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Paris, B.J. (1984). “His Scorn I Approve”: The Self-Effacing Desdemona. Am. J. Psychoanal., 44(4):413-424.

(1984). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 44(4):413-424

Other Voices

“His Scorn I Approve”: The Self-Effacing Desdemona

Bernard J. Paris, Ph.D.

Desdemona is a controversial character whose behavior has been difficult to understand. Is she little less than a saint, or a rebellious daughter who is rightly punished for her deception of her father? A Christ-like martyr, or a guilt-ridden woman who participates in her own victimization? Many critics have been struck by the disparity between her assertive behavior early in the play and her inability to defend herself later. This is the central puzzle of Desdemona's character, but it is by no means the only one. With the possible exception of Cleopatra, Desdemona is Shakespeare's most complex psychological portrait of a woman. Shakespeare's glorification of her as “the divine Desdemona” tends to discourage an examination of her motives; but when we look at her closely, we find that her actions are as extreme as those of lago and Othello and that her character, as well as theirs, contributes to the tragedy. She can be best understood, I think, through Karen Horney's description of the self-effacing person.

As the play opens, Desdemona has just behaved in a way that is quite outrageous from the point of view of her culture. She has fallen in love with a man of a different race, country, and color; and she is so determined to marry him despite what she knows would be Brabantio's opposition that she conceals her intentions and weds without her father's consent. By doing this, she loses her father's affection and deals him such a blow that he soon dies of grief. Brabantio repeatedly characterizes her behavior as unnatural, but the rhetoric of the play works in Desdemona's behalf and lessens the impact of what she has done. The Duke says that Othello's tale would have won his daughter too, and he tells Brabantio that his son-in-law's virtue makes him “far more fair than black” (I, iii). This makes the marriage seem natural and desirable.


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