Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet): Existentialist Feminism vs. Patriarchal Determinism

 

Ann-Marie MacDonald

Ann-Marie MacDonald

Feminism and comedy don’t always go hand-in-hand, but that doesn’t mean they can’t, and in her play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) Ann-Marie MacDonald demonstrates that she is more than capable of weaving together a narrative that incorporates both humour and feminist theory in a play that is both entertaining and engaging.  MacDonald, as one might be able to tell from the title, presents a narrative that juxtaposes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with Othello, while finding a way to make them easily relatable to contemporary audiences.  The work reads like an academic essay that was transformed into a play, and though that might not sound entertaining on paper, what MacDonald ends up creating is a fun contemporary play that challenges the patriarchal elements of Shakespearean tragedy by dousing it with humorous feminist commentary.

 

The cover art from the most recent publication of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet).

The cover art from the most recent publication of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet).

One of the ways through which the patriarchy maintains its authority is through subtly socializing women to be subordinate and view men as authoritative.  Claude, for example, instructs Constance that she “must learn to relax” (15), while condescendingly telling her that she has “an interesting little mind” (17).  In the first instance, the fact he is giving instructions reinforces that he is an authority figure, while the later suggests that he is in a position to evaluate Constance’s intellect.  His use of the word ‘little’ to describe her mind, further subordinates her by suggest that though interesting, her mind is still inferior.   Even when using her mind, Claude still tries to place Constance in a ‘feminine’ role, suggesting that when she ghost writes essays for him, she also type them up, saying: “I do wish you’d learn to type, my dear” (18).  This is work typically done by a secretary, and so Claude tries to relegate Constance to the secretarial realm, often associated with femininity in patriarchal societies.  He also uses a term of endearment, which is problematic in that is subordinates her.  This is heightened by the fact that she has to refer to him with professional language, calling him ‘Dr. Night’.  His terms of endearment show up later when he against calls her ‘dear’ (19), as well as ‘love’ (19).  Even Iago adopts this patronizing attitude when he pats Constance on the head (44) as if she were a child.  This behaviour is subtle, but the implications remain overt, and it is through such subtle socialization that the patriarchy manages to reinforce its authority.

 

The beautiful Maggie Smith played Desdemona alongside Laurence Olivier in the 1965 film adaptation of “Othello”.

The beautiful Maggie Smith played Desdemona alongside Laurence Olivier in the 1965 film adaptation of “Othello”.

This subtle socialization is used in concert with hegemonic institutions that teach women to internalize patriarchal oppression and be complicit in their own oppression.  MacDonald creates a protagonist, Constance, who does both.  Aristotle has long been considered a figurehead for patriarchal society, given his influence on western thought, and there are some Aristotelian mentalities which Constance adopts.  When writing an academic paper on Romeo and Juliet with Othello, Constance asks: “‘Is this tragedy?!’  Or is it comedy gone awry” (13) that propels the narratives.  It is odd that Constance adopts such stark, absolute binaries, especially in the context of her conversation about Regina: “It’s an absolute nightmare landscape of absolutes, and I’m a relativist” (20).  Constance clearly has an aversion to absolutes and binaries, yet she has been trained to accept and internalizes them, and they even invade her through process without her realizing it.  This internalization is made overt in a conversation with Claude Night, Constance’s supervising professor.  When he asks why she is taking on a project nobody else has been able to succeed with, he asks if she thinks she’s special.  She replies: “Oh I’m not the least bit special” (16).  This self-deprecating language is the product of years of social programming.  In the hegemonic institution of school, for example, Constance notes that she was taught to think lowly of herself: “I was labelled a crackpot, by the sacred heart of Academe; and after years spent as a laughingstock, I finally came to think that it was true” (37).  The authority associated with academia gives so much weight to this patriarchal socialization that Constance eventually internalizes this criticism and comes to believe it.

 

Hailee Steinfeld may be the youngest woman to play Juliet on screen. She was 15 years old during the film’s production.

Hailee Steinfeld may be the youngest woman to play Juliet on screen. She was 15 years old during the film’s production.

