Here and there – Envy and Jealousy in Shakespeare



Cuckoo, cuckoo – O word of fear

Unpleasing to a married ear.  (Love’s Labour Lost, 5.2)


  1. Introduction

You are jealous if you think that someone you love loves someone else. You envy someone if you think that they are doing better than you.  The OED is more prosaic.  For ‘envy’ we get ‘mortification and ill-will occasioned by the contemplation of another’s superior advantages.’  For ‘jealous’ we get ‘having the belief, suspicion or fear that the good which one desires to gain or keep for oneself has been or may be diverted to another on account of known or suspected rivalry.’

The two notions or emotions are distinct, but they overlap.  In each case you feel or sense unfairness.  You feel like you have not been treated fairly.  You are not getting what you deserve to get.  You may feel that you have been cheated out of your entitlement.

Envy involves a kind of longing; jealousy involves a kind of fear; and there may be different moral consequences for each emotion.  If I am jealous of someone I love, I fear that they may betray me.  My faith in that person is being put to the test.  I am, in the words of Scripture, sure of what I hope for, but I am not certain of what I do not see.

You will see both envy and jealousy at work if you give two of your children presents for Christmas that are obviously unequal – one feels cheated of your affection, and is upset that the other is doing so much better.  In that kind of family setting, there is an implied premise of fairness, and if that translates to the community at large, you can sense the unease opening up because of the frightful inequality in the distribution of wealth and income.

In Paradise Lost, the original sin may have come from Satan’s anger with God for dividing the godhead and by putting his son above the angels.  Satan is jealous of the son, and he envies Adam and Eve for their innocence and beauty.  In the end, in the words of the poet, ‘all hell breaks loose’ because of both the envy and jealousy of Satan.  Both emotions drive him to commit acts of evil.

In Othello, Iago feels jealousy toward both Othello and Cassio for their standing, and for the preferment of Cassio, but he also envies Cassio for his goodness.

… If Cassio do remain,

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly (5.1.18 – 20)

When Satan is confronted with a good angel, he –

…felt how awful goodness is, and saw

Vertue in her shape how lovly, saw, and pin’d

His loss; but chiefly to find here observed

His lustre visibly impaired.  (4.847 – 850)

The sight of Adam and Eve has a similar effect.  When he first sees them having it off- ‘Imparadis’t in one anothers arms’ – his first words are ‘O Hell!’  Before we got:

……aside the Devil turned

For envie, yet with jealous leer maligne

Eyed them askance…..(4.502 – 504)

When you are confronted with someone much better than you, you feel diminished.  Just look at how poor Salieri felt diminished by Mozart.  In the worst case of envy, the result may be that the person diminished feels they have no option but to seek to destroy their better.  (Some suspected Salieri of just that.)  The comparison strikes at their very self, their identity, all that they have ever stood for.  In that case, the insult is mortal.  This was the reaction of Satan to the arrival of the Son:

……… he of the first,

If not the first archangel, great in power,

In favor and pre-eminence, yet fraught

With envy against the Son of God, that day

Honored by his great Father, and proclaimed

Messiah King anointed, could not bear

Through pride that sight, and thought himself impaired.

Deep malice thence conceiving and disdain……(5.659-666)

You will notice that in both the envy of Adam and Eve and the jealousy of the Son, the result is that Satan felt ‘impaired’.

In jealousy, there is a felt breach of trust, a sense of betrayal, which inflames as much as it wounds.  If the rival for your affection is a person close to you, then you have a double betrayal.  And the result may well be Vesuvial – as it was in A Winter’s Tale.

We saw that the OED referred twice to suspicion in ‘jealousy’.  Suspicion and intrigue play a bigger part in jealousy, because the move in rivalry is commonly concealed.  Not many circles allow a man to say ‘I want to bed your wife’.  Envy operates on known facts – indeed the envy increases with the spread of knowledge of the seen superiority.  But in either case, there is likely to be a sense of betrayal that leads to bitterness and a felt need for revenge..

