Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)

by Ann-Marie Macdonald

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Historical Context

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Late-Twentieth-Century Canada

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Canada was a former British colony and a modern democracy in the late twentieth century. Most of Canada was English speaking, but French was also an official language, and the French-speaking province of Quebec had a unique culture in which separatism was a major issue. Canada's political and social climate was strongly affected by the United States, and the two countries had close economic ties.

Toronto Theater Scene

Toronto was the center of the English-speaking theater scene in 1980s Canada, a scene that had flourished since the 1970s. A number of playwrights revitalized Canadian theater in English, including David French, David Fennario, and Carol Bolt. The city became famous for direct, realistic, and compelling theater that often addressed important social issues, and playwrights like French were known for closely collaborating with directors and actors. Although MacDonald has since become a more international celebrity, she was closely identified with the Toronto theater scene when she produced Goodnight Desdemona.

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Late-Twentieth-Century Feminism

Broadly speaking, feminism is the advocacy of women's rights, and it is a movement that dates back centuries. It advances the rights of women by acknowledging the historical dominance of men and working to address inequalities. The feminist movement began to exert an increasing amount of influence on literary and cultural studies in the decades following World War II. In literary studies, feminism has concentrated on critiquing the male-dominated literary canon, reevaluating the role of women in literature, studying writings about women, and exploring gender identity. Writers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Kate Millet began inquiries into feminist literary studies and critics like Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, and Judith Butler have continued or adjusted their focus.

Elizabethan England and William Shakespeare

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Latest answer posted June 28, 2012, 12:44 am (UTC)

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The rule of Queen Elizabeth I of England forms an important context for Goodnight Desdemona. Although Othello was probably first performed after the queen's death in 1603, it and Romeo and Juliet are associated with Elizabethan culture and society. Elizabeth was a shrewd, able monarch who presided over a period of increased power and prosperity in England. In this environment of relative tolerance and stability, the flourishing of the arts in continental Europe spread to England, and the late sixteenth century became famous for a flowering in the arts known as the English "Renaissance."

William Shakespeare is probably the most important dramatist in the English language, and his plays are considered the high point of Elizabethan art. Born in 1564, Shakespeare grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon during Elizabeth's rule. At some point before 1592, he moved to London and began a successful career as a dramatist, writing comedies, histories, and tragedies for the stage. Romeo and Juliet was probably first performed in 1594 or 1595 and Othello in 1604 or 1605.

The Venetian City-State

The pertinent scenes of Othello are set in sixteenth-century Cyprus, which was then a part of the Republic of Venice. A powerful mercantile city of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Venice ruled an independent empire that stretched between present-day Italy and Greece. The city of Venice established its independence in the ninth century and became very wealthy because of its extensive trade network. Venice was initially ruled by an all-powerful duke, but power was later divided between elected and appointed aristocrats. During the period in question, Venice was fighting the Ottoman Turks for control of Cyprus, which it would lose by 1571.

Fourteenth-Century Verona

Although Shakespeare does not set an exact date, Romeo and Juliet takes place in the city of Verona, Italy, at some point in the fourteenth century. This period was the height of Verona's power, when it was dominated by the aristocratic family of the Scaligeri. However, different aristocratic families competed for influence and control at this time, and, as in Romeo and Juliet, tensions ran high between bitter rivals.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343

Blank Verse

The most important stylistic aspect of Goodnight Desdemona is its attention to the customs and conventions of Elizabethan drama and culture. Particularly in acts 2 and 3, inside the worlds of Romeo and Juliet and Othello, MacDonald emulates and mimics Shakespeare's style. For example, MacDonald uses blank verse, the theatrical writing style made famous by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Blank verse is the name for unrhymed iambic pentameter, or lines that form a meter of five two-syllable units and do not rhyme at the end. Although blank verse is normally spoken without audible line breaks, it sets the work in poetry and adds what many consider a sense of gravity and beauty. MacDonald uses this style with great dexterity, capturing the poetic personality of Shakespeare's characters and setting Constance's lines into blank verse while retaining her personality and even the tone of her late-twentieth-century Canadian accent.

