Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)

by Ann-Marie Macdonald

Start Free Trial

Scott Trudell

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1496

Trudell is a doctoral student of English literature at Rutgers University. In the following essay, he discusses MacDonald's feminist agenda, with a focus on how she uses the conventions of comedy, in the Elizabethan sense of the term, to forward this agenda.

MacDonald is a well-known feminist, and Goodnight Desdemona clearly brings forth a feminist agenda. In particular, it identifies the sexism and exclusion in both late-twentieth-century academic culture and historical (specifically Renaissance European) literary culture. The play then envisions an emergence of a degree of power and autonomy in its principal female characters, Desdemona, Juliet, and Constance. Desdemona represents violent female self-assertion, while Juliet represents passionate, boundary-crossing female sexuality. Constance absorbs both of these traits and emerges as a formidable literary scholar with faith in her own abilities and an independence from the male establishment.

Although MacDonald's feminist agenda is apparent and important, it is not generally considered confrontational or offensive to readers and theatergoers. Many critics have argued that the playwright goes to great efforts to disguise her political agenda as a vibrant and witty comedy. Because the play is funny, they say, audiences do not feel that they are being hit over the head with a political message. Mark Fortier, for example, comments on MacDonald's method of presenting a feminist message in his 1989 essay for Canadian Theatre Review:

MacDonald is uncomfortable thinking of Goodnight Desdemona as a feminist work; she prefers to think of it as humanism through a woman's point of view, or through feminist language. Although MacDonald con-siders herself a feminist, the strongest impulses in her theatre are popular and populist, and she seems to feel that labelling her work as feminist or lesbian would jeopardize the pluralist audience that she is seeking.

The reviewer Gerald Weales goes further and suggests in his 1992 review for Commonweal that the witty humor of the play "defeats itself" and subverts its feminist message. Other critics, such as Marta Dvorak and Shannon Hengen, concentrate on the ways in which Goodnight Desdemona uses humor to produce an extremely effective and wide-reaching feminist political message. These critics disagree about the nature of the play's feminist argument and many aspects of how it is implemented. They tend to agree, however, that MacDonald packages her message in a humorous format so that it will be palatable and acceptable to an audience of wide-ranging political beliefs.

The danger of critical approaches that classify MacDonald's use of comedy as a humorous shroud over her political goals is that they tend to overlook a more important aspect of the play's use of comedy. These critics are inclined not to emphasize that the comic convention is important to the play's feminist subtext chiefly because it is the opposite of tragedy—in other words, because it requires a happy ending. The argument of this essay is that MacDonald may make use of humor and wit, but her main concern is to use the comic convention to underscore the nature of her positivist feminist message. Goodnight Desdemona is the opposite of a tragedy in the sense that it encourages women to escape from the tragic fatalism of a patriarchal world and emerge as hopeful subjects.

To develop this argument, it is first necessary to clarify the terms comedy and tragedy as they were used in Shakespearean England. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and other writers contributed to the strict distinction between comedy and tragedy that was common to the Elizabethan period. While tragedies were characterized by disastrous yet necessary and unavoidable endings (according to ancient Greek and Roman models), comedies resolved in happy and hopeful conclusions. Both tragedy and comedy used humor, and a comedy could be entirely serious. Goodnight Desdemona is a comedy, then, primarily in the Elizabethan sense of the word: a drama with a happy ending.

Constance's chief function as the "Wise Fool" and, more important, as the "Author" and feminist literary scholar of the play is to formulate a comedy out of a tragedy. She goes about this quest by getting to know two of the most tragic and doomed female figures in English literary history. In a sense, her role is to redeem Desdemona and Juliet from four hundred years of resignation to their grim fates. She closely interacts with these characters, gaining their trust and undertaking along with them a journey toward empowerment and selfhood.

Constance's close interaction with the Shakespearean lines and characters suggests that careful readings and analyses of original texts are an important aspect of MacDonald's feminist agenda. She must throw herself down the "wastebasket" of English literature—its "Garbage" or "Sargasso Sea," a reference to Jean Rhys's novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which reimagines the life of Mrs. Rochester, a tragic character from Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre. Entering the Sargasso Sea is a metaphor for exploring the forgotten world of literature about women's issues that has been suppressed by centuries of male domination in the form of figures like Professor Night. Initially, Constance is in danger of losing herself in this Sargasso Sea, but instead she is able to find her own story and identity in a play that has been previously claimed by a patriarchal reading world.

Constance does not undergo a simple process of digging through a literary Sargasso Sea in order to find lost women's literature, however. Her journey of self-discovery is characterized by a reimagining and repossession of classic literature. As the "Author" of the original comic precursors to Shakespeare's plays, she envisions herself in a position of control and power over literary history. There are hints in Othello that Desdemona is interested in war and violence, and Shakespeare indicates to some degree that Juliet is strong-minded, but Constance's reimagining of these characters goes far beyond interpretation or even parody. Desdemona and Juliet are rewritten according to MacDonald's 1980s feminist values. The play, therefore, proposes that contemporary scholarship should cross the line of what can be considered a reasonable interpretation of historical or canonical texts and begin understanding texts not as rigid formulas but as starting places for new ideas and possibilities.

