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
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 passionate blame in a kind of narcissistic adventure that enforces a transcendence of their known selves by actualizing a secret fear. They then transform the imagined sexual infidelity of their wives into a fear of chaos. Because patriarchal social formations invest female sexual fidelity with the responsibility for familial stability, Othello and Leontes comprehend chaos in gendered terms that fortify the ties between misogyny and patriarchy. Kathleen McLuskie has argued that patriarchy, the institution of male power in the family and the state, sees itself “as the only form of social organization strong enough to hold chaos at bay.”1 The patriarchal power structure, however, supports only the illusion that men possess its...
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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, 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 drama of the English Renaissance. Traditionally the material of comedy, cuckoldry or the fear of cuckoldry becomes a tragic theme as well in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: in Heywood's Woman Killed With Kindness, Chapman's Bussy d'Ambois, Ford's Broken Heart, Shakespeare's Othello. Not only does jealousy dominate the plots of many plays, but songs about the cuckolded and the abandoned, jokes and saws about the unreliability of wives and lovers, turn up in other plays on the slightest of pretexts—in Rafe's death scene in Beaumont's Knight of the Burning Pestle, in the song at the beginning of Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday, and so on. In The Tempest, when Miranda learns of...
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Criticism: Jealousy In Othello
SOURCE: Muir, Kenneth. “Othello.” In Shakespeare's Tragic Sequence, pp. 93-116. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1972, Muir concentrates on the figures of Othello and Iago, considering their differing connections to the theme of jealousy in Othello.]
Shakespeare found the plot of Othello in the collection of stories by Cinthio which also contained a variant of the Measure for Measure plot. The story which ends with the murder of Desdemona by a stocking filled with sand in the hands of the Ensign is not at first sight particularly promising as dramatic material. But there were three points about it that seem to have kindled Shakespeare's imagination. After the murder, we are told, the Moor mourned for the loss of his wife, because he had loved her more than his very eyes. Equally significant was Cinthio's description of the villain as
a man of very fine appearance but of the most depraved nature that ever a man had in the world … Although he was a most detestable character, nevertheless with imposing words and his presence, he concealed the malice he bore in his heart, in such a way that he showed himself outwardly like another Hector or Achilles.
Then, thirdly, the virtuous white woman falls in love with a Moor. The consummate hypocrite, the mixed...
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SOURCE: Levitsky, Ruth M. “Prudence versus Wisdom in Othello.” Dalhousie Review 54, no. 2 (summer 1974): 281-88.
[In the following essay, Levitsky contrasts Iago's suspicious, Machiavellian, and ultimately jealous personality with Othello's credulity and Desdemona's virtue.]
In his Redeeming Shakespeare's Words,1 Paul Jorgensen has pointed out how an understanding of contemporary connotations of key words can contribute to a fuller appreciation of certain Shakespearean plays. Recognizing Jorgensen's contribution in tracing the significance of the word “honesty” in Othello, I submit that an investigation of the connotations of another key word—namely, “jealousy”—may further elucidate the characters of Iago, Othello, and Desdemona. If the basic definition of jealousy is seen to be a tendency toward suspicion, then the relation between that word and the term “Machiavellian prudence” becomes clear and consequently the contrast between Iago's kind of wisdom and that of Desdemona.
Othello's fundamental error is in allowing the germ of suspicion to enter into his thoughts, for his love of Desdemona depends upon an absolute faith in her goodness. That the word “jealousy” could connote distrust or suspicion generally—that is, without regard to love, envy or any other emotion—is fully attested to in this play and other works of...
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SOURCE: Snow, Edward A. “Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello.” English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980): 384-412.
[In the following essay, Snow links Othello's jealousy to his psychologically and culturally conditioned feelings of sexual guilt and anxiety.]
We see the ground whereon these woes do lie, But the true ground of all these piteous woes We cannot without circumstance descry.
