Shakespeare v Ann-Marie MacDonald (The comedic and terrible fate of women in fiction)

From all the characters, Constance Ledbelly is the only one with a dual role. She is the heroine and the catalyst of comedy. She is the author and the proof that Shakespeare’s tragedies are susceptible to change.

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William Shakespeare rewritten by Anne Marie Macdonald. Cover for the essay "The Emancipation of one Constance Ledbelly."

The Emancipation of one Constance Ledbelly

“I’ve had it with all the tragic tunnel vision around here”

Ann-Marie MacDonald

Based on Ann-Marie MacDonald’s “Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)” An exuberant comedy and feminist revisioning of William Shakespeare’s “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet.” 1988.

Written by Axel Trujillo Ledesma.

Originally submitted as a final essay on April 2nd, 2020.

The rewriting of Shakespeare’s tragedies, “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet,” in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s “Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet)” reveals how feminist comedy can rewrite fiction and reality. Constance’s emphasis on searching for the “witty fool” suggests a self-awareness on the part of the play about women’s identity. In searching for the true author; Constance Ledbelly interacts with Desdemona (from Othello) and Juliet (from Romeo and Juliet), as she learns aspects of both characters’ personalities. Thanks to the rewrite; Constance also learns new aspects about herself. The discovery of new aspects of fictional women functions as a metaphor for the authoring of female identity. Ann-Marie MacDonald’s play critiques the construct of female identity informed by Shakespeare’s tragedies by rewriting them as comedies. 

Introduction:

Constance’s insistence on the existence of a Witty Fool in a tragedy establishes the groundwork for the original plays to transform into a different genre. 

Constance is a marginalized character. She works in the academic realm; but, she is mocked and undermined by her superior. Her name and contributions are erased from her work, alluding to the Witty Fool’s missing contributions in the original Shakespeare tragedies. Constance Ledbelly and the Witty Fool are analogues. She recognizes the potential for humour. While the parallels are obvious to the audience (reader), Constance, doesn’t notice that she is the Witty Fool. Causing the audience to feel empathy for her. 

Shannon Hengen describes in her essay “Towards a Feminist Comedy” that plays like the one written by Ann-Marie MacDonald, are integral to the “promotion of a radical feminist comedy in Canada”. They portray “marginalized women laughing at the powerful and overcoming them” and by writing female characters like Constance they elicit “feelings of empathy and joy in the audience.” According to Ann-Marie MacDonald, feminist comedy invites the audience “to an experience that they might be prejudiced against at first.”

Mayfield Secondary School’s 2016 performance of Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet), written by Ann-Marie MacDonald.

Desdemona & Constance Ledbelly:

Ann-Marie MacDonald rewrites Shakespeare by manipulating the plot. Framing Constance’s qualities, those of a modern woman, which can be seen as liabilities in our own world; and, transforms them into assets. In a new context like the original tragedies Constance is admired. She doesn’t gain power; What she obtains is her identity. As Shannon Hengen puts it: “Having been a fool at the play’s opening, laughed at by the audience and other characters, she thus becomes the witty fool.”

However, this liberation of Constance Ledbelly is only possible thanks to her alliance with other women: Desdemona and Juliet. As Lauren Porter puts it in her essay Shakespeare’s sisters: Desdemona, Juliet and Constance Ledbelly in Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet); the comic mode allows the women in the plays who are the victims of the laws of tragedy to be more aware and intelligent than their male counterparts.

By rewriting Desdemona and Juliet, both women become teachers. Desdemona teaches Constance about war, while Juliet teaches her about sexuality; Through comedy Constance constructs a new identity. Porter suggests that in comedy or in a carnivalesque setting there are mistaken identities. Something that in Shakespearean Comedies there is no lack of. Desdemona mistakes Constance for the ruler of a race of Amazons.

At the same time Constance is searching for the Witty Fool; she is searching for her own identity. In the meantime, Desdemona assigns Constance the identity of warrior, which, Constance does not embrace entirely. However, her true identity, which, she discovers later is partly informed by the warrior personae: “In true Shakespearean fashion her false identity will ultimately engender insight” (Porter). 

Romeo & Constance:

Romeo also gives Constance a new identity. A part of the tragedies’ transformation into comedies is the capacity for characters to assume or discover other identities; The audience is willing to believe and accept this because it is one of the expectations of the genre of Comedy.

Reflecting how the tragic law dictates who the characters are, the play mocks how ridiculous it is for others to decide who Constance Ledbelly should be: the Constantine male personae illustrates how identities can be shaped by gender constructs and dictate behaviour. The case of mistaken identity expands over to Romeo and Juliet, who each dress up as the opposite sex.

By taking the “quintessential young lovers of Western literature” and portraying them as being able and willing to choose their own gender the audience can recognize how assigned gender roles limit who and how people love each other. The reversal of gender allows the character of Juliet to grow out of her innocent state in which she is traditionally depicted. For the audience, Juliet’s behaviour may seem chaotic and funny; But for the author, Juliet awakes in Constance her sexuality.

