Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)

by Ann-Marie Macdonald

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Gender stereotypes and character portrayal in Ann-Marie MacDonald's "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)"

Summary:

In Ann-Marie MacDonald's "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)," gender stereotypes are challenged and subverted through character portrayal. The play reimagines female characters from Shakespeare's works, giving them agency and depth beyond their traditional roles, thereby critiquing and deconstructing conventional gender norms.

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How does Ann-Marie MacDonald undermine gender stereotypes in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)?

Ann-Marie MacDonald turns Desdemona from the pure, virtuous, long-suffering wife of Othello into a feisty, fighting, assertive woman more typical of our own era.

In Shakespeare's depiction, although Desdemona is a woman of strong character who is clear in her own mind about her love for Othello, she also conforms to the gender stereotypes of the time regarding how a good wife should act. She is trusting and faithful, and even when Othello abuses her because he thinks she is lying to him about Cassio, she tolerates his behavior to the point of accepting death at his hands. Shakespeare is at pains to show her as an angelic emblem of matrimony, so that no blame will fall on her for Iago and Othello's actions.

MacDonald, in contrast, undermines gender stereotypes by turning Desdemona into a much more "bad-ass" woman, one as willing to fight and curse as a man might be. This Desdemona compares herself to warrior Amazon women and defends herself to Constance, saying:

Did I not flee my father ... Will I not dive into Sargasso Sea, to serve abreast the Amazons abroad? ... So raise I now the battle cry, Bullshit!

It is hard to see an audience of Shakespeare's day warming to such an aggressive woman. This Desdemona is ready to dive into action and even tries to kill Constance. This cursing Desdemona not only admires Othello for his warrior qualities—she wants to be like him, and regrets that her gender blocks this path.

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How is Desdemona portrayed in Ann-Marie MacDonald's "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)"?

Desdemona is represented as an assertive, defiant, and confident woman in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). Unlike the traditionally viewed submissive and helpless Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello, the modern namesake is quite the opposite, as demonstrated through her speech and actions. Before the audience even meets Desdemona, the protagonistEnglish literature scholar Constancedescribes her as fascinated with violence and horror stories. This set-up hints at Desdemona’s forceful nature, which is later revealed in the play.

When Constance enters the action of the play-within-a-play Othello, she reveals Iago’s deceitful machinations to Othello and prevents his murder of Desdemona. Desdemona thanks Constance profusely and eagerly offers herself to assist the scholar in the quest to find the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. She leaps into action and takes charge with domineering language like

I’ll call this quest mine own, my constant friend...I’ll find thine unknown Author and Fool’s Cap.

Her assertive nature borders on bloodthirsty aggression. She speaks commanding words while trying to motivate a reluctant Constance with,

If thou wouldst know thyself an Amazon, acquire a taste for blood. I’ll help thee. Come.

Desdemona believes that she is not weak but strong and worthy of respect; she will not allow herself to be pushed around and neither should Constance. When she learns that other academics ridicule Constance as a meek mouse, she encourages the scholar to fight back and regain respect (as well as credit for her literary theory) because “we be women; not mice.”

Desdemona’s confident and bold language seems to be a reaction to her frustration at female roles in society. As much as she refers to the myth of Amazon woman warriors, she knows that she cannot be an actual soldier. She curses her own female identity, saying, “My sole regret—that heaven had not made me such a man,” and experiences battle only vicariously through Othello.

Her righteous anger is warranted but reveals an overly dramatic side. For example, when Constance tells her that academics traditionally view her character as a “doomed and helpless victim,” Desdemona indignantly protests,

Did I not beat a path into the fray, my vow to honour in thy fool’s cap quest? Did I not flee my father, here to dwell beneath the sword Hephaestus forged for Mars? Will I not dive into Sargasso Sea, to serve abreast the Amazons abroad? Will I not butcher any cow that dares low lies to call me tame, ay that I will! So raise I now the battle cry, Bullshit!

True, Desdemona does "beat a path" for Constance to pursue the truth; she also did defy her father to marry Othello. Nonetheless, she hyperbolically compares her marriage to a confrontation with Hephaestus the god of fire. She also claims that, without hesitation, she would swim the boundless Sargasso Sea to join in faraway warfare. Her “battle cry” of “bullshit!” expresses an impatience for what she believes are diminutive, embarrassing misconceptions about her; the funny curse also punctuates her speech histrionically.

Finally, Desdemona’s actions illustrate her aggressive, confident, and dramatic nature; interesting, they also show that she is “gullible” (as described by Constance near the end). Desdemona easily believes Iago when he tells her that Constance is a witch trying to seduce Othello. Then Desdemona tries to kill Constance two different times (by smothering in Act II and stabbing in Act III) and stabs Juliet.

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