(Romeo and Juliet, V. iii. 179-81)1
What puzzles the watchman of Romeo and Juliet might doubly confound the audience of Othello. In perhaps no other of Shakespeare play is there such a sense of discrepancy between the visible and the true ground of things. By the end of the play even the language of cause, motive, and reason has become suspect. “It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul; / Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars, / It is the cause” (V. ii. 1-3): the mind speaks like this not to make its motives transparent but to keep them obscure. The insistence on “cause” is here an incantation, not an act of inquiry or discovery but an intense, distracting assertion.
More than Othello's particular madness is implicated in this abuse of reason. Repression pervades the entire world of Othello. The first note of the play, sounded three times in quick succession, is a refusal of knowledge: “Never...
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SOURCE: Suchet, David. “Iago in Othello.” In Players of Shakespeare 2, edited by Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood, pp. 179-99. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
[In the following essay, Suchet, who played the part of Iago with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1995, offers a detailed analysis of the character's motivation, suggesting that it is based on unfounded jealousy.]
David Suchet played Iago in Terry Hands's production of Othello at Stratford in 1985 and in the following season at the Barbican. He first worked for the RSC, of which he is an Associate Artist, in 1973, when his parts included Tybalt, Orlando, and the King of Navarre. Among his numerous roles for the Company since then have been Caliban (on which he wrote for the first Players of Shakespeare collection), Grumio, Bolingbroke in Richard II, Edward IV in Richard III, and Shylock, as well as Herman Glogauer in Once in a Lifetime, first at the Aldwych and later in the West End. Other stage work includes his one-man show The Kreutzer Sonata and most recently Separation, and among numerous film and television appearances are the title roles in Freud and Blott on the Landscape.
The telephone rings. ‘Hello, Terry here.’ Pause. ‘Terry Hands.’ ‘Oh, my God, Terry—hello, how are you?’ ‘Fine—look—I would like to do a...
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SOURCE: Shurgot, Michael W. “Othello's Jealousy and the ‘Gate of Hell.’” Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 96-104.
[In the following essay, Shurgot examines Othello's sexual possessiveness, as indicated by the objectifying imagery of his speech concerning Desdemona.]
For several years I have been alternatively intrigued and horrified by some of Othello's language in Acts III and IV. At III. iii. 270ff, and IV. ii. 57ff, Othello's language not only echoes Iago's bestial attitude towards human sexuality but also suggests something I find horrid in Othello's perception of Desdemona that may be more true of married men than they wish to admit. While I recognize the critical danger of making Othello into a case study, and realize that Othello is an individual character in a particular dramatic setting,1 I would nonetheless like to explore some of the implications of Othello's sexual images and relate these implications to Renaissance and contemporary views of sexual jealousy. I will then try to mold this information and some amateur sociological surveys among my students into a coherent hypothesis about a frightening motif that surfaces in Othello's language once he is convinced that Desdemona has betrayed him.
Most married men, myself included, believe and would assert that they love their wife as a person, and that their love is multi-dimensional: i.e., emotional,...
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Criticism: The Winter's Tale: The Jealousy Of Leontes
SOURCE: Nathan, Norman. “Leontes' Provocation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 19, no. 1 (winter 1968): 19-24.
[In the following essay, Nathan finds that Leontes's jealousy of Polixenes in The Winter's Tale appears quite suddenly, but is nevertheless properly motivated by Shakespeare.]
Perhaps the major scholarly dispute surrounding The Winter's Tale concerns the motivation of Leontes' jealousy. One view holds that his jealousy is sudden and motivated only slightly or not at all.1 Another view maintains that the jealousy existed when the play began. The best way to refute the assertion of a lack of motivation is to present evidence of its existence. The concept that Leontes was jealous when the play began, however, requires some consideration.
Roger J. Trienens says of the crucial second scene, “… Shakespeare … has written this scene on the premise that Leontes is jealous at its very beginning and even for some time antecedent to it.”2 Nevill Coghill admits that the opening scene prepares us “to witness a kingly amity between Sicilia and Bohemia. …”3 Yet Coghill considers this scene as preparation for the shock when the audience discovers in the second scene that amity departed before the play began.