The play implies, further, that the audience should partake in this process of historical repossession. Marta Dvorak points out, in her 1994 essay for Canadian Theatre Review, that Constance changes from the role of spectator to the role of "actor and author." Therefore, "Is this not an invitation to us spectators as well to assume our share of creativity, to use well our power of participation?" The play implies that a spectator, normally someone who is forced to sit passively and absorb the message of a play, can and should actively participate and alter the implications of a particular work. This participation is a "power" indeed, because it invites contemporary readers to reinvent history outside the accepted patriarchal discourse.

In the process, contemporary spectators are offered the possibility of working out their own problems. Constance is able to escape the sexism of the literary establishment represented by Professor Night, who is not only exploitative but also manipulative and repressive. When he tells Constance that she has "such an interesting little mind" and then says, "Hand it over" (seemingly referring to her latest plagiarism for him), he implies that he wishes to own and control Constance's mind. Because they are speaking about Constance's scholarly work, he also implies that his sexism extends to his interpretation of English literature and his wish to retain control over the patriarchal norms of literary interpretation. Furthermore, it is clear from the surrounding context that he wishes to control and confine Constance's sexuality to a tragic and hopeless longing for him.

Again, MacDonald casts the power struggle that follows Constance's rejection by Professor Night as a quest to rethink the tragic trajectories of Othello and Romeo and Juliet and transform them into comedies. Constance's main reinterpretive role is to avoid the expected outcome of the tragedies, chiefly the tragic fate of Shakespeare's female characters, and empower these women with some important nuggets of late-twentieth-century wisdom. Constance invokes a critique of the absolutist, tragic mindset of historical literary women that leaves no room for an acknowledgment of complexity. She inspires a philosophical shift in Desdemona and Juliet, opening their minds to theories of relativism and feminism and unlocking them from what they previously considered unavoidable destinies.

MacDonald opens up the possibility, therefore, that contemporary readers and scholars can overturn historical forms of sexism and repression through a process of participation and reimagination. Her principal metaphor for this process relies on the conventions of Elizabethan comedy, which are less interested in humor than in the process of redemption and positive resolution. MacDonald does not provide the conventional marriage at the end of an Elizabethan comedy, but she does rely on the refusal of comedy to submit to fatalism and inescapable female tragedy. She reconstructs a feminist happy ending and urges contemporary spectators to do the same, reinventing and repossessing history.

Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Murray Bramwell

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

In the following review, Bramwell calls Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) "tedious" and "dramatically disengaging."

Why does all the tribulation in Shakespeare's tragedies hinge on flimsy plot devices such as stolen handkerchiefs and wrongly delivered letters? What if these plays were really meant to be comedies? These are the questions asked by Constance Ledbelly, the central character in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), a light-hearted exploration of the female characters in Othello and Romeo and Juliet by Canadian playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald.

Low in status and self-esteem, Ledbelly is a university researcher bullied by a self-important professor and persisting with unfashionable lines of inquiry about alchemy in Shakespeare's canon.

She believes that there is a missing author in the plays—a wise fool who knows their true meaning. Before you can say totally implausible, Constance, like Alice down the rabbit hole, finds herself in a time warp straight into Othello's Cyprus—in time, it seems, to save Desdemona from Iago's treachery and the Moor from meltdown.

After that, it is destination Verona and our unlikely heroine, disguised as a boy, rescues Tybalt and is amorously pursued by both Romeo and Juliet, now trapped in a faltering teenage marriage.

Attentively directed by Kim Durban, the performers in this State Theatre Company production bring their best effort to MacDonald's whimsy. Sally Cooper is endearing as the ditzy but stouthearted Constance, Margot Fenley is sporting as the bloodthirsty Desdemona and Ksenja Logos is gently comic as a sex-starved Juliet.

As Romeo, Justin Moore is amusingly gormless and Michael Habib is often hilarious as the revised Othello and Juliet's prurient nurse.

But with an over-long and dated text tottering with plot convolutions, self-conscious asides, wisecracks, undergraduate parody and needless reams of cod blank verse, the strengths of the performances are often lost.

Matters are also not helped by designer Dean Hills who, while providing a pleasingly workable set, burdens the actors with voluminous faux Elizabethan breeches and other costume follies that persistently work against the more thoughtful purposes of the play.

Which raises the question—just how serious is the writer with this pastiche Elizabethan verse? The effect is tedious; worse still, it is dramatically disengaging. And what, after all the extruded comic complication, are we to make of the banality of concluding speeches such as, "I've had it with all that tragic tunnel vision" and "Life is a mess, thank god."

Constance should know that the accomplishment of Shakespeare's plays is to dramatise complexities, not reduce them to the wisdom of a Christmas cracker.

Source: Murray Bramwell, "From Bard to Worse," in Australian, September 23, 2004, p. 16.

Robert Crew

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

In the following review, Crew calls a newer production of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), in which MacDonald herself plays the role of Constance Ledbelly, a "tour de force."

