The Green Eyed Monster

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Green Eyed Monster

The Winter’s Tale rejoins the rep at the RSC this week and this afternoon I will teach a class on it for visiting Midwestern university. For those of you unfamiliar with the story it is about King Leontes who is suddenly struck down with jealousy for his long time friend the king of Bohemia, Polixenes. Between one moment and the next Leontes becomes convinced that his friend has been having an affair with his wife Hermione. The corrosive nature of his jealousy leads to the imprisonment and seeming death of his wife and their daughter, a murder plot against his best friend, the death of his young son and his own ruin. Though the play ends happily it is a long hard road for all the characters.

Shakespeare often wrote about jealousy. He portrays it as the driving force of both comedies and tragedies. It is the poetic impetus for many of his sonnets. It makes Othello kill his wife, it motivates men to kill for power, it makes Kate hate her sister Bianca and it provides Helena with some moving lines in A Midsummer Nights Dream.

Helena is in love with Demetrius, who only has eyes for Helena’s friend Hermia. Of course Helena is jealous of Hermia and wishes she could have her beauty. When Hermia calls Helena fair [beautiful] Helena is struck by the irony of that compliment.

Call you me fair? that fair again unsay.
Demetrius loves your fair: O happy fair!
Sickness is catching: O, were favour so,
Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go;
My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye,
My tongue should catch your tongue’s sweet melody.
Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I’d give to be to you translated.
O, teach me how you look, and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart.

This is one of the most touching moments in the play. What young person has not wished themselves, even for a moment, translated into someone more attractive/successful/desirable? I once saw this performed by some school children of about 10 years old. Helena was played by a rather plain solid girl who was out growing her tight costume, Hermia by a waif like blond. The words struck me so deeply I was moved to tears.

Jealousy is one of the most universal of human emotions, and I will be asking my students this afternoon how they think of jealousy. But how does Shakespeare actually characterise Jealousy? In Othello Shakespeare has Iago compare jealousy to a cat.

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

This is a very apt comparison, for jealousy, one of the most destructive of the emotions, does seem to take pleasure in taunting itself with evidence which supports the jealous notion. The cat that mocks its prey, seeming to let it escape then pouncing again, is like a jealous person who cannot seem to let go of the very thought most painful to them.

And if recent research is correct, scientists have found the part of the brain in which that green eyed monster resides!

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Dino

    I so agree 😀

  • Dino

    One interesting part is where “taking pleasure in someone's misfortune” relates directly with how the brain perceives envy… I see that the feeling of envy cannot be controlled but it's the actions that one should watch out.

  • Dino

    I so agree 😀

  • Dino

    One interesting part is where “taking pleasure in someone's misfortune” relates directly with how the brain perceives envy… I see that the feeling of envy cannot be controlled but it's the actions that one should watch out.

  • Liz Woledge

    Good to hear it! Me too – well on most days anyway. I think there is a Helena in most of us…

  • Liz Woledge

    Yes, most of us have felt jealous at one time or another, but most of us don’t kill someone because of it! That was a gift of Shakespeare’s to take the human and ordinary and to push it to its limits. Most of us have felt ambition but we are not all Macbeth. Most of us have grieved, but we are not all Hamlet…

  • melissaleon

    It is interesting how jealousy takes hold of our lives. I find the jealously in Othello most disturbing. I myself can sometimes act irrationally when jealous it is quite a process to tame those tendencies in ourselves. Great post as usual!

  • Notzarina Reevers

    Brililant blog, and touching part about your response to Helen and Hermia. I remember a similar feeling as a teenager seeing it performed. I have since learned to love the 'Helena' in me!

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