Jealousy – Leontes and Othello

November 29, 2011

Columbus, MS, Culture

Jealousy, despite its reputation as the green-eyed monster, destroyer of lives and marriages, has been an important survival feature for men, women, kings, and commoners.  Men have been jealous because they want to be sure – or as sure as they can be – about the paternity of their children.  Women have been jealous because once they have found what they consider a proper mate, they want to keep him so that his protection of her and the family are assured.

Society has changed, and it doesn’t matter to women if they keep their man since they can survive quite well on their own or find another; nor does it matter to men who are not concerned as much with rights of succession and accession to the throne. If they are not convinced that a child is not theirs, they too can move on.

It is difficult to give up patterns of behavior, however, which must have started in pre-history and which only now, because of economic and social equality, are losing their reason for being.  We are still jealous, often as insanely jealous, even though we do not have economic or social reasons for being so.  It is as if jealousy was hardwired in us long ago for the purpose of natural selection, and we cannot help ourselves but be suspicious of our mates.

Which is why Shakespeare’s plays Othello and The Winter’s Tale hold such interest.  We have all been there.  We know what it is like to suspect infidelity, to picture our lovers in bed with others, to imagine the details of seduction, intercourse, and satisfaction.  Although we men are not as concerned with paternity as a financial issue, we still want to avoid being cuckolded at all costs.  It is now an issue of power and male pride, and we still can plot and murder if we suspect infidelity, and certainly plot and murder if our suspicions are confirmed.

Othello is interesting and compelling because it explores the nature of jealousy as well as the familiar descent into madness and the eating of oneself from within.  It is fascinating just because we cannot really understand how a man like Othello – a military genius and hero, a respected citizen, an honored man, one with confidence, a decision-making ability under fire – can so easily succumb to unfounded jealousy.  Some have suggested that Iago was simply a very villainous villain – that is, someone with perverse talents, without real motive, beyond good and evil, who simply enjoys the intellectual gymnastics of plotting and the blood-lust of victory.

Others have said that Othello himself is at fault – he was too much a military man, too trusting of his fellows-in-arms (like Iago), used to order-and-obey and ill-versed in the more normal deciphering of human emotions that society rewards.  Still others have said that Desdemona was the problem, although for no fault of her own.  Othello could not handle her forthright sexuality.  He was, despite his field experience, a novice in affairs of the heart.  In any case, all three contributed to his tragic downfall.

The case of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale is even more intriguing, because the jealousy is first expressed in the very first scenes of the play, but there is no clear reason for it.  In Othello, the plot develops gradually, and as each character and each interaction is explored, we learn more, and have more reasons to surmise the reasons for Othello’s jealousy.  We ask why in both plays, but the investigation is more difficult in the case of Leontes.

Early critics, like Hazlitt, and even Modern ones like Mark Van Doren, do not even discuss the motives for Leontes’ jealousy, preferring to focus on the second half of the play, the pastoral epic comedy played out by Florizel and Perdita.  Post-modern critics like Bloom and especially A.D. Nuttall do indeed spend considerable effort at deconstructing the text and deciphering the indirect clues that it leaves.  Both critics hone in on the early adolescent friendship of Leontes and Polixenes, the man he suspects has cuckolded him.  Nuttall is convinced that there had to be a homosexual relationship between the two, an innocent romp in a latter Garden of Eden.  As Polixenes describes it:

We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d
That any did. Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher rear’d
With stronger blood, we should have answer’d heaven
Boldly ‘not guilty;’ the imposition clear’d
Hereditary ours. Act I.ii

Nuttall refers to J.I.M. Stewart in Character and Motive in Shakespeare who suggested that the very first lines of the play spoken by two courtiers who observe that there was absolutely nothing in the relationship for malice to seize on (I.i.33).  “The method here”, says Nuttall is analogous to that of the rhetorical occulatio, in which an idea is dropped into the listener’s mind and then ostentatiously withdrawn or minimized”.

Nuttall offers an even more compelling reason:

Readers of Freud will have already formed an explanation of this outburst [against Hermione].  Leontes cannot bear to see Polixenes…responding to an attractive lady, to his wife when he had got nowhere.  The only thing to do with this violent emotion, which cannot be expressed in its primary form, is to project it as guilt, onto Hermione (Shakespeare The Thinker).

