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Archive for the ‘Ann-Marie Macdonald’ Category

I don’t read a lot of plays.  I never have really, aside from a few pretentious phases and the required readings for school, but I do generally enjoy the experience when I pick one up.  A good play is powerful, entertaining and, when read, short – always a winning combination.  But the trouble is picking the good ones, isn’t it?  As usual.  Well, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) by Ann-Marie Macdonald, written in 1988 before she turned her hand to novel-writing, is definitely a good ‘un. 

Queen’s University Assistant Professor Constance Ledbelly (such a Shakespearian name!) is, when not ghost-writing academic papers for her boss, working to decode a manuscript that she believes was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’.  And in their original forms, in the manuscript, she is convinced that both plays began as comedies, that there was a Fool there to guide the characters to happy rather than tragic ends:

What if a Fool were to enter the worlds of both ‘Othello’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’?  Would he be akin to the Wise Fool in ‘King Lear’?: a Fool who can comfort and comment, but who cannot alter the fate f the tragic hero?  Or would our Fool defuse the tragedies by assuming centre stage as comic hero?  Indeed, in ‘Othello’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ the Fool is conspicuous by his very absence, for these two tragedies turn on flimsy mistakes – a lost hanky, a delayed wedding announcement – mistakes too easily concocted and corrected by a Wise Fool.

When Constance falls into the worlds of the plays – pushed over the edge after learning that the man she loves a) is marrying another, b) is taking the job she had wanted at Oxford, and c) has arranged for her to take a position at a university in Saskatchewan(“Regina.  I hate the prairies.  They’re flat.  It’s an absolute nightmare landscape of absolutes and I’m a relativist.  I’ll go mad.”) – she has a chance to see just what would have happened had fate dealt the lovers kinder hands.

You know you’re a true geek when Shakespeare jokes get you going.  Soon after arriving in ‘Othello’,Constance notices a strange new pattern to her speech:

I speak in blank verse like the characters:
Unrhymed iambic pentameter.
It seems to come quite nat’rally to me.
I feel so eloquent and…[making up the missing beats] eloquent.
My god.  Perhaps I’m on an acid trip.
What if some heartless student spiked my beer?!

And when Constance descends on ‘Romeo and Juliet’, my goodness, what Shakespearian comic device isn’t used?  Awful bawdy jokes, mistaken identities, women dressed as men, men dressed as women hoping to seduce women dressed as men…it’s all quite wonderful.

While comic relief is in ample supply, so is intelligent commentary on both plays and, particularly, the females at the centres of the tragedies.  Here, Desdemona is no pale, weak beauty but a blood-thirsty combatant, wooed by Othello’s gory descriptions of his previous victories, wedded to the warrior she wished to be.  Though Iago is thwarted in his initial manipulation of Othello by Constance, Desdemona proves to be as susceptible and jealous as her husband.

And Juliet, after the secret of her marriage is revealed just as Tybalt and Mercutio are about to fight, is as far from flying into an Othello-like jealous rage as possible.  After a day of marriage, the magic is gone and both she and Romeo are on the lookout for a new pretty face, in love with the concept of romantic, passionate, forbidden love (and, in Juliet’s case, death) and completely immune to the charms of married life.  Unfortunately for Constance, now disguised as a boy, the pretty face both Romeo and Juliet fall for is her own.  

Macdonald has written a very fun, very imaginative story of how an academic, transported into ‘Othello’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’, manages to turn the tragedies into comedies while learning far more about Shakespeare’s heroines than he ever revealed.  Quite delightful and highly recommended.

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