Ann-Marie MacDonald's Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) was born in a burst of high spirits; the title came to the author during some horseplay involving a pillow.

This exuberant play, which I reviewed when it premiered in 1988, is a tour de force. It manages to be serious, frivolous, intellectual, lighthearted, political and even, at times, downright silly, all in the space of two hours and 15 minutes.

The great joy of this production is that the author herself is playing the lead role of the mouselike academic, Constance Ledbelly, for the first time.

Constance, shamelessly exploited by Professor Claude Night, is hot on the trail of a new theory about two particular Shakespearean tragedies—Othello and Romeo And Juliet. What if Shakespeare lifted them from two earlier comedies? This, she reasons, would explain why both Romeo and Othello seem to be "the unwitting victims of a disastrous practical joke rather than the heroic instruments of an inexorable Fate."

Suddenly Constance is whisked away into the worlds of the plays. First stop is Cyprus, where she thwarts the villainous Iago, only to create further knotty complications. Then it's off to fair Verona, where Constance stops Romeo from killing Tybalt, setting off a daisy chain of unexpected reactions, with both Romeo and Juliet cross-dressing to try to win her love. "Zounds, does no one in Verona sail straight?" is still one of my favourite lines in the play.

The language is an exhilarating roller-coaster ride of real Shakespearean iambic pentameters and clever imitations. It's lots of fun for anyone who has a passing acquaintance with R&J, Othello and Hamlet, which MacDonald also dips into from time to time.

It's a joyful romp with MacDonald—who looks like Minnie Mouse in her red booties and black tights—at the heart of it all.

Tanja Jacobs, the 1988 Constance, slipped at times into broad comedy and pushed the role into caricature; MacDonald's performance is more subtle and draws on clown techniques. There are little trips, spins and pirouettes, a quick roll of the eyes or sharp double take. The result is a faster, lighter production and one that only very occasionally loses steam.

Director Alisa Palmer has also fashioned some very funny visual gags; Alison Sealy-Smith is a splendidly bellicose Desdemona; Juan Choiran has declamatory fun with Othello and is a delightfully lascivious Nurse.

Forget the fact that the production feels a little raw and unfinished in places. We're ready to fall on our knees and say thank you for the return of a Canadian classic.

Source: Robert Crew, "Hello, Desdemona!" in Toronto Star, March 25, 2001, p. EN3.

Toronto Star

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 694

In the following essay, the critic uses a production of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) as occasion to remark on other plays built upon Shakespeare's works.

If you're going to have a collaborator on a play, it might as well be a good one, and I suppose they don't come any better than William Shakespeare.

That thought occurred to me as I re-read Ann-Marie MacDonald's delightful Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), which opens next week at the Bluma Appel Theatre as the final show of CanStage's current season.

MacDonald takes a "coulda, woulda, shoulda" approach to a pair of Shakespeare's most intense plays (Othello and Romeo And Juliet) and manages to come up with a work that is deft, light and incisive at the same time.

Call it Postmodern or Deconstructionist if you like, but MacDonald is too clever to be pigeonholed in any such academic straightjacket. That refusal, in fact, is what her play is truly about.

But for our purposes today, MacDonald is just a jumping-off point to think about some of the other modern authors who have used Shakespeare as their blithely unknowing partner in crime.

Tom Stoppard probably heads the list, having turned to the Bard of Avon for inspiration on at least four occasions.

Most prominent is Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, his inspired riff on two of the greatest nonentities in all of dramatic literature. Two Elizabethan courtiers turn into the soulmates of Waiting for Godot's Vladimir and Estragon—existential heroes in an Elizabethan world.

But the best part of Stoppard's work is that it sends you back to Hamlet to examine the originals once again, and your respect for Shakespeare's writing grows and grows.

What began as an act of mockery ends as a form of tribute to all concerned.

The next Stoppardian Shakespeare was the double bill Dogg's Hamlet and Cahoot's Macbeth, a somewhat impenetrable pairing of Wittgenstein's philosophy and Czech politics, with the original plays forming structures against which ideas can be hurled and—hopefully—bounce back again.

But it's most recently (and successfully) that Tom reunited with Will, on the screenplay of Shakespeare in Love.

Although a certain amount of revisionist backlash is now trashing the film as more slick than scholarly, there remains a great deal of literary as well as historical food for thought in Stoppard's imaginative hypothesis about how a real life romance dissolved the Bard of Avon's writer's block and allowed him to create Romeo And Juliet.

Moving on from Stoppard, there's still inspiration to be found in those Shakespearean "hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves."

Ronald Harwood's The Dresser takes a fictionalized version of Sir Donald Wolfit and has him performing King Lear while the bombs fall during World War II. The twin storms and tragedies are nicely matched, and the Shakespeare original is enhanced rather than diminished by the contact.

Plays like Kean, Barrymore and Two Shakespearean Actors use their thespian leads to grant them licence to appropriate large chunks of Bardic material, but that's not exactly the kind of partnership we're discussing here.