This makes a lot of sense, for I have always assumed that Hamlet’s real motivation for killing the usurper king, his uncle, was because of a jealous hatred for his mother, Gertrude, who had slept with him.  Hamlet was jealous of his mother for having slept with his uncle; and he was jealous/envious of his uncle to have succeeded in a sexual liaison with his mother when he was incapable of doing so.

This invidious envy/jealousy is common in men and a frequent theme of Freud – we hate men with a sexual prowess and attractiveness to women greater than ours and at the same time envy them for it.  We transfer our own feelings of inadequacy into hatred for the other.

Bloom (Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human) offers an equally intriguing speculation, suggesting that the love between Leontes and Polixenes was born of an innocence so pure that the friends would even be free from Original Sin if they died (see above quotation).  Anything else but such a purely innocent friendship would be sullied by reality.  Marriage, although necessary, would be a very poor second to adolescent friendship.  In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams draws the same conclusion.  The friendship between Brick and Skipper was of such a pure and innocent nature that marriage could never measure up.  Williams has stated in interviews that Brick was not a homosexual, and that we, the audience, should take Brick’s statements about a noble, true, and pure love at face value.

Bloom has another speculative reason, one which is familiar to anyone who has followed Bloom’s interest in nihilism, Nietzche, and amoral reasoning.

Bloom quotes Leontes in his nihilistic lament:

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh?–a note infallible
Of breaking honesty–horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing. (I.ii.284-96)

Bloom excerpts and repeats the most important:

Why, then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.

Bloom concludes that jealousy may be the only way to create some kind of significance – perverse though it may be – in a meaningless life.  From The Invention of the Human: “The fear that there will not be space enough and time enough for oneself.  Proust charmingly compared the passion of the jealous lover to the zeal of an art historian.  The tyranny of an insatiable curiosity becomes an obsession with the possible, in which one tries to fend off one’s own mortality and thereby risks the hideous immortality of Spenser’s Malbecco:

Yet can he never dye, buy dying lives

And doth himselfe with sorrow new sustaine,

That death and life attonce unto him gives.

And painefull pleasure turnes to pleasing paine.

There dwels he ever, miserable swaine,

Hatefull both to himself, and very wight,

Where he through privy griefe, and horrour vaine,

Is waxen so deform’d, that he has quight

Forgot he was a man, and Gealosie is hight.”

I am not so sure about this one.  I follow Bloom in his pursuit of nihilism in Shakespeare, and find it almost as often as he does, but this may be stretching things – a familiar case of an academic who has staked part of his reputation on an idea, and therefore dutifully bound to find examples of it throughout an author’s work.  I do not deny the nihilism, and like Bloom wonder why it is so eloquently expressed in the jealousy part of the play; but to link the two?  Hmmmm….

As I have mentioned earlier, The Winter’s Tale is a play in two parts – one, a powerful psychological drama; and the second a romantic comedy with familiar disguises, lost and found children (see Coriolanus), pastoral weddings, and marriage which resolves all.  As a comedy, the second half cannot compare with Shakespeare’s full-blown comedies such as As You Like It.  Perdita is charming, but she is not Rosalind.  Florizel is simple and deserving, but without much character.  The first part, however, is worth the price of admission.  Nowhere are there such passionate lines about jealousy:

Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour: nay, there’s comfort in’t
Whiles other men have gates and those gates open’d,
As mine, against their will. Should all despair
That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind
Would hang themselves. Physic for’t there is none;
It is a bawdy planet, that will strike
Where ’tis predominant; and ’tis powerful, think it,
From east, west, north and south: be it concluded,
No barricado for a belly; know’t;
It will let in and out the enemy
With bag and baggage: many thousand on’s
Have the disease, and feel’t not. How now, boy! (I.ii.190-207)

I particularly like:

Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour:

I sure wish I could have written that!

— Ron Parlato is a writer living in Washington, DC. He has close ties with Columbus which he visits frequently.  His writings on literature, politics and culture, travel, and cooking can be found on his own blog,

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