William Shakespeare Jealousy - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)


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.

Derek Cohen (essay date September 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.)

Kenneth Muir (essay date 1972)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8747 words.)

Ruth M. Levitsky (essay date summer 1974)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3356 words.)

Edward A. Snow (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11699 words.)

David Suchet (essay date 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8145 words.)

Michael W. Shurgot (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3350 words.)

Norman Nathan (essay date winter 1968)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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....

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Murray M. Schwartz (essay date fall 1973)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 entire section is 8398 words.)

Richard H. Abrams (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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)...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


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,...

(The entire section is 480 words.)