Desdemona and the Role of the Female Character in Othello and Other Plays
Desdemona’s Role in Othello and Goodnight Desdemona
Shakespeare’s plays often put emphasis on the role of the female characters and their influence on the male protagonists. Whether it is the impact Ophelia’s insanity had on Hamlet, the devastating result of Romeo’s love for Juliet, or the horrid behavior of Macbeth under Lady Macbeth’s influence, the women play an important role. In Shakespeare’s Othello Desdemona is no different; Othello’s love and jealousy regarding his wife made this play a tragedy. Ann-Marie MacDonald follows this pattern in her play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) with her overly dramatic female characters. It does not seem to matter what type of character of the female lead portrays, she will inevitably be at the root of the problems within the story. The role of the females in both Othello and Goodnight Desdemona was to become a problem for the main character. Desdemona is the main female character in Othello and she plays a major role in Goodnight Desdemona, and even though they are different roles in each play she is still the cause of major plot developments in both.
Desdemona was the faithful wife of Othello in Shakespeare’s play. She was kindhearted and wished for all to be well with the male characters, and it is her sympathy towards Cassio which made Iago’s lies more credible. It is her naïve nature that made her an easy target for the antagonist in the play. Desdemona does not have a deep character; she is defined as Othello’s wife, Brabanzio’s daughter and the object of the male character’s affections. In Goodnight Desdemona, she takes on a very different character. It was as Igor Djordjevic says in his paper Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet): from Shakespearean tragedy to postmodern satyr play, both Othello and Iago, the most important male characters in Othello, lost their central roles.When Constance entered the picture, Desdemona took on the role of the jealous spouse, and Othello had less importance as a character but more importance as Desdemona’s husband. It seemed that Ann- Marie MacDonald wanted to give more power to Desdemona as a character by making her aggressive and driven. She had a goal and she was going to accomplish it; so in essence, she was actively seeking confrontation. This is in stark contrast to Othello, where she was avoiding confrontation and was defensive while trying to smooth over the arising issues. As a character quick to the offense in Good Night Desdemona, she has no qualms about becoming violent. This is demonstrated when she tells Constance, “If thou wouldst know thyself an Amazon, acquire a taste for blood” and “Thou shall be eaten alive in Cyprus, Con. Learn to kill.” (Pg 32) This is more like Othello’s role in the original play, which is to act in violence before fully understanding the situation.
Even though Desdemona may seem more powerful and outspoken in Goodnight Desdemona, she is still a weak character who is easily manipulated in both plays, whether it is by Iago or her own emotions. In Othello, she is weak in the sense that she is unable to defend herself against her husband’s claims or his anger at the end of her life. She is also unable to realize that it is her behavior towards Cassio which is further contributing to Othello’s anger. She does not seem to think about her actions; instead she simply behaves exactly how Iago thinks she will based off her predictable nature. This lack of critical thinking on her part may have contributed to her demise. In Goodnight Desdemona, she is driven and goal oriented, however she is a slave to her emotions. She does not think through her assumptions about Constance, which leads her to trouble later, and her brashness is shown quite well in this passage, “I’ll split her head upon a pike for daws to peck at.” (pg 42) She says this during a conversation with Iago, where he is telling her to prove Constance’s guilt before acting and Desdemona is deciding what she is going to do to rid herself of the intruder. However, Desdemona is quite set on exacting her punishment on Constance before even being sure of the truth of the situation. This is a brash decision based off of raw emotion. It is the same type of thinking that Othello experienced in Shakespeare’s play. Desdemona is able to sacrifice everything for her love of her husband. It is as Carol Rutter mentioned in her article Unpinning Desdemona (Again) or “Who would be toll’d with Wenches in a shrew?” when she said, “it’s discovered that it’s women—not men—who are loyal in love (and heartbreakingly, suicidally so…” The women of Shakespeare’s plays as well as the ones in Goodnight Desdemona are very loving people and it inevitably leads to them becoming weak and tragic characters. The femininity of these characters led them to be loving and nurturing women but in the big picture, it became a weakness.