More of that type of union can be found in the unlikely world of musical theatre. Would there be a West Side Story without Romeo And Juliet, a Kiss Me Kate without The Taming of the Shrew, The Boys from Syracuse without The Comedy of Errors?

But not all marriages are happy ones and the same logic also led to shows like Catch My Soul (the musical Othello), Fire Angel (ditto for The Merchant of Venice), and one title that needs no further explanation, Rockabye Hamlet.

Even the world of teen flicks knows a good thing when it stumbles onto one, and we've recently been through Get Over It (A Midsummer Night's Dream), Ten Things I Hate About Her (The Taming of the Shrew) and Never Been Kissed (As You Like It).

So there you have it. Not only did Shakespeare write that "all the world's a stage," he saw to it that his stages went all over the literary world as well.

Goodnight, Desdemona. Good morning, Juliet. Break a leg, Ann-Marie.

Source: "Playwrights Brush up Their Shakespeare," in Toronto Star, March 17, 2001, p. AR1.

Laurin R. Porter

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4640

In the following essay excerpt, Porter explores how MacDonald illuminates differences between Shakespeare's tragic and comedic heroines in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet).

In "Feminist Thematics and Shakespearean Tragedy," Richard Levin takes to task that body of feminist critics who take a thematic approach to Shakespeare's tragedies. All of them, as he sees it, insist in one way or another that "the plays are about the role of gender in the individual and in society." While he does not deny that the worlds Shakespeare presents us with are patriarchal in nature (how could they be otherwise?), he resists the feminist tendency to single out this patriarchal aspect as the fundamental cause of the tragic events.

"They are necessary conditions of the action but are not in themselves sufficient to cause it," he argues. "Many of these critics seem to have confused these two different kinds of agency."

Be that as it may, the fact remains that, on the whole, the women in Shakespeare's tragedies do not fare well. Judith Bamber points out in Comic Women, Tragic Men that in the comedies Shakespeare at least takes the woman's part. "Often the women in the comedies are more brilliant than the men, more aware of themselves and their world, saner, livelier, more gay." The tragedies, she continues, present monstrous females—Goneril, Regan, and Lady Macbeth, for instance—who unnerve us precisely because their cruelty is located "on the very site of our expectations of a woman's kindness," giving as an example Lady Macbeth's infamous "I have given suck" speech.

Judging from her first solo drama, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), Canadian playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald is acutely aware of the contrast between Shakespeare's tragic and comic heroines. In this play, Constance Ledbelly, a struggling assistant professor at Queen's University, is convinced that the sources for two of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies, Othello and Romeo and Juliet, were actually comedies and that Desdemona and Juliet, misunderstood and unappreciated by contemporary critics, were originally comic heroines. MacDonald constructs the frame story so that the timid, insecure Constance literally "falls" into the worlds of these plays and interacts with the characters, changing the outcome of the tragedies in the process. As a contemporary woman and scholar, she liberates the two heroines from their victim status and "wimp-ish" Renaissance portrayals.

The notion of tampering with Shakespeare is hardly new, of course. Other playwrights have written travesties (I Hate Hamlet) or parodies (such as MacBird, written during Lyndon Johnson's administration), while directors have transposed his plays to other milieux and historical settings. In more serious efforts, playwrights have used Shakespeare as a jumping-off point, borrowing from the text in creative ways to frame contemporary issues. Stoppard's insertion of men with twentieth-century sensibilities into Hamlet's world in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for example, allows him to examine current questions about ontology, epistemology, and aesthetics.

Though it may seem a far cry from Stoppard, MacDonald's rollicking, bawdy, even raucous comedy operates in much the same fashion. On a superficial level, Constance's entry into Shakespeare's Cyprus and Verona merely provides the audience with comic entertainment, replete with stock characters (jealous lovers, absent-minded professors, slimy villains, and inflated windbags) as well as mistaken identities, romantic triangles, and revenge subplots. The language is also a source of delight; wit, wordplay, and outrageous puns abound. On a deeper level, however, the play raises questions about the ways in which identity is constructed and the impact of gender and societal expectations upon this process. As Constance interacts with first MacDonald's warlike Desdemona and then her erotic Juliet, she discovers aspects of her personality that had hitherto lain dormant. Ultimately, the action takes place not in Constance's office or the fictive worlds of Shakespeare's tragedies but within Constance's psyche.

Because it is a new play (first written in 1988; revised in 1990) and relatively unknown, a brief synopsis may be necessary. The action begins in the office of Constance Ledbelly, who for years has devoted herself to decoding the famous "Gustav" manuscript, which she believes will prove that the sources for Othello and Romeo and Juliet were originally comedies that Shakespeare "plundered and made over into ersatz tragedies." Part of her theory rests on the notion of a missing Fool, "conspicuous by his very absence … these two tragedies turn on flimsy mistakes," she argues, "a lost hanky, a delayed wedding announcement," mistakes "easily concocted" by a Wise Fool. If she can just find the Fool and discover the author of the repressed sources by decoding the manuscript, she will revolutionize the standard interpretations of these great plays.

