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...
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