Jealousy, famously described as “the green-eyed monster” in the tragedy Othello, has proven to be a theme of perennial interest among Shakespearean scholars. Although commentators acknowledge that jealousy is a contributing element in Shakespeare's characterization of such figures as Richard III and Macbeth, criticism on this theme focuses primarily on two plays: Othello and The Winter's Tale. Uncontrolled sexual jealousy and its tragic consequences are generally viewed as the central thematic concern of the former play, in which both the drama's protagonist, the Moorish general Othello, and his manipulative subordinate Iago are thought to embody jealousy in its most obsessive and superlative dimensions. Sexual jealousy also plays an integral role in the plot of The Winter's Tale. In the romance, jealousy afflicts King Leontes of Sicily, whose unfounded assumption of his wife's infidelity with his childhood friend and fellow monarch Polixenes leads to near disaster and the loss of Leontes's wife and daughter for sixteen years. Outlining some of the major concerns of contemporary critics on the subject of jealousy in Shakespeare's dramas, Katharine Eisaman Maus (1987) surveys the close connection between male sexual jealousy, as it is depicted in Renaissance literature, and issues of gender, marginality, exclusion, and spectatorship. Derek Cohen (1987) explores similar themes in both Othello and The Winter's Tale, specifically regarding the destructive link between patriarchy and male sexual anxiety exhibited by Othello and Leontes, who both abuse their virtuous and honorable wives.

Perhaps no other Shakespearean drama is so dominated by the theme of jealousy as the tragedy of Othello. While a number of other issues are explored in the drama, few commentators deny its detailed, subtle, and varied preoccupation with this motif. Kenneth Muir (1972) concentrates on the figures of Othello and Iago, considering their differing connections to the theme of jealousy. The relationship between Othello and Iago is the topic of Ruth M. Levitsky's essay (1974), in which she contrasts Iago's suspicious, Machiavellian, and ultimately jealous personality with Othello's credulity and Desdemona's virtue. Actor David Suchet, who played the role of Iago for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985, suggests in his 1988 essay that this character's somewhat obscure motivation to do evil originates in his envious reactions to the other principal figures of the play. Feminist theory and psychoanalysis inform Edward A. Snow's (1980) study of Othello's sexual anxiety and jealousy. Snow contends that a male-dominated social order conditions Othello's uncontrolled emotions of guilt and desire, feelings that become manifest in his violent and jealous rage toward his wife. Michael W. Shurgot (1992) articulates a similar view by focusing on the striking imagery of Othello's possessive, objectifying, and grotesque verbal references to Desdemona. Millicent Bell (see Further Reading) offers an alternative interpretation of jealousy in Othello. Acknowledging that sexual jealousy is the principal subject of the drama, Bell nevertheless contends that it is actually a device Shakespeare employed to emphasize an epistemological theme associated with Othello's paradoxical reliance on and distrust of appearances.

Critical interest in the figure of King Leontes of The Winter's Tale has principally focused on his sudden, seemingly unjustified fit of sexual jealousy. Suspecting his wife Hermione of marital infidelity with his friend Polixenes, Leontes assumes he has been cuckolded and subsequently denies the legitimacy of his daughter based on little or no readily observable evidence. Twentieth-century debate over whether or not Leontes's jealousy is properly motivated remains one of play’s central areas of controversy, and a number of contemporary scholars offer explanations for the king's strange, somewhat implausible behavior. Representing a minority opinion, Norman Nathan (1968) maintains that Leontes's swift attack of jealousy may have been provoked by his perception of sexual innuendo in the banter between Hermione and Polixenes. Most contemporary commentators, however, have generally categorized Leontes's jealousy as a kind of temporary madness. Murray M. Schwartz (1973) contends that Shakespeare's text offers no significant external cause for jealousy, but that a psychoanalytic understanding of Leontes's paranoid and delusional behavior over the course of The Winter's Tale suggests an overall dramatic consistency. J. P. Thorne (see Further Reading) finds additional support for this point of view in the peculiar, ungrammatical stylistic syntax of the Sicilian king's speeches in the first act of the drama. Richard H. Abrams (1986) also favors an explanation that ties Leontes's jealousy to his abandonment of reason, which is later recovered in his reconciliation with Hermione and his daughter Perdita at the end of the play.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Derek Cohen (essay date September 1987)

SOURCE: Cohen, Derek. “Patriarchy and Jealousy in Othello and The Winter's Tale.Modern Language Quarterly 48, no. 3 (September 1987): 207-23.

[In the following essay, Cohen compares the jealousy of Othello with that of King Leontes of The Winter's Tale, examining their fantasies of wifely infidelity and their need to regain social control and status through murderous sacrifice.]

By accusing their wives of sexual infidelity, Othello and Leontes give themselves a desperately needed motive for expressing in words what they both love and fear—the image of their wives making love to other men. They transform sexual agony into an instrument of...

(The entire section is 6588 words.)

Katharine Eisaman Maus (essay date autumn 1987)

SOURCE: Maus, Katharine Eisaman. “Horns of Dilemma: Jealousy, Gender, and Spectatorship in English Renaissance Drama.” ELH 54, no. 3 (autumn 1987): 561-83.

[In the following essay, Maus explores the relationship between sexual jealousy and the performance of theatrical spectacle in the English Renaissance, with particular emphasis on Shakespearean drama, notably Othello.]

The cuckoo then, on every tree
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

(Love's Labor's Lost, 5.2.888-92)

Anxiety about sexual betrayal pervades the...

(The entire section is 9778 words.)