Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)

by Ann-Marie Macdonald

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771

Feminism

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One of MacDonald's most important thematic goals in Goodnight Desdemona is to develop and explore feminist ideas. The play consistently returns to themes of women's rights, women's issues, and gender identity. MacDonald establishes a number of historical and contemporary examples of the oppression, mistreatment, or misunderstanding of women, and she explores some possibilities of addressing these problems.

Constance's experience at Queen's University is MacDonald's first example of sexism in contemporary culture. Professor Night has exploited Constance's ideas and efforts for years, securing a position for himself at Oxford University based on her writings. At the same time that he takes advantage of her hard work, however, he insults her, telling her she has an "interesting little mind" and calling her belittling names like "my little titmouse" and "pet." These names reveal that the professor is sexist and bigoted as well as exploitative and that he takes advantage of Constance on the basis of her gender.

Constance's journey into the worlds of Shakespeare's plays reveals that sexism is ingrained in the common understanding of literature and history. Tybalt seems to distrust and dislike all women, and this attitude is shared to a certain degree by Iago and Romeo. MacDonald suggests that Desdemona and Juliet, both strong-minded figures, encounter sexism in their own time and are also misunderstood by contemporary professors and readers. Goodnight Desdemona stresses that it is important to reevaluate historical attitudes toward women and recognize admirable female figures in history and literature.

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Goodnight Desdemona also pays close attention to the feminist themes of gender identity and gender role. Many of the play's characters experience a learning process about their gender roles. When Romeo and Juliet dress in drag and when Desdemona sword fights or participates in military violence, MacDonald is commenting on the flexibility of gender identities and the importance of testing and changing their boundaries. The most important character in this regard is Constance, who discovers that her latent attraction to other women, her ambitions as a scholar, and her ability to stand up for herself are all natural and acceptable aspects of her identity as a woman.

Academia

Related to the theme of feminism is MacDonald's critique of the contemporary academic culture in Canada and Great Britain. Goodnight Desdemona highlights a traditional, male-dominated university system, in which older male professors are able to take advantage of intelligent females. MacDonald suggests that 1980s Canada should reform this unjust system. Ramona seems to be Professor Night's next victim in a system that is not likely to be getting any better, although it may be significant that both of them will be leaving Canada for England.

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Shakespeare and Elizabethan Studies

Also important to MacDonald's thematic agenda is her treatment and analysis of Elizabethan culture and drama. Goodnight Desdemona reimagines some of Shakespeare's most famous characters, providing an interpretation of his texts and their historical context.

Some of MacDonald's commentary about Shakespeare's works and Elizabethan culture is deliberate satire. For example, she pokes fun at Othello's boastfulness, Tybalt's capacity for anger and violence, Romeo's inconstancy, and Juliet's death drive. All of these characteristics have strong bases in the original plays, but MacDonald exaggerates and draws attention to these faults. MacDonald also satirizes common characteristics of Elizabethan society, such as gender bending and lewd jokes.

Not all of MacDonald's commentary is satirical, however. Goodnight Desdemona reinvents Shakespearean characters, particularly Desdemona and Juliet, based on the ways that MacDonald feels they should be interpreted. This process emphasizes the characters' positive and admirable characteristics as well as their faults. The play implies that Desdemona's love of violence and Juliet's strong-minded passions are important elements of Shakespeare's work that are often misinterpreted by contemporary readers and scholars.

Tragedy and Absolutism

MacDonald stresses throughout the play that it is a great problem to see no gray area between comedy and tragedy. The Shakespearean characters are nearly all inclined to a tragic worldview, and they are in continual danger of following a dark destiny. Like Othello, Desdemona is jealous and gullible enough to commit murder. Meanwhile, characters like Juliet and Tybalt seem to have a death wish, often becoming overly dramatic and deliberately entering perilous situations. Constance herself is inclined to tragedy and despair until she learns the lessons of the play.

Based on her journey of self-discovery, Constance provides an antidote to the tragic impulse by stressing that it is necessary to abandon inflexible, absolute values; acknowledge the complexity of the world; and listen to the Wise Fool. Connecting tragedy to the belief in absolute values, MacDonald emphasizes that an absolutist mindset is dangerous and perilous, and it is preferable to avoid both tragedy and absolutism.

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