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GoodnightDesdemona (GoodMorningJuliet): FromShakespeareanTragedy to Postmodern Satyr Play Igor Djordjevic Northrop Frye followed in the footsteps ofAristotle and the author ofthe Tractatus Coislinianus in his attempt to define and describe the main aspects of the literary genres in the monumental Anatomy of Criticism. For centuries Aristotle's theory of poetics had been understood asprescriptive instead ofdescriptive; thus any effort to establish a schematic approach to literary theory in the twentieth century—the age of experimentation, rule bending, and wholesale rule breaking—was likely to encounter strong opposition. While there are certain limitations to Frye's schematic system in dealing with many modern and postmodern works that defy classification into any genre, it is precisely the clear delineation of subcategories and elements within the genres that promotes his theory as the most useful in a study of works that either are based upon a prescriptive view of poetics or are contemporary revisions of such works. I am not suggestingthat Shakespeare's notions about dramatic genres were shaped byAristotle's Poetics, or that he would have necessarily understood them as prescriptive; equally, I am not suggesting that AnnMarie MacDonald necessarily relied on Frye's theory to write her play. I am merely taking Aristotle as an example of a generic theory which, while it maynot have directlyinfluenced English Renaissance playwrights or Shakespeare himself, certainly resonates with Horace's much-read Art ofPoetry and is exemplified in the much-imitated tragedies ofSenecatwo crucial literary forces whose authority during the early modern period became the foundation of the future prescriptive and rigid 89 90Comparative Drama understanding of genre theory. In a similar fashion, Frye's work is the besttwentieth-centuryexample ofa schematic approach to literarytheory that many understood as prescriptive, and it is, because of his appropriation of Aristotelian terminology, a perfect complement to Aristotle's Poetics in my comparative analysis of dramatic texts from two eras. For this reason, the full virtuosity and complexity of a postmodern worksuch asAnn-MarieMacDonald's play GoodnightDesdemona (Good MorningJuliet)—which not only revisits two Renaissance narratives,but appropriates them, revises them, and subverts their original genres by defusing the tragic elements and substituting them with comical ones— can be fully appreciated only through an approach based on a literary theory that clearly delineates the characteristics of and boundaries between the genres. Indeed, as Frye himselfpoints out, the boundaries between the genres are anythingbut rigid. Rather,these hazy frontier areas where genres are fluid and merge into one another often become the inspirational playground ofversatile artists like MacDonald who appear to enjoy thumbing their noses at form. Othello and Romeo andJuliet are both tragedies, and because much of the humor of MacDonald's play depends on the audience's acquaintance with the source narratives, and in particular on our understanding of the stories as "tragic," it is necessary first to identify briefly the generic paradigms in the narratives that define them as such. As bothAristotle and Frye point out,tragedy needs primarily a hero or heroine who is superior in degree to other men and women, but not to his/her environment. The destruction ofthe hero is typically a product of hamartia, a Greek term that has been traditionally translated either as a "flaw" in character or an "error" in judgment. Without getting trapped in the debate about the theoretical fallacies bred from the possible mistranslations of hamartia, we can generally accept that tragedy properly deals with an individual and the tragic hero's fall as an individual act, an inevitable outcome of the confrontation with an overwhelming and inscrutable force—be it Fate, the will ofthe gods,the laws of a society, or one's own psyche. Frye explains: Tragedy in the central or high mimetic sense, the fiction of the fall of a leader (he has to fall because that is the only way in which a leader can be IgorDjordjevic91 isolated from his society), mingles the heroic with the ironic.. . The tragic hero has to be ofa properly heroic size, but his fall is involved both with a sense ofhis relation to society and with a sense ofthe supremacy of natural law, both ofwhich are ironic in reference.1 Most importantly, perhaps, Frye identifies another element...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 89-115
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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