Constance is pursued by both young lovers, but, it is with Juliet that she fully embraces her erotic potential. Out of the reversal of genders the author also showcases how women in fiction are doomed to die, especially in tragedies. However, with the comic mode, Juliet’s commitment to a romanticized version of suicide is exposed as a ridiculous trope determined, ruled and informed by gender norms. “I’ve had it with all the tragic tunnel vision around here” (MacDonald 86). As an outsider Constance makes the tragic women aware of their tragic tendencies.

While searching for the “Witty Fool” Constance learns about herself; The greatest change the tragedies suffer is not the alteration of the plot. Comedy allows the characters who were bound to a doomed fate to finally be able to choose.

Ann-Marie MacDonald & Constance Ledbelly, The Female Playwright/Writer/Author:

The ability to choose extends from fictional characters to the real world. If the main characters can be female and become female; then, why can’t the author as well? Ann-Marie MacDonald transforms the Renaissance notion of alchemy by bringing them into the contemporary notions of authorship.

By the end of the play Constance’s pen turns into gold, an allusion to Sir Phillip Sydney’s “The Defence of Poesie” published in 1595. Constance searches for her identity and constructs it throughout the play. She goes from ghost-writer to author. She reads Shakespeare. She questions the tragic mode, which; constraints the characters and searches for the comic mode which liberates and allows awareness. In an act of literary rebellion Constance becomes Shakespeare. As Ann-Marie MacDonald stated: “Poking fun at institutions is iconoclastic and girls are not supposed to be rebels.”

Constance transforms into a wise fool or “Witty Fool”. Constance is a character reborn and reformed as a comedic hero. Like an alchemist, Ann-Marie MacDonald uses familiar objects like plays to create something better. Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet) makes the claim that women writers are as good as Shakespeare himself. By having a female character who has aspirations of becoming a writer herself. Ann-Marie MacDonald’s play challenges Shakespeare’s words and authority as his plays’ sole author and proprietor.

Constance is the Judith Shakespeare (Virginia Woolf) that never was (Porter). Shakespeare’s plays are real. Using them in an imaginary setting makes Ann-Marie MacDonald’s play real. By using Shakespeare’s own words against him; Ann-Marie MacDonald, validates the transformation of Shakespeare’s plays.

The Tragic & Comedic law:

In Shakespeare’s original plays, whenever a woman dies it is because they exist within the boundaries of a tragedy. The tragic laws govern their existence. Desdemona and Juliet’s death is inevitable.

Only the audience is aware of the tragedy.

The “Augenblich” is the defining moment when all tragic elements combine. Once it passes, the tragic ending cannot be stopped. Death becomes inevitable and “indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine” that women are meant to die (Woolf). Due to the implication of the inevitability of tragedy, fiction forms reality. So, when Constance destroys this inevitability, she subverts the tragic fate that holds dominion over every character, especially female characters. She performs an act of rebellion; comedy serves as a political act that brings about change. 

In his essay “Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet) From Shakespearean Tragedy to Postmodern Satyr Play,” Igor Djordjevic defines comedy as the opposite to tragedy. It is focused on a social effect, in Comedy there are no unavoidable laws. Comedy is a festival because it brings change. It changes society and everyone surrounding the main character. These changes are caused by the actions of the main character. “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet” have elements of comedy and tragedy in them.

During the “Augenblich” Constance changes the plot. “The presence of comic elements in each play makes genre mutations possible,” as if the plays existed in a constant flux of indetermination. They are both tragedy and comedy. At the same time they aren’t.

“Tragedy could have been averted by any kind of character,” not only by the Witty Fool. Djordjevic adds that the comic mode introduces new emotions that supplant the emotion which leads to death. Once the disruption takes place, every time the play tries to reset or reboot itself, it becomes more and more absurd. When Constance hands the pillow back to Othello, murder weapons become agents of comedic chaos. Before Constance, the weapons bring death; the inevitable. But, after Constance they are imbued with humour. In “Romeo and Juliet” Constance interrupts Tybalt, disrupting the embodiment of tragedy by interrupting and rewriting the play. She allows Mercutio to live, the embodiment of comedy. Ann-Marie MacDonald’s plot proceeds from implication to complication (Djordjevic). 

Stick it to the Man:

When Ann-Marie MacDonald rewrites Shakespeare’s plays, she is rewriting the Ethos of the plays. She reconfigures the characters by elimination, manipulation and invention. Characters who disappear are absorbed into Constance; she becomes part of what Marty Dvorak calls a multi centred “Feminist dramatic comedy.” From all the characters that disappear and are absorbed into others, the wrathful father (senex iratus) is completely eliminated from the story. This is because he represents the “rigid patriarchal law.”