Asides and Monologues

Like Shakespeare, MacDonald makes use of monologues, in which a character expresses his or her state of mind directly to the audience. She also makes use of the "aside," the dramatic convention wherein a character speaks to the audience or to himself or herself but none of the other characters can hear what is said. As in Shakespeare, asides allow the audience to be in on a particular plot without all of the characters realizing it. When Iago hatches evil plots or Romeo and Juliet express their secret passions in asides, MacDonald is joking and playing with the convention both to amuse the audience and to develop the plot.

Word Order, Spying, Cross-dressing, and More

The play is full of jokes and references to Elizabethan culture and theater, and MacDonald is careful to get these details right. MacDonald uses the typical word order and archaic language, she makes use of onstage eavesdropping, and she employs the convention of cross-dressing that is common to Shakespearean comedy. All of these elements, as well as numerous other details, are effective in establishing the setting and atmosphere of the work as well as amusing and challenging the audience.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1600: The first French settlers arrive in eastern Canada, but there will be no significant settlements in Toronto for more than one hundred years.

    1980s: Toronto is Canada's largest city. It is the capital of the province of Ontario and is the center of Canada's English-speaking artistic culture.

    Today: Toronto has suffered from the draw-back in tourism after the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic in 2003. The city is still known as the economic engine of Canada, however, and it continues to grow and prosper.

  • 1600: Queen Elizabeth I, one of England's shrewdest and most able monarchs, is nearing the end of her long and prosperous rule.

    1980s: Margaret Thatcher, known as the "Iron Lady" for her conservatism and inflexibility, is the prime minister of the United Kingdom.

    Today: Tony Blair, a pioneer of the "New Labor" movement intended to combine social services with privatization, is the British prime minister.

  • 1600: Drama in the English language is flourishing, as Shakespeare and other playwrights continue to produce masterpieces for the London theater.

    1980s: Drama in English is no longer centered in London but has spread to the many English-speaking cities, particularly Toronto and New York City.

    Today: With an increased emphasis on multiculturalism, drama in English involves playwrights and actors of Jamaican, Indian, South African, and many other nationalities.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 236

Sources

Dvorak, Marta, "Goodnight William Shakespeare (Good Morning Ann-Marie MacDonald)," in Canadian Theatre Review, Nos. 79/80, Summer/Fall 1994, pp. 130, 133.

Fortier, Mark, "Shakespeare with a Difference: Genderbending and Genrebending in Goodnight Desdemona," in Canadian Theatre Review, No. 59, Summer 1989, pp. 50, 51.

Hengen, Shannon, "Towards a Feminist Comedy," in Canadian Literature, No. 146, Autumn 1995, p. 97.

MacDonald, Ann-Marie, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), Grove Press, 1998, pp. 11, 13, 15, 17, 19, 31, 37, 38, 50, 56, 64, 74.

Shakespeare, William, Romeo and Juliet, in The Complete Works, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 345.

Weales, Gerald, "Gender Wars," in Commonweal, Vol. 119, No. 21, December 4, 1992, pp. 15, 20.

Further Reading

Djordjevic, Igor, "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet): From Shakespearean Tragedy to Postmodern Satyr Play," in Comparative Drama, Vol. 37, No. 1, Spring 2003, pp. 89-115.

Djordjevic's analysis of Goodnight Desdemona concentrates on the genres of tragedy and comedy as they can be applied to the play and its influences.

Honan, Park, Shakespeare: A Life, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Honan provides a readable, well-researched, and informative account of Shakespeare's life and career, including a description of the cultural atmosphere in Elizabethan England.

Nurse, Donna Baily, "Send in the Clowns," in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 250, No. 47, November 24, 2003, pp. 37-38.

Nurse's brief interview and biography of MacDonald touches on some of the author's influences and passions.

Stevenson, Melanie A., "Othello, Darwin, and the Evolution of Race in Ann-Marie MacDonald's Work," in Canadian Literature, No. 168, Spring 2001, pp. 34-54.

This essay discusses the issues of race and evolution in Goodnight Desdemona and MacDonald's other work.

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