In Othello, Desdemona is a very feminine character. She is described as a daughter and a wife. Her role is determined by her relationship to the male characters, and her behaviour is directed by the males as well. She cares about the other characters in the play and goes out of her way to try to help them and spare their feelings. Even when she and Othello were not on the best of terms, Desdemona was adamant in trying to do what she believed to be the right thing, which is evidenced when she explains, “ Yes, faith, so humbled that he hath left parts of his grief with me to suffer with him. Good love call him back…shall I deny you?” (Pg 794-795) Even with Othello’s dark mood and the result the discussion would have on their relationship, Desdemona was not happy with just bringing up Cassio to her husband. She kept bringing him up, and asked numerous times when they would speak. She was blinded by her idea of what was right for her friend, and that caused her to not take into account what was right for her husband.
Carol Rutter’s description of Desdemona was very interesting; she said, “Simultaneously, though, it rebukes that gaze and breaks the heart, for spectators know what Desdemona intuits, that the innocent wife is undressing for an adulterer’s death. Scenically, then, the work that 4.3 performs visibly enacts the oxymoron that Desdemona—and all women?—are supposed to inhabit: fair devils, civil monsters, cold as alabaster but hot as monkeys.” This explains Desdemona as the character she is in comparison to the character her husband believes she is. The unpinning of Desdemona does show her femininity and in the same manner, her vulnerability. She is constantly displayed as the weak female in the play.
At the mercy of the decisions of the males around her, Ann-Marie MacDonald takes a very different approach. She depicts Desdemona as a more masculine character. She is brash and violent, behaving like her husband did in the original play. She talks of how women must be able to defend themselves and think in a black and white manner, namely what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong. She seems unable to comprehend that there are situations in between the extremes, “Gird thou thy trembling loins, and slay professor Night!” (pg 37.) Here she is trying to convince Constance that the right thing to do is to slay her enemy, Professor Night, because it will make her feel better. This is not how Desdemona behaves or thinks in the other play, and as the men’s roles have been diminished it seemed that Desdemona became a more masculine central figure. Djordjevic describes Desdemona’s new character when he says, “MacDonald completely reinvents Desdemona, and her character is virtually everything Shakespeare's heroine is not. She is loud, tempestuous, violent, and generally unafraid of anyone or anything…Desdemona's character also fits the humorous recipe of the gap between expectation and performance, and symbolically acts as the "woman of action" aspect of the Jungian Trinity.” He explains how she takes on some of her husband’s roles as adventurous and demanding, which was necessary as the other characters take a lesser role in this play.
However, just as her femininity was a weakness in Othello, this masculinity is also a weakness. She is still unable to think beyond the immediate situation and it leads to problems. She is still obsessed with what is right, but she has a different, more violent view upon what right is exactly.
Desdemona is not a very complex character, even though she is the cause of most of the complexities of both plays. It is her simple mindedness and inability to think critically which leads her to trouble no matter what her train of thought is, whether it is innocent and helpful as in Othello, or brash and violent like in Goodnight Desdemona. She is inevitably at the root of the problems in both stories and it would have only taken some fresh thinking in either play to save her from a lot of heartache. However that was not her role; instead she was meant to cause issues. It was her character’s naivety which allowed Iago to manipulate almost everybody and drive the story forward.
Djordjevic, Igor. “Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet): From Shakespearean Tragedy to Postmodern Satyr Play.” Comparative Drama. 37.1 (2003): 89-115.
MacDonald, Ann-Marie. Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet). Toronto: Random House, 1990.
Rutter, Carol. “Unpinning Desdemona (Again) or 'Who Would Be Toll'd with Wenches in a Shew?'” Shakespeare Bulletin: A Journal of Performance Criticism and Scholarship. 28.1 (2010): 111-132.