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The Winter's Tale: The Infection of Jealousy

By Stephanie Chidester
From Midsummer Magazine, 1996

 

Shakespeare describes jealousy as a “green-eyed monster” in Othello (3.3.166; all references to line numbers are from The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972]), a figure that a hero might fight and conquer; in The Winter’s Tale, however, he describes it as a disease, an infection which strikes as quickly as the plague and is almost as difficult to eradicate. Before writing The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare had delineated the perils of jealousy not only in Othello, but also in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Cymbeline. The Winter’s Tale reworks the themes of these earlier plays, and its central character seems molded out of Othello’s, Ford’s, and Posthumus’s worst parts.

Like Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Leontes convinces himself, without evidence, that his wife is cuckolding him; like Posthumus in Cymbeline, who, after making a wager that Imogen cannot be seduced, is silly enough (and distrusts his wife enough) to believe that he has lost the bet, Leontes creates the situation which breeds his jealousy; and like both Posthumus and Othello, he sentences his wife to death.

But unlike all three of these characters, Leontes does not seek any more proof than that provided by his “weak-hinged fancy,” as Paulina reminds him (2.3.116 17); and unlike Othello, who needs “some eternal villain, / Some cogging, cozening slave” to chip away at Desdemona’s honor before he can be pushed into a murderous rage (Othello, 4.2.129 31), Leontes neither has nor needs a diabolical misleader--he is “easily jealous” (Othello, 5.2.341), and his own insecurities speed the progress of the infection.

Jealousy strikes Leontes with a suddenness which is rather difficult to comprehend. A modern psychologist might suggest that, with his wife in the later stages of pregnancy, Leontes feels neglected or sexually frustrated. Or perhaps he suspects that his people and his queen like him only because he is king of Sicilia and that Polixenes, also a king, threatens his relationship with Hermione and his subjects.

At any rate, Leontes doesn’t appear to feel secure about his relationships with his wife or his best friend, and it doesn’t help that Hermione’s attention is, of necessity, split between her husband and their noble guest. When Hermione succeeds in cajoling Polixenes into extending his stay in Sicilia, a task at which Leontes had failed, he is understandably disgruntled. But his brain soon leaps to the fevered conclusion that his wife and best friend are lovers; he proffers as proof that they are “paddling palms and pinching fingers, / . . . and making practiced smiles / As in a looking glass” (1.2.115 17), weak evidence at best.

Hermione and Polixenes are, ironically, fondly discussing Leontes’s childhood, Hermione trying to find out more about her husband: “Come, I’ll question you / Of my lord’s tricks, and yours, when you were boys / . . . Was not my lord / The verier wag o’ th’ two?” (1.2.60 1, 65 6). Furthermore, she is only doing what her husband has asked her to. Here, as in Shakespeare’s primary source for The Winter’s Tale, Robert Green’s Pandosto, The Triumph of Time, Leontes asks her to make his dearest friend feel as welcome as possible, a request which he probably first made when Polixenes arrived in Sicilia. “Hermione, / How thou lov’st us, show in our brother’s welcome; / . . . Next to thyself and my young rover, he’s / Apparent to my heart” (1.2.173 74, 176).

But with a wink of Othello’s “green-eyed monster,” Leontes’s good queen becomes in his mind “slippery,” “a hobbyhorse,” “as rank as any flax-wench” (1.2.273 77), and “a bed-swerver” (2.1.93). He has difficulty finding enough derogatory terms to describe her. In Pandosto, Robert Green describes the symptoms of jealousy thus: “All other griefes are eyther to bee appeased with sensible perswasions, to be cured with wholesome counsel, to be relieved in want, or by tract of time to be worne out, (Jealousie only excepted) which is so sawsed with suspitious doubtes, and pinching mistrust, that whoso seekes by friendly counsaile to rase out this hellish passion, it foorthwith suspecteth that he geveth this advice to cover his owne giltinesse” (Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 8, ed. Geoffrey Bullough [New York: Columbia University Press, 1975], 156).

Leontes fits this description precisely; paranoia follows hard upon the onset of the infection. Leontes tells himself that everyone in the court must see what he has seen—his wife’s adultery and his cuckold’s horns—and he imagines that his subjects, rather than bringing this information to their beloved ruler, are “whispering, rounding: / ‘Sicilia is a so-forth’” (1.2.217 18). He believes his people are no longer loyal or honest and that he has become the object of their ridicule. These symptoms become more severe when he finds that no one around him will credit his accusations.

Camillo is the first to contradict him: “I would not be a stander-by to hear / My sovereign mistress clouded so, without / My present vengeance taken; ‘shrew my heart, / You never spoke what did become you less / Than this” (1.2.279 85). After this declaration Camillo drops in Leontes’s esteem from an honest and trusted confidant to “a coward,” “a fool,” “a gross lout, a mindless slave, / Or else a hovering temporizer” (1.2.245, 247, 299 302). And, of course, when Camillo flees to Bohemia, he is pronounced an accomplice to the adultery and declared a “pander” (2.1.46).

Camillo’s betrayal does nothing for Leontes’s failing sense of security; other kings’ courtiers have killed for them without question. But Camillo, first agreeing to kill Polixenes but then warning and running away with his target, reinforces Leontes’s suspicion that his subjects neither respect his authority nor follow where he leads. He even adopts the entirely baseless belief that Polixenes, Camillo, and Hermione have conspired to kill him (2.1.47, 194 96), which he uses as further justification for imprisoning his pregnant wife.

Likewise, when his courtiers refuse to take his word for truth, denying anything adulterous in Hermione’s behavior and swearing that she is honest, Leontes tells Antigonus, the most outspoken of the lords, that he’s either senile or foolish (2.1.173 74), and he begins to doubt everyone: “You’re liars all” (2.3.144).

There is evidence here that Leontes had not previously played the tyrant. Neither Camillo, Antigonus, nor any of the other lords hesitate to contradict him, even after the king’s warning that “he who shall speak for her is afar off guilty” (2.1.104 105). And no sane person, even Paulina, would break into the counsel chambers of a known tyrant, berate him as she does, and expect to leave with her person intact. Leontes is not a king who can command unquestioning obedience in such extraordinary circumstances; his subjects have followed him and his queen out of love and are now frightened by his unusual behavior, and it is their honesty which prompts them to challenge his actions.

Leontes’s courtiers are understandably frustrated and alarmed. The king is the center of Sicilia, and his madness threatens harm to nearly everyone, the most immediate victims being Hermione and young Mamillius. His people swiftly learn the futility of using rational argument to dissuade an increasingly irrational person from a disastrous course of action. Camillo voices his frustration before he abandons his home and his king: “You may as well / Forbid the sea for to obey the moon, / As or by oath remove or counsel shake / The fabric of his folly, whose foundation / Is piled upon his faith, and will continue / The standing of his body” (1.2.427 32). Leontes even ignores Apollo when the oracle sends the message of Hermione’s innocence: “There is no truth at all i’ th’ oracle. / . . . This is mere falsehood” (3.2.137 38).

The disease does not last until his death, as Camillo predicts, but it does take the loss of his young son and (he thinks) his infant daughter and his wife to burn out the infection. The jealousy is removed, but not before it has consumed the greater part of his life.

inally, the play suggests that jealousy is a plague quickly caught and difficult of cure. But, as usual in the romances, Shakespeare ends with the suggestion that health and love are the natural conditions of human beings, while illness and jealousy--however terrible, however long-lasting--cannot be permanent.


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