Ann-Marie MacDonald constructs around Constance a new society in which the archetypal guardian of patriarchy and heterosexuality is eliminated. This allows the “creation of a carnivalesque spirit of youth and uninhibited sexuality.” In Ann-Marie MacDonald’s play all the central characters are women who don’t share their stage-time with any male counterpart. Instead, the male characters take a more secondary role: Othello is deflated from tragic hero to stock archetype of the “miles gloriosus” and Romeo is exaggerated, revealing that he doesn’t care who he loves. As long as he loves. Romeo needs to love someone, anyone really. His tragic flaw is played to the extreme, nothing about his character changes. He is only pushed to his limits.

The same thing happens with Juliet, Ann-Marie MacDonald transforms her by rewriting Juliet as a parody of herself. Ann-Marie MacDonald takes advantage of the audience’s expectations from a Shakespearean play: The “Primary source of humour thus resides in the difference of scale. To deflate rather than to inflate.” She produces a comedy out of a tragedy by asking the audience to laugh at what they consider to be something serious or inevitable.

Through “Discord between the audience’s expectation based upon an acquaintance with the source narratives and characters in them”; Ann-Marie MacDonald’s play creates a gap between the audience and the original tragic plays. The new play’s comedy depends on this gap. The version on stage is “incongruous with the notion the viewer brings into the theatre.” The audience encounters a contrast, a clash of mindsets: Shakespeare versus MacDonald. The comic-mode is the “result of the clash of rhetorical decorums,” humour relies on the gap between the audience’s expectation and the artistic revision.

Just as lines are reassigned, roles are too. In Juliet’s balcony scene with Constance, “The context of the scene contains four centuries of collective interpretation” and the audience recognizes the scene and its importance; we laugh because we are aware of the change. “The direct and serious word was revealed in all its limitations and insufficiency, only after it had become the laughing image of that word” (Djordjevic). 

From all the characters, Constance Ledbelly is the only one with a dual role. She is the heroine and the catalyst of comedy. She is the author and the proof that Shakespeare’s tragedies are susceptible to change. At a surface level Constance realizes she is the fool and the author; while, at a deeper level she realizes that she is the creator of her own personality. She becomes a new empowered woman, sexually free, intellectual and unbound.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet) is a miniature carnival. Ann-Marie MacDonald’s play identifies popular misconceptions,  because “the subtext of her play is elevated to the level of cultural foundation.” Shakespearean plots can be understood to be the myths of contemporary times. “The equation is clear: what the immutable, fate shaping stars were to the Elizabethans, the inscrutable psyche along with Jung and his “collective unconscious” are to us.” Ann-Marie MacDonald subverts our myths by taking a “popular story known by her audience” and subjecting it to parody. 

In Ann-Marie MacDonald’s play, “sexually suggestive allusions” break the social boundaries of gender. Similar to how it happens in another one of Shakespeare’s plays, “Twelfth night, or what you will.” When the play was first released it bent the gender norms of the time because the actors who played women’s roles were all male. Throughout the play these male actors playing female roles had to perform another gender on top of that. It was a man playing a woman’s role that had to act as a man. However, this gender bending was accepted because the theatre is a place where the carnivalesque takes hold. It is expected and tolerated by the audience; because, it is after all one of the characteristics of comedy.

Ann-Marie MacDonald plays with materials already available in the sandbox of Shakespearean plays. She uses the same materials to expose the tragedies’ short comings and implications of killing the female characters in Othello and Romeo and Juliet. She “invites the audience to laugh at what we take seriously.”

Ann-Marie MacDonald profits from the “ludicrous juxtaposition of opposites” by introducing Constance who is the witty fool. By converting the tragedy into a comedy; she takes the laws from the tragic world (immutable and intimidating) to reflect them in the “satiric mirror as silly.”

The tragic universe fuels the world of comedy until it reaches a critical point in which the seriousness becomes laughable.

Tragedies are oppressive and comedies are liberating; one informs the other. Under the tragic laws of the inevitable doom, female characters exist in oppression and are little more than automatons. But, when the same characters exist within a universe of comedy, they gain awareness. The female identity that tragedy creates shatters when it is parodied because it cannot survive the ridicule.

The comic mode allows female characters to have awareness and grants them the ability to choose their own destiny. Ann-Marie MacDonald’s rewriting of Shakespeare’s plays is a liberation of the fictional women in the plays by revealing how fragile and silly the tragic identity assigned to them really is (Djordjevic).

Works cited 

  • Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet) From Shakespearean Tragedy to Postmodern Satyr Play” by Igor Djordjevic. Comparative Drama, Vol 37, no. 1 Spring 2003: pp (88-115).
  • Shakespeares’s sisters: Desdemona, Juliet and Constance Ledbelly in Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet)” by Laurin Porter R. Modern Drama, Vol 38, no 3, Fall 1995: pp (362-377). 
  • Towards a Feminist Comedy” by Shannon Hengen. Canadian Literature vol 146, autumn 1995: pp (97-109).
  • Woolf, Virginia. “A Room of One’s Own.” Global Grey, 2018. 

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