Desdemona’s handkerchief. By exposing Iago’s deception, Constance prevents Othello’s murder of Desdemona and completely changes the plot line of this classic play. Constance laments, “I’ve wrecked a masterpiece. I’ve ruined the play, I’ve turned Shakespeare’s Othello to a farce” (II.i). This intervention, however, releases Desdemona’s assertive nature hidden under the facade of a submissive, helpless wife as this character is often portrayed. In fact, Desdemona’s “fascination with violence and…love of horror stories” (I.i) actually inspires Constance into standing up to her fellow academics and proving her theory. Desdemona jumps into action and wants to help Constance: “I’ll call this quest mine own, my constant friend...I’ll find thine unknown Author and Fool’s Cap” (II.i). She rallies Constance with, “If thou wouldst know thyself an Amazon, acquire a taste for blood. I’ll help thee. Come” (II.i). Errors and mistakes ensue (e.g., Desdemona later suspects Constance of canoodling with Othello and tries to smother her!) that illustrate how Othello can be turned into a comedy.

Constance also scrutinizes plot elements of Romeo and Juliet, noting that the play’s tragic events unfold only because Romeo does not

confess to Tybalt that he has just become his cousin-in-law by marrying Juliet...is it a comedy gone awry, when a host of comic devices is pressed into the blood-soaked service of tragic ends? (I.i.)

When Constance is transported into Romeo and Juliet, she alters crucial plot action by preventing Tybalt from fatally stabbing Mercutio under Romeo’s arm. She then tells Tybalt that through marriage to Juliet, Romeo is now his cousin...and the two men then embrace. Bored with Romeo, the impetuous and passionate adolescent Juliet transfers her strong affections to Constance, whom she mistakes for a boy. More mistakes, mistaken gender identity, and cross-dressing ensue, turning the tragedy into a comedy of errors. Through her interactions with Desdemona and Juliet, Constance realizes their true natures; Desdemona is “gullible and violent” (III.ix) and Juliet is “more in love with death” (III.ix). When both plays intersect eventually, Constance tells the two women that she was a “monumental fool to think I could save you from yourselves...Fool” (III.ix). Most importantly, though, Constance discovers that she was correct about the two tragedies, that they “were comedies after all, not tragedies” (III.ix).

Constance realizes that indeed she is the Author because “The Fool and the Author are one and the same” (III.ix). At the end of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), Constance returns to real life to find that her pen has turned into gold.

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“Turning lead into gold” is a metaphor that is reflected throughout the plot of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). In the beginning of the play, we are introduced to Constance Ledbelly, an unknown scholar who struggles to stand up for herself and is described as a “mouse” by her students. However, she has an academic theory that she will fight for: that Shakespeare’s plays Othello and Romeo and Juliet would have been comedies, if only they had included the archetypal “wise fool” character. Through a magical twist, Constance finds herself confronting Desdemona, Iago, and Othello and, in a comedic moment, reveals Iago’s plot and saves Desdemona’s life. Later, Constance enters the plot of Romeo and Juliet and, through comedy and cleverness, saves Juliet as well. However, these stories are still tragedies at their core, and she must fight (sometimes literally) to keep the plays comedic and everyone alive.

Constance herself, it turns out, was the “wise fool” that these plays and women needed all along in order to survive. Through these twists, Constance learns that she indeed has agency, intelligence, and even power; in a dramatic moment, she even duels the treacherous Iago and wins, something unimaginable for the mouse in the beginning of the story. When Constance returns to her office at the end of the play, she has transformed into a whole new woman, the author of these plays and also her own story. She is now able to stand up to her dismissive superior and students and become her own person.

The “lead” which turned into “gold,” then, was Constance “Led”belly herself. She began the play unremarkable and worth little, to herself and to others; she ended the play as a much more confident and valuable person. This final point is emphasized by her receiving a golden pen, representing her power as a writer and author to change the plays and seize agency for herself, for Desdemona, and for Juliet.

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I think Constance uses Desdemona and Juliet for her own transformation through the course of the play.

The first line of the play is the Chorus asking "What's alchemy?" He introduces us to the idea of turning base metals into gold. He also tells us that Mercury will offer Constance Ledbelly "a double-edged re-birthday," cluing us in to her impending change. The name Ledbelly is suggestive of the heavy metal lead. Constance's first word is "Pen," which becomes significant by the end of the play when her pen becomes gold. The pen represents the author, Constance, and shows her symbolic alchemical transformation.

Constance uses Desdemona and Juliet to help her transform. Constance enters the stories of Othello and Romeo and Juliet and is able to interact with the characters and learn more about them. By the end, she realizes that she has the power to change them as she is the "missing author." Constance sees their tragic impulses through her invention. She stops the tragedies she knows to happen in Shakespeare's work, but this does not immediately lead to happy endings. Desdemona is influenced by Iago's manipulation and Juliet easily falls in love because they have a tendency toward tragedy. Constance must point out their faults, and discover her own power in the story. In this sense, Desdemona and Juliet fuel Constance's transformation into gold.

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I think that Macdonald constructs Constance in a manner whereby her sense of modernity is able to turn "base metals into gold" regarding her interactions with Desdemona and Juliet.  Constance is able to use a sense of social alchemy in transforming both characters into something more than they are.  Constance is able to effectively persuade both women that insecurity and doubt are not reasons to automatically embrace tragedy.  Consciousness becomes a force within which these elements are intrinsic to being.  Through convincing both women of this, Constance is able to turn "base metals into gold," by making both women become more than they appear within the pages of Shakespearean text.  The gold pen that Constance sees at the end of the narrative is representative of the thought process that she has been able to compose and embody in her interactions with both women, and this becomes the alchemical process by which she is able to make something more than what is.  The base metals of both women's characters and their myopic way of viewing being the world is transformed into gold when Constance is able to make both women understand more about themselves and their world.  In this fusion between feminism and modernism, a process of understanding and depth is reached.  This becomes alchemy in enabling characters previously seen as static to become fluid.

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