The results of rescinding one’s innate characteristics are perhaps best exemplified by Constance’s narrative about her pet parakeet.  In the narrative the parakeet, which had been kept in a cage, fell five stories and died (21).  The irony, of course, is that birds should be able to fly; the parakeet should have been able to fly away.  The innate ability to fly, however, was subdued by the learning live in a cage, rather than to fly, leaving the bird unable to do the one thing that all birds should be able to innately do: fly.  Just as the parakeet is unable to spread her wings, so too is Constance unable to spread hers.  When speaking of her studies, Constance notes that “in a field like [hers] that’s so well trod, you run the risk of contradicting men who’ve risen to the rank of sacred cow” (37).  Because she is worried about contradicting men in authority, she is not able to spread out and explore herself, much like the parakeet is unable to spread its wings.  And just as birds can be tamed and then taught to do tricks and comply with their oppression, Constance does as well, as she writes academic essays for Claude to publish under his name (17), though she later expresses regret over this: “I helped him use me” (46).  It is clear that Constance exudes the willful subordination that is a concern in feminist theory.

 

Olivia Hussey as Juliet in Franko Zeffirelli’s 1968 production “Romeo and Juliet“.

Olivia Hussey as Juliet in Franko Zeffirelli’s 1968 production “Romeo and Juliet“.

One of the ways through which the academic arm of patriarchal hegemony permeates society with patriarchal ideology is through the canon, and though subdued by the academic realm, Constance’s journey is one that involves reconfiguring the canon and thereby challenging that patriarchy.  This challenging of the canon, specifically Shakespeare, is placed on religious terms by Claude.  When Constance expresses that Shakespeare corrupted comedic source material when writing Romeo and Juliet with Othello, Claude asks her if she has evidence to “support this heresy” (17).  Here, Claude is placing the academic realm on a par with the religious, aligning Shakespeare with scripture.  Through her journey, Constance manages to demonstrate the weakness inherent in the ‘canon’.  She notes that when compiling an anagram that she is “missing the letter ‘e,’” and suggests that “it was probably deleted in a later printing” (17).  This, of course, is a reference to the fact that the plays by Shakespeare, which many academics treat as sacred, are often corrupted versions of what Shakespeare may have written.  This is not linked to the ‘authorship question’, but the fact that printing presses may have accidentally altered texts, and in some instances, unapproved copies of the plays were published and accepted as gospel.  These details are further challenged throughout the narrative.  When Constance meets Othello, she notes that he is “not a Moor” (27), demonstrating that Shakespeare’s portrayal, or perhaps our understanding of what a ‘Moor’ is, are not in concert with the actual character and is therefore a fiction.  Likewise, when meeting Desdemona, Constance notes that “Shakespeare really watered her down” (45).  Here again Shakespeare’s portrayal of his characters is incongruent with their authentic selves, thereby challenging the canon.  The clearest example of this in in Constance’s own analogy where she places a piece of western iconography and culture alongside an individual life: “Mona Lisa and a babe float by.  Which of these two treasures do you save?  I’ve saved the baby, and let the Mona drown” (33).  Constance says this after she has saved Desdemona from her ‘fated’ death, acknowledging that she ruined a piece of the western canon in order to save a life.  This is not done, though, to save any life, but rather to save the life of Desdemona, suggesting that Constance now places the female identity above the patriarchal canon.

 

Othello after performing an honour killing? Patriarchy is so fucked!

Othello after performing an honour killing? Patriarchy is so fucked!

This undoing of Shakespeare’s narrative represents a challenge to patriarchal determinism.  Determinism is usually defined as instances where individual have no say in the outcome of their lives, but rather, their lives are the product of an unbroken chain of events.  Patriarchal determinism, then, is when women have no authority over their own lives, but rather have their lives determined by the men in their lives.  This is certainly the case with Desdemona as Othello determines that she will die.  Juliet, likewise, falls into tragedy due to the rash behaviour of Romeo.  This is consistent with how Constance is treated at the onset of the play.  Claude has decided to take a post at Oxford, and then tells Constance that he has “lined up a lovely post for [her] in Regina” (19).  Here, Claude has determined where Constance will go.  This is consistent with Constance’s own language as she concedes that she is “a failed existentialist” (17), and since existentialism is linked with free will, she is placed squarely as a woman in the grips of patriarchal determinism.  This patriarchal determinism is best articulated by Constance when she tells Desdemona that the academic sphere “believes that [she is] a doomed and helpless victim” (38).

