Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)

by Ann-Marie Macdonald

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MacDonald's use of fateful mistakes for comic ends in "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)" compared to Shakespeare's use in "Othello"

Summary:

In "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)," MacDonald uses fateful mistakes to create humor and irony, contrasting with Shakespeare's "Othello," where such mistakes lead to tragic outcomes. MacDonald's comedic approach highlights the absurdity and miscommunication, whereas Shakespeare emphasizes the grave consequences of errors and misunderstandings.

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Does MacDonald use fateful mistakes in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) for comic ends, similar to Shakespeare's use in Othello?

Shakespeare cleverly mixes established conventions of both comedy and tragedy, demonstrating his own workings of the tragic form. The playwright uses theatrical conventions his audience would recognize, particularly from Roman comedy. For example, Othello plays the part of a the jealous husband who fears his wife’s infidelity. In Romeo and Juliet, chance occurrences or twists of fate have dramatic consequences, which is more characteristic of comedy. The first two acts of the play can be viewed as a comedy, before Mercutio is killed at the beginning of act 3. Had the tragic events thereafter not occurred, eventually leading to the “star-crossed lovers” meeting their end, the play would have read quite differently. By demonstrating elements of both genres, Shakespeare’s tragedies can demonstrate subtle elements of comedy while maintaining an overall tragic tone.

Anne Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) is a parody of both Othello and Romeo and Juliet. In act 1, scene 1, Constance proposes in her doctoral dissertation that the two plays were actually two comedies written by an unknown author. In act 2, Constance intervenes in the world of Othello and tells Othello that Iago is attempting to trick him so that Othello does not murder Desdemona. By contrasting this event with Othello’s plotline, MacDonald incorporates both comedy and tragedy in her own way that is similar to Shakespeare’s.

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Does MacDonald use fateful mistakes in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) for comic ends, similar to Shakespeare's use in Othello?

Characters in Macdonald's work do commit mistakes reflective of tragic conditions.  However, there is an acknowledgement of these errors and an assurance to minimize these.  This acknowledgement and progressive nature is not evident in the Shakespearean constructions in which tragic flaws are simply that:  Tragic.  For example, Desdemona's propensity towards jealousy is a flaw that spells tragedy in Shakespeare's work.  It is a mistake of characterization that leads to events that exist outside of individual control at a certain point.   Yet, Macdonald shows that there can be intervening factors to minimize the mistakes of our personality.  Our errors in judgement do not necessarily have to be fatal when others are there to help.  When human beings understand the mistakes as a part of their nature and commit to fixing them or minimizing their destructive effect, good things can happen.  

Macdonald shows Desdemona's mistakes in instances such as becoming angry without limitations as well as her excessive jealousy. Yet, through Constance's interventions, Desdemona recognizes her mistakes and promises to fix this aspect of her personality.  For Macdonald, the help that others offer can help our progress as human beings.  In recognizing our own mistakes and faults, Macdonald suggests that errors do not have to be defining in an all encompassing manner.  Macdonald is able to embrace a complex and intricate understanding of human nature and redemption, a view that is limited in the tragedy of Shakespeare. Accordingly, mistakes can be part of a process of growth and evolution.  Mistakes are paths to self- actualization in Macdonald's work.  In Shakespearean tragedy, they are steps towards self- destruction.

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In both Othello and in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare uses the device of fateful mistakes to develop the tragic action. Can similar kinds of mistakes be said to happen in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), but to comic ends instead?

This play deliberately seeks to create comedy out of what, in Shakespeare's other plays, he uses to create tragedy. For example, a whole set of mistakes result in tragic consequences in Shakespeare's tragedies. Whether it is based on mistaken assumptions or accidents of fate, such as the message that the Friar sends to Romeo not being delivered, tragedy occurs because of mistakes.

However, in this play, the same kind of mistakes are used to create comedy. For example, in the opening scene, when the Professor shows Constance the engagement ring, she assumes he is proposing to him, and it is a moment of comedy when the Professor reveals that he is going to propose to the rather precocious female student who has already entered Constance's office before. In the same way, in Act II scene 2, Desdemona sees Othello places a diamond necklace around Constance's neck, taking it from, as the stage directions specify, a box that is just a "larger version of the velvet box that Professor Night had in Act I scene 1." This is of course not what it appears to be, and it eventually transpires that it is Desdemona's birthday present from Othello that he is showing to Constance. Desdemona sees this act and interprets it as something else, which is used to demonstrate her character and her pugnacious attitude. Note what she says when she sees this happening:

Festoons the whore with baubles!

The presentation of Desdemona's character, who is more warlike and bellicose than Othello himself, is a moment of comedy as it challenges the audiences notion of this rather weak and passive female character as she is presented in Shakespeare's Othello. Again, similar ideas are present in the play when Constance meets Romeo and Juliet and a series of mistakes causes both of these characters to be revealed as sex-crazed individuals rather than characters who are famous for their love for each other. This play proves that there is a very thin line indeed separating comedy from tragedy, and the same ingredients can be used to create either.

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Does MacDonald use fateful mistakes for comic ends in "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)", like Shakespeare's tragic action?

I think that the statement is accurate in suggesting the mistakes that cause tragedy in Shakespeare helps to bring about a sense of the comic in Macdonald.  In Shakespearean drama, the mistakes between people lead to tragic sensibilities because the characters are constructed in a singular manner.  The handkerchief inOthellospells doom for so many, while Juliet seems to be inextricably moving towards death.  One of Macdonald's thematic purposes is to explore the modern sensibility to avert absolutism.  The absolutist tragic condition in Shakespearean drama leads to death and dismay.  Constance understands that there can be mistakes and sadness, but the complexity of the modern setting does not automatically lead to death and absolute sadness.  Constance's explanation and dialogue to both Juliet and Desdemona help to reveal this.  Through Constance, Macdonald seems to be suggesting that the need to discuss and articulate through mistakes and misunderstandings is an element of the modern condition that helps to avoid the perils of absolutist tragedy.  In contrast to the "dumb show" to open the drama, mistakes are shown in Macdonald's narrative to necessitate discussion and articulation, so that a stronger and more substantive understanding emerges.  This moves one away from absolutist tragedy and towards an end of modern being.  In this, one can see how fateful mistakes do not necessarily have to be fateful inclinations of death, but rather opportunities for discussion and articulation to emerge in which individuals better understand one another and their own senses of self.

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