And in the case of a man having another man bed his wife, the affront to amour propre can be mortal.  This is deep Freud country.  ‘Have you considered the possibility that not only were you unable to keep her, you were unable to satisfy her?’  Our language has no feminine counterpart to being ‘unmanned’.  And hitting a man below the belt can lead to hurt and injury and collapse in a way that women have no knowledge or experience of.

Let us then look at some of this in four characters of Shakespeare – Ford, Leontes, Cassius, and Othello.

2.Frank Ford

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a cross between a middle class sit-com and a bedroom farce.  The hold of the middle class then on status was very brittle.  That meant that face was all important.  This may be the only play that Shakespeare did not have a prior source to base his plot on, but the main themes, including that of the jealous husband, had been standard fare since the time of commedia dell’ arte (I Gelosi).  As Tony Tanner remarked, ‘Being robbed, being cuckolded, and being duped are all forms of that great bourgeois dread – theft.’  Everyone in the play ‘cozens, is cozened, or both.’  Falstaff was born to be ‘a cheater’.

In one of his more deranged moments, Falstaff thinks that Ford’s wife has given him ‘the leer of invitation.’  He boasts of this to Ford in disguise as Brooke, and promises ‘You shall have her, Master Brooke…you shall cuckold Ford.’  Not surprisingly, Ford erupts when Falstaff leaves.

What a damned Epicurean rascal is this! My heart is ready to crack with impatience. Who says this is improvident jealousy?  My wife hath sent to him; the hour is fixed; the match is made. Would any man have thought this? See the hell of having a false woman! My bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at; and I shall not only receive this villanous wrong, but stand under the adoption of abominable terms, and by him that does me this wrong….
Cuckold! Wittol!–Cuckold! the devil himself hath not such a name. Page is an ass, a secure ass: he will trust his wife; he will not be jealous. I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself; then she plots, then she ruminates, then she devises; and what they
think in their hearts they may effect, they will break their hearts but they will effect.  God be praised for my jealousy
(2.3. 287 – 308).

There you see the shame of being a cuckold.  Falstaff seeks to use fraud on the wives with an almost lunatic egoism; both Ford and the wives practise fraud on Falstaff; both the wives and Ford are lied to.  But even allowing for the near lunacy of Falstaff, Ford was entitled to suspect someone was after his wife.  Page may have been able to laugh it all off, but could you blame Ford for being different?  The Welsh parson cautions Ford to ‘not follow the imaginations of your own heart.  This is jealousies.’  But, as the saying goes, even paranoiacs have real enemies.

Frank Ford has not had a good press.  He is held up to ridicule.  But jealousy is very natural.  A dog can show it if you invade the space of his master – even more so when it is another dog doing the invading.  A healthy jealousy might save a union; a perceived indifference might kill it.  And you might cause quite a stir if as a tutor on Shakespeare at Cambridge you were to suggest that someone could sleep with your wife and you could feel no sense of jealousy.  That may well sound downright unnatural, and not just among the matrons.

  1. Leontes

There was a western – I forget its name – where a rich bad guy (Ralph Bellamy) hires a professional (Lee Marvin) to retrieve a gorgeous woman (Claudia Cardinale) from other bad guys.  (If they did not include Jack Palance or Eli Wallach, they should have.)  At the end, Marvin welshes on the deal because Bellamy is a jerk.  Bellamy calls Marvin a bastard.  He gets this bell-ringer back.  ‘That’s OK.  With me, it’s an accident of birth.  But you are a self-made man.’

That is exactly the case with Leontes.  His descent into jealousy makes Othello look slack – but Iago had a lot of luck on his side.  His descent is almost entirely self-propelled.  It appears to come from nowhere.

This playwright considered the arrival of a woman between two male friends in Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Winter’s Tale, and Two Noble Kinsmen.  The invasion of an intimate state can be as testing as a woman marrying an only son.  The occasion is ripe for jealousy of the invader.  But if one of the two male friends marries, and he then suspects his friend of having bedded his wife, then we have double the betrayal and a possible nuclear reaction.