 

Suzanne Cloutier also played Desdemona in a film adaption of the play.

Suzanne Cloutier also played Desdemona in a film adaption of the play.

Through the play, though, MacDonald challenges this notion of patriarchal determinism in two ways: by challenging interpretation, and by reforming the narrative.  After being told that she is viewed as a helpless victim, Desdemona asserts “Did I not flee my father” (38), thereby challenging the notion that she is a passive participant and noting how she did in fact challenge her father, the patriarchal figurehead in her life.  It could also be argued that she conceded to Othello’s murder of her and allowed it to happen, thereby asserting her autonomy in her own death as well.  MacDonald also allows Constance to recognize her own autonomy by delivering autonomy to both Desdemona and Juliet.  In the case of Desdemona, Constance identifies Iago as being deceitful and reveals to Othello that Desdemona has not been unfaithful.  Likewise, Constance defuses the conflict between Tybalt and Romeo, thereby preventing the catalyst that transformed the narrative into a tragedy.  In both instances the women are rescued for a tragic turn of events thrust onto them by the men in their respective lives and are then allowed to define their own lives.  Though Constance does not exert a similar influence on her own life, it is clear at the end of the play that she has an understanding of her own autonomy once the narrative is complete.  Constance, then, transforms herself and the plays from examples of patriarchal determinism to feminist existentialism.

 

A portrait of Desdemona.

A portrait of Desdemona.

MacDonald doesn’t only challenge patriarchal authority and determinism through such overt means and changing plot, but also undermines gender roles through, suggesting that the rigid gender assignments patriarchal societies attribute to each sex are not innate to their respective sexes, but rather can be adopted by members of either sex.  Desdemona, for example, is a blood-thirsty woman who wishes she could be a solider, but because this is a ‘masculine’ traits, she must live vicariously through her husband Othello.  She even expresses regret that she was not born a man: “My sole regret—that heaven had not made me such a man” (27).  MacDonald further suggests that there are similarities between Desdemona and her patriarchal counterpart when MacDonald has Desdemona appropriate lines originally spoken by Othello: “By heaven I’ll know thy thoughts” (40).  Her femininity, then, is a performance, and performance is something MacDonald makes clear Desdemona is familiar with when she has Desdemona say “I’ll perform it” (29) when speaking of the friendship offered by Constance.  There is a clear link between women and masculine traits, and the tendency to socially perform that which is expected of one.  Constance also challenges gender stereotypes when she says that “women are supposed to be afraid of mice” (30), but she uses the words ‘supposed to be’, not the word ‘are’, suggesting that what is expected of women, and what they are in practice may not be the same thing.  Othello, for his part, talks incessantly, often fabricating lies.  In patriarchal societies, though, it was supposed to be the women who talked too much as it was considered a ‘feminine’ trait.  Each of these instances serves to demonstrate the fragile and malleable link between gender and sex.

 

William Shakespeare, alleged author of The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare, alleged author of The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

The play may be more geared for literary academics, feminists, and fans of Shakespeare than for the general public, and likely wouldn’t make for an entertaining stage production for those who aren’t as familiar with Romeo and Juliet and Othello as is the typical English major.  The play is smart and witty and clever, and that may be the only criticism of the work, that it is TOO smart and witty and clever.  People who are unfamiliar with Othello and Shakespeare in general, or people who are unfamiliar with feminist theory, may not have an in to the play.  Then again, who wants to write a play for people who don’t familiarize themselves with Shakespeare and feminist theory?

 

If you enjoy reading this, check out other posts on Shakespeare here, and be sure to follow me on Twitter: @LiteraryRambler.

 

Favorite Quote: “We change our swaddling clothes for funeral shrouds, and in between is one brief shining space, where love may strike by chance, but only death is certain.”  (64)

 

If You Like This: Try reading The Kings Attrition.  Another contemporary re-working of Shakespeare that employs feminist theory.  This one journeys into post-Macbeth Scotland.  It is the tragic cousin of MacDonald’s comedy.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Favorite Quote: “We change our swaddling clothes for funeral shrouds, and in between is one brief shining space, where love may strike by chance, but only death is certain.”

    I love this! Please tell me where it’s from.

    Thanks!

Speak Your Mind

*

css.php