When we first meet Constance, she hardly appears the stuff of which heroines are made. Entering her office at the beginning of Act One singing "Fairy Tales Can Come True" and carrying a Complete Shakespeare and "a stack of dog-eared loose-leaf foolscap," she appears the typical absent-minded professor (assistant professor, in this case). "She removes her coat," revealing a "crumpled tweedy skirt and jacket," but forgets to take off her red woolen toque with pom-pom (her fool's cap, one of the play's running gags), which she wears throughout the play. She nibbles absentmindedly on Vetveeta cheese and drinks a warm Coors Light, already opened, which she takes from her desk drawer. As she works aloud on her dissertation, writing on the foolscap in green ink, she is interrupted twice, first by a student named Jill, whom she mistakenly calls "Julie," and later by Ramona, a confident, attractive coed. Jill tries to slip her late paper on "The Effect of Filth on Renaissance Drama" undetected under Constance's door; the tug-of-war that ensues is a miniversion of the many battles that Constance will wage before the play is over. Ramona haughtily asks Constance to tell "Claude" (i.e., Professor Night) that she has just won the Rhodes. Both interactions reveal that Constance is not even a match for her students. Unfocused and socially inept, she is easily manipulated.

Professor Claude Night is a smooth-talking British academic who has enticed Constance to write essays and reviews that he passes off as his own, publications which he uses to become a full professor. When he arrives to pick up the articles that Constance has ghost-written for him, she is even more flustered and apologetic than before. Though she is self-deprecating, however, in her own way she refuses to back down from her belief in the importance of the Gustav manuscript, which Night ridicules….

It's significant that Constance is so absorbed in her own work that she essentially sleepwalks through her conversations with Julie/Jill and Ramona. Structurally, these two bits of dialogue serve as precursors to her encounters with Juliet ("Julie") and Desdemona (Ramona). Constance is not ready to learn from these earthbound women; she must first, like the proverbial alcoholic, hit bottom.

And hit bottom she does, as Claude announces that he is marrying Ramona and moving with her to Oxford, where he will take the post for which Constance thought she was being groomed. Both her professional aspirations and her romantic daydreams are decimated within a matter of minutes. As she melodramatically discards the memorabilia on her desk, it is as if she is stripping away the layers of her past, symbolically ready at last to begin life anew, though she is not, of course, aware of this yet….

For all practical purposes, as the play begins Constance is a child, an innocent. Her formative experiences seem to be centered around either her fantasies about Claude Night or a long-distant past. All this is destined to change when she meets Desdemonia.

Constance's entrance into the world of Cyprus occurs in the pivotal scene in Othello (III, iii) where Iago finally convinces the Moor that he has been cuckolded. Believing Iago's testimony that the strawberry handkerchief he gave Desdemona is now in Cassio's possession and that this is evidence of Desdemona's infidelity, Othello declaims, "Damn her, lewd minx, O, damn her. Damn her. O. / I will chop her into messes." At this critical point, Constance sticks her head out from behind an arras and says, "No … Um … you're about to make a terrible mistake … m'Lord," and, plucking the handkerchief from Iago's back pocket, she averts the tragedy.

Othello, of course, thinks she is a prophet or seer, since she knows so much about his life. When Desdemona arrives on the scene shortly thereafter, Constance introduces herself, still marveling at her presence in the play:

CONSTANCE I'm Constance Ledbelly. I'm an academic. I come from Queen's University. You're real. You're really real.

DESDEMONA As real as thou art, Constance, Queen of Academe.

CONSTANCE Is that my true identity? Gosh. I was just a teacher 'til today.

DESDEMONA A learned lady? O most rare in kind. And does your husband not misprize this Knowledge?

CONSTANCE Oh I'm not married.

IAGO aside Most unnatural.

OTHELLO A virgin oracle. Thanks be to Dian.

DESDEMONA Brave ag'ed maid, to wander all alone.

Because they come to Constance with no preconceptions or stereotypes, Desdemona and Othello are able to see her value. MacDonald, of course, manipulates the plot to make this possible, using especially the character of Desdemona to turn liabilities, as Constance's culture would perceive them, into assets. The fact that she is a scholar, unmarried, traveling alone, even the fact that she is a vegetarian, which Desdemona declares "meet in vestal vows"—all these qualities are set in a new context and admired.

It is important to note that this Desdemona is not like the one we're used to. MacDonald establishes this from the outset, combining some of Shakespeare's lines with her own. When Desdemona greets Othello, he addresses her as his "fair warrior," which sets the tone. When she responds, her lines include a paraphrase of a line Shakespeare assigns to Othello which takes on a new meaning in this play. Referring to Othello, she says, "My sole regret that heaven had not made me such a man; / but next in honour is to be his wife." The implication in MacDonald's re-rendering of these lines is not that Desdemona regrets not having a man like Othello, but that she regrets not being one herself. The play embroiders on this theme, portraying her as adventurous, aggressive, even bloodthirsty, while Othello becomes a pompous windbag, fond of telling old war stories.