That is just what we get in A Winter’s Tale.  Leontes and Polyxenes have been friends since childhood.  That was their golden age.  Each could have stayed that way forever (‘boy eternal’).  They are like those old boys who regret getting out of short pants.  Leontes has been unable to persuade Polyxenes to extend his stay, but Hermione does so with ease.  Polyxenes romances about their childhood and loss of innocence on growing up.

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.  (1.2.81 – 89).

And then, a little later, Hermione makes a wistful reference to Polyxenes as ‘for some while a friend’ and Leontes explodes instantaneously picking up Polyxenes reference to ‘blood’.

[Aside] Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances;
But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent; ‘t may, I grant;
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practised smiles,
As in a looking-glass, and then to sigh, as ’twere
The mort o’ the deer; O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows! Mamillius,
Art thou my boy?  (1.2.132 – 144)

A throwaway remark and blameless byplay leads to heart palpitations immediately.  And – this is important – the RSC editors (Bate and Rasmussen) say ‘mingling bloods’ is a ‘process believed to occur during sex, since semen was assumed chiefly to be composed of blood.’  So, after four words and one !, we are back among the enseamèd sheets that nearly sent Hamlet mad.

Now to a layman this looks like an illness – it looks pathological – and it is one of those dreadful illnesses where the victim cannot see that he is ill – that is all part of the infection.  (I have a recollection that before Anthony Sher played the part, he consulted psychiatrists who said that the symptoms described by Shakespeare were spot on.)  As Jonathon Bate remarks, the dramatic interest is in ‘the tendency of human beings who have fallen into holes to dig themselves ever deeper’.  For that reason alone, some adviser to the present President of the U S (November, 2019) should suggest that he heed the advice of Clausewitz On War and avoid reinforcing a losing position.

5 thoughts on “Here and there – Envy and Jealousy in Shakespeare

    • A friend who does know Shakespeare wrote:
      When I was teaching in a bush school in 1967-8, a Lutheran farm boy. Darryl, in Form 3 General Farming (I think that’s called Year 9 now) submitted a film review as his weekly essay. I have kept it. It reads:

      ‘On Saturday at Horsham Drive-In I saw a great Western called “The Professionals”. It had lots of scenes of men behind one lot of rocks firing at other men behind another lot of rocks. And the best thing was, Claudia Cardinale who is very beautiful didn’t come into it until nearly the end.’


  1. You’re right. I was thinking of The War Wagon. I think that may have been the Western where John Wayne and Kirk Douglas were guns for hire. The bad guy wanted to get one to kill the other. He sends out two goons who don’t realize they are talking to the target as well as the hit man. Quite stupidly, they decide to try to take the two of them on their own. They are of course put away in straight sets. As Kirk Douglas holsters his weapon, he says ‘Mine hit the ground first.’ John Wayne blows the smoke from his and says: ‘Mine as taller.’
    I could be wrong, but I recall plenty of tooting at the Moorabbin drive-in .

  2. Here’s a coincidence. The War Wagon featured Robert Walker jr (son of Robert sr – the brilliant Bruno in Strangers on a Train) who died on the day you wrote that comment.
    TWW was also one of the very few times John Wayne played a baddie.

    Claudia Cardinale took top billing in my all-time favourite fillum: Once Upon a Time in the West. No mean feat when you consider her colleagues on set in Spain were Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Charles Bronson.

    PS: despite growing up in Brighton, I never made it to the Moorabbin drive-in. Does the Moorabbin Bowl make up for that oversight.

    • The Bowl (that the Police warned me off) would be right up there with the Bloodhouse on the corner of South Road and the Highway or the appalling place further up South Road – South Side Six? While I was cleaning the ceiling in the kitchen at about 2.30 one Sunday morning, I looked down and saw Max staggering out under a side of beef from the fridge. People who got my mates in as industrial cleaners had to put up with collateral damage. Like the idiot in Carlton who abandoned a whole pub to them one Sunday. Walking wounded the next day.

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