It is clear that Leontes, as in the source-story which Shakespeare was following, has long since...
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SOURCE: Schwartz, Murray M. “Leontes' Jealousy in The Winter's Tale.” American Imago 30, no. 3 (fall 1973): 250-73.
[In the following essay, Schwartz offers a psychological explanation of the sources and motivations for Leontes's jealousy in The Winter's Tale.]
Fatum est in partibus illis quas sinus abscondit.
Criticism of The Winter's Tale discloses an almost uniform denial of significant motivation in the representation of Leontes' jealousy. Norman Holland (in his pre-psychoanalytic criticism) writes: “In fact, [Shakespeare] is really quite perfunctory about the source of trouble; he doesn't even bother to motivate Leontes' jealousy.”1 Frank Kermode thinks that “Shakespeare removes Leontes' motives for jealousy.”2 G. W. Knight, committed to theological notions of Shakespeare's divine inspiration, says “His evil is self-born and unmotivated.”3 A. D. Nutall, to my mind the play's most responsive critic, courts “Freudian” suggestions in the text but tactfully avoids a psychoanalytic reading of Leontes' delusions.4 J. H. P. Pafford, the editor of the Arden edition, states flatly: “Causes of the jealousy are no concern of ours.”5 D. A. Traversi speaks only of “The evil impulse which comes to the surface. …”6...
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SOURCE: Abrams, Richard H. “Leontes's Enemy: Madness in The Winter's Tale.” In Aspects of Fantasy, edited by William Coyle, pp. 155-62. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Abrams probes Leontes's seemingly “causeless, self-begetting jealousy” in The Winter's Tale.]
Just before their duel, Hamlet apologizes to Laertes for his wild behavior at Ophelia's grave by placing the blame on an “enemy” that took over when Hamlet “from himself [was] ta'en away” (V.ii.234).1 This “enemy” in Hamlet's expansion of the figure becomes virtually a possessing demon, like the “unclean spirits” (cacodaemones) said to afflict the mentally ill in a tradition holding from Biblical times to the Middle Ages. In the Renaissance, this view of mental illness was in retreat as evidenced by Shakespeare's broadly satiric portrait of the quack exorcist in Comedy of Errors, and we need not suppose that Hamlet seriously tries to escape responsibility for his actions by disowning the thing of darkness in himself. For though he speaks of reason and its adversary, madness, vying for control of his being, the very facetiousness with which he pursues this figure suggests the presence of a tertium quid—his assumed “antic disposition”—mediating these extremes. His apology to Laertes, which Harry Levin terms “disingenuous,” may have some...
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Bell, Millicent. “Othello's Jealousy.” Yale Review 85, no. 2 (April 1997): 120-36.
Contends that Othello's sexual jealousy is a device Shakespeare employed to emphasize an epistemological theme associated with Othello's paradoxical reliance on and distrust of appearances.
Breitenberg, Mark. “Anxious Masculinity: Sexual Jealousy in Early Modern England.” Feminist Studies 19, no. 2 (summer 1993): 377-98.
Provides a critique of Renaissance patriarchy that includes an examination of Othello's violent allegorization of jealousy.
Byles, Joan M. “The Winter's Tale, Othello and Troilus and Cressida: Narcissism and Sexual Betrayal.” American Imago 36, no. 1 (spring 1979): 80-93.
Offers a psychoanalytic and comparative study of themes of sexual jealousy and betrayal in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, Othello, and The Winter's Tale.
Campbell, Lily B. “Othello: A Tragedy of Jealousy.” In Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion. 1930. Reprint, pp. 148-74. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960.
Highlights the racial and cultural components of Othello's jealousy in Othello.
Danson, Lawrence. “‘The Catastrophe Is a Nuptial’: The Space of Masculine Desire in Othello,...
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