Desdemona and Constance are immediately simpatico. When Desdemona learns that at home in "Academe," Constance's students call her "The Mouse," she is outraged. To Constance's comment that she saw this name "carved into a lecture stand," Desdemona replies, "The sculptor dies." She assumes that Constance rules a race of Amazons who "brook no men" and immediately pledges to join the ranks of these "spiked and fighting shes." Constance enlists her aid in helping her find the mysterious Author and the Wise Fool, which Desdemona pledges on her honor to do, saying "for I do love thee. And when I love thee not, / chaos is come again." At this point, a cannon blast is heard, signaling the arrival of the Turks, and Desdemona urges Constance to join with her in the fray. When she refuses, saying she can't even kill a mosquito, Desdemona replies, "That's a fault," adding that to defend her honor, a single woman "must study to be bloody and betimes." Constance promises to go with Desdemona, who assures her, "we be women; not mice."

So begins Constance's transformation from "Mouse" to a self-confident, strong, independent woman. But the metamorphosis isn't complete until she encounters Juliet. If her encounters with Desdemona enable Constance to acknowledge her anger against Claude Night and discover her own power, her relationship with Juliet raises questions of gender and sexuality. During her rather hasty exit from Cyprus, which is prefaced by her reading in the foolscap that "Cyprus is too hot for thee. / Seek truth now in Verona, Italy" Constance's skirt is impaled on Desdemona's sword, leaving her in only her jacket, longjohns, and boots. She arrives in the midst of the Mercutio / Tybalt scene in which Romeo, intervening in their fight, ends up inadvertently contributing to Mercutio's death. This sets in motion the tragic events which will ultimately lead to both Juliet's death and his own. As in the previous act, Constance interposes in the nick of time, explaining to the hot-headed Tybalt that Romeo and Juliet have secretly wed, ending: "Tybalt, Romeo is your cousin now, / in law, and so you fellows should shake hands." After a split second's hesitation, Tybalt and Romeo turn to each other and embrace, then turn their attention to the newcomer, whom Romeo has addressed as "Boy." Ever the quick thinker, Constance lowers the pitch of her voice, changes her name to "Constan … tine," and concocts a story about washing up from the shores of Cyprus, "a roving pedant lad to earn my bread / by wit and by this fountain pen, my sword." This disguise will get her into trouble, but in true Shakespearean fashion, her false identity will ultimately engender insight.

Immediately after the feud is averted, Romeo, Mercutio, and Tybalt invite her to the baths to "baptize" their new friendship. Romeo, who is interested in Constantine in more than a brotherly way, urges, "Greekling, splash with us." Begging off, Constance delivers this monologue after they leave:

   How long can I avoid their locker room?
Those guys remind me of the Stratford shows I've seen.
where each production has a Roman bath:
the scene might be a conference of state,
but steam will rise and billow from the wings,
while full-grown men in Velcro loin-cloths speak,
while snapping towels at each other.
Why is it Juliet's scenes with her Nurse
are never in a sauna? Or "King Lear":
imagine Goneril and Regan, steaming
as they plot the downfall of their Dad,
while tearing hot wax from each other's legs;
Ophelia, drowning in a whirlpool full
of naked women. Portia pumping iron—

The stereotypical macho images presented here are reinforced by the lewd jokes and puns that the three men exchange as they anticipate visiting the baths, full of references to the pox and maidenheads and wenches, while Constance, watching, bites her thumb-nail. Tybalt, seeing this, whirls around and says, "Do you bite your thumb at me sir?" (Constance's reply is a typical example of the play's witty use of bathos and the juxtaposition of Shakespearean language with contemporary rhetoric: "No. I just bite my nails, that's all … Look, I'll never bite them again. This'll be a great chance for me to quit once and for all. Thanks.") It is no accident, I think, that their bawdy jokes about what they will do to the "wenches" at Mistress Burnbottom's are followed with Tybalt's menacing threat. Both are part of the cultural norm for the "manly" behavior of Renaissance times (and all too often today): to be a man of the world one must show mastery over women and be fearless in the defense of one's honor. At the same time, the above passage suggests the valorization of male values, not only in Shakespeare's texts, but in contemporary productions of them. The prevalence of patriarchal values in today's society, as in the past, renders these cultural details invisible, until we turn them upside down and apply their female counterpart (as with Portia pumping iron), exposing them for what they are.

While Constance's male persona adds to our enjoyment, it also allows MacDonald to reveal the extent to which not only our social exchanges but our very identities are shaped by gender constructs. This fact is emphasized when both Juliet and Romeo fall in love with the "Greekling." MacDonald takes up the story of the star-crossed lovers after their wedding night together, beginning with Romeo's line, "Was that the lark?" Bathos is once again employed, as Juliet replies that it was the luncheon bell, and Romeo leaps out of bed, late for his appointment with the boys. It seems that after the newlyweds' passionate night, their affections have cooled; each looks for some new form of amusement. While Romeo makes a quick exit, hoping to meet up with Constantine again, Juliet whines to the Nurse, "I die of tedium." This Juliet, we quickly gather, is randy and adventurous, hardly the emblem of purity and innocence we're accustomed to. The confusion sets in when she, too, meets Constantine and falls madly in love.

The chaos multiplies when Romeo decides that Constantine, who rebuffs his advances, is put off because he is a man and decides to don one of Juliet's dresses to woo in. Juliet, meanwhile, concludes that Constantine favors young boys, and borrows Romeo's hose and doublet. Thus we have one man dressed as a woman and two women disguised as men (with the audience's awareness that in Shakespeare's time, all women's roles were played by males in female dress, adding a third layer to the reversals). To stir up the pot even more, the play assigns multiple roles to every actor except the one playing Constance, deliberately crossing over gender lines. The actor assigned the part of Juliet also plays Julie/Jill and a soldier; Desdemona is also Ramona, Mercutio, and a servant; and Othello, in addition to playing Tybalt and Professor Night (symbolically appropriate), also plays the Nurse. In both productions I saw, no attempt was made to play these parts "realistically"; the Nurse, for example, wore Othello's full beard and mustache. Again, while this can be seen as comedy behaving as it is wont, with exaggeration, slapstick effects, and broad humor, at the same time, it points to more serious questions of gender and identity formation.

By rendering both Romeo and Juliet in love with Constance/Constantine, with both in error about her gender, MacDonald asks us to question the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm and homosexuality a perversion. While we feel superior to this mismatched menage á trois, at the same time we are compelled to recognize, perhaps with some discomfort, the arbitrary quality of our own assumptions about gender. This point is rendered doubly ironic by the fact that MacDonald uses the quintessential young lovers of Western literature to make this point, borrowing some of Shakespeare's most romantic lines to portray the double pursuit of Constance….

MacDonald uses Juliet in a more serious fashion to awaken Constance to her own sexuality. Her desires are aroused earlier by Romeo's kiss, to which she at length yields, but it is with Juliet that Constance most fully embraces her erotic potential. After first resisting Juliet's amorous advances, Constance finally kisses her with deep feeling. Shortly thereafter, she reveals that she's actually a woman and points out that she's a good deal older than Juliet. Neither fact deters Juliet. Indeed, their bond is deepened by the realization that they are both women, metaphorical sisters.

At this precise juncture Desdemona reappears on the scene, as the play progresses towards its climax. Intent on revenging the affair she thinks Constance is having with Othello, Desdemona, pulled through the time warp, leaps into the bedroom and tries to smother Constance. She is as bloodthirsty and quick to jump to conclusions as is Shakespeare's Othello. Juliet is also bent on death—her own. Histrionic and committed to a romanticized vision of suicide, she seeks out opportunities to plunge a dagger into her breast or swallow poison to prove her love.

Both have to learn from Constance, as she has learned from them. In a subsequent scene, set in a crypt reminiscent of that in Romeo and Juliet's death scene, Desdemona pursues Juliet, thinking she has killed Constance. As the two come to blows, Constance separates them, shouting, "Nay nay … I've had it with all the tragic tunnel vision around here … life is a hell of a lot more complicated than you think." She goes on to chastise Desdemona for her over-violent nature and Juliet for being in love not with life, but with death. Acceding to the truth of her vision, that one must live by questions, not solutions, and be content in confusion rather than clinging to over-simplified certainties, the two heroines are reconciled in their love for Constance. "Then I was right about your plays," she says. "They were comedies after all, not tragedies. I was wrong about one thing, though: I thought only a Wise Fool could turn tragedy to comedy."

At this point she is ready to recognize that she herself is the wise fool she has been seeking. The dialogue here turns on a series of puns which echo Hamlet, MacDonald's third primary source. A laugh comes from under the stage, which Constance identifies as belonging to Yorick, based on an earlier graveyard scene where she had encountered a ghost. "Yorick," she calls out. "Na-a-ay. You're it," the ghost replies, repeating his oracular saying of before. But this time, Constance gets the pun:

CONSTANCE I'm it? I'm it I'm the Fool.

GHOST A lass.

CONSTANCE A lass.

GHOST A beardless bard.

CONSTANCE "The Fool and the Author are one and the same" … That's me. I'm the Author.

As the three women join hands, celebrating their triple birthday, a time warp occurs once again, returning Constance back to her office at Queen's. All is as it was before—the phone dangling on its cord, with Constance leaning over the wastebasket, though hatless this time. As she tentatively touches her head "as if to confirm her reality" she removes the feathered pen behind her ear and discovers that is has turned to solid gold. Her pen, mightier than the sword she learned to wield in Verona, has been transformed, as has her psyche; the alchemy is complete.

The three plots merge neatly in the final scene, uniting the transformed Desdemona and Juliet, now comic and reformed heroines—or at least aware of their tragic tendencies—and with Constance, no longer the Mouse, but the Mighty One. This satisfies our desire for closure and brings the comic narrative to completion. A closer inspection of the ways in which MacDonald effects this metamorphosis points to still another set of transformations as the contemporary playwright takes on the Bard, appropriating his voice and subsuming it into her own, which brings me to my final point.

A large part of the delight of reading or viewing this play comes from a dawning awareness of the many different strategies Macdonald employs in bending Shakespeare's plots, characters, and language to her own purposes. On the simplest level (which is not at all "simple," I might add), she combines the plots of three of Shakespeare's masterpieces into one Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet—subsuming all of them into the metamorphosis of Constance Ledbelly….

In borrowing Shakespeare's lines, MacDonald sometimes uses them as is, sometimes omits passages to abbreviate and tighten long speeches (lago's gulling of Othello, for instance), and sometimes condenses two different speeches into one. A variation on this strategy occurs when she changes the meaning of an exactly quoted line by placing it in a new context; for instance Desdemona's "Would that God had made me such a man."

MacDonald also assigns several of her Shakespearean characters lines spoken by someone else in the original version. Perhaps the clearest instance of this is in Act Two when Desdemona speaks many of Othello's lines….

It is appropriate that Desdemona assumes Othello's lines, since in MacDonald's version, she takes on his characteristics (another gender reversal)….

Thus we, like Constance, become detectives, only instead of tracking down the author of the Gustav manuscript, as she is ostensibly doing, we're tracing the authorship of the lines we're hearing. It's a tribute to MacDonald that this isn't as easy as one might think….

This detective work on the part of the audience is perhaps MacDonald's ultimate point. As we join Constance in her quest, identifying with her and becoming detectives ourselves, we can experience at least to a limited extent our own conversion, becoming our own authors. It is a transformation "most to be desired," an alchemy of the highest order, since from the outset, authorship and the authenticity of experience, female as well as male, has been the issue.

This level of meaning is reinforced by the alchemical motif which runs throughout the play. It's first mentioned in the Prologue by a character named simply "Chorus," who appears mysteriously in Constance's office and speaks the play's opening lines:

   What's alchemy? The hoax of charlatans?
Or mystic quest for stuff of life itself:
eternal search for the Philosopher's Stone,
where mingling and unmingling opposites,
transforms base metal into precious gold.

The play then presents us with a proliferation of transformations—Shakespearean characters are recast in contemporary terms with decidedly different characteristics (the passive Desdemona becomes aggressive and warlike, pure and faithful Juliet seeks new sexual experiences, Othello is a windbag, etc.); the tragedies turn into comedies; the lines are condensed, altered, added to, assigned to different characters. Most important, of course, Constance is transformed from Mouse to Owl, from "lead" (hence, "Ledbelly") to "gold" (imaged in her gold pen and associated with her pet Laurel, the symbol of victory).

MacDonald juxtaposes the Renaissance notion of alchemy with references to Jungian analysis, a twentieth-century version of a similar phenomenon: the search for a truth or process, whether internal or external, that will transform "base metal into gold." In the Chorus's opening speech, for instance, the reference to alchemy is followed immediately with these lines:

   Hence, scientific metaphor of self:
divide the mind's opposing archetypes
—if you possess the courage for the task—invite them from the shadows to the light;
unite these lurking shards of broken glass
into a mirror that reflects one soul.
And in this merging of unconscious selves,
there lies the mystic "marriage of true minds."

The play's final speech, also given to the Chorus, recapitulates this theme:

   The alchemy of ancient hieroglyphs
has permeated the unconscious mind
of Constance L. and manifested form,
where there was once subconscious dreamy thought.
The best of friends and foes exist within,
where archetypal shadows come to light.

Both modern clinical analysis and alchemy, considered a science in its day, deal in transformations, changing what is into something better. And both, significantly, require an element of mystery, the inexplicable. A reaction between common elements produces a rare metal: the uncovering of a secret from the past transforms not just the present but one's understanding of what was: how, precisely, does this rake place?

MacDonald refuses to reduce life to a simple formula. The play insists upon a measure of magic, and a goodly measure, at that: heads popping out of wastebaskets, time warps that transpose Constance from her university office to Cyprus and from Cyprus to Verona, hieroglyphics and coded manuscripts and ghosts. It is necessary that as viewers we "suspend our disbelief," as the Chorus instructs us: "Be foolish wise." If we allow ourselves to be swept up not just by the humour but by the magic of this play, we, too, become "wise fools," the authors of our own stories.

In her classic essay "If Shakespeare Had a Sister," Virginia Woolf calls for someone to rewrite history, including women's stories along with those of men. In Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), MacDonald takes up this charge but goes Woolf one better. Woolf creates the fictitious Judith Shakespeare, William's "sister," to account for the absence of female Renaissance playwrights. MacDonald creates the fictitious Constance Ledbelly, and in this story of a timid scholar reclaiming the authorship of her own life, appropriates the plots, characters, and very lines of Shakespeare, making them her own. She becomes, if you will, the "Judith" Shakespeare that never was. As she declares her independence from the Bard, she places her faith in sisterhood: the sisterhood of Constance, Desdemona, and Juliet and that of contemporary women everywhere.

Source: Laurin R. Porter, "Shakespeare's 'Sisters': Desdemona, Juliet, and Constance Ledbelly in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)," in Modern Drama, Vol. 38, No. 3, Fall 1995, p. 362.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Next

Critical Overview