Leontes is the King of Sicily. When he wrongfully suspects his pregnant wife, Hermione, is cheating on him with his best friend, King Polixenes, he goes berserk – he plots the murder of his old pal, puts his wife on trial for adultery, and then later orders one of his men to ditch his newborn daughter in the wilderness. In other words, Leontes’s wild jealousy turns him into a tyrant for the first three acts of the play, and his behavior destroys everything that matters in his life: family and friendship.
The thing to know about Leontes’s jealousy is that its onset is pretty sudden. One minute Leontes is asking his wife to convince his best childhood friend to extend his vacation in Sicily and the next moment he’s interpreting his wife’s kindness toward his friend as “proof” of her infidelity. Watching his wife banter with Polixenes, who has taken her hand in a friendly gesture, Leontes suddenly says “Too hot, too hot!” and interprets the platonic hand holding as “paddling palms and pinching fingers” (1.2.11). From then on, it’s all downhill. Leontes continues to manufacture “evidence” of Hermione’s affair out of nothing more than friendly banter and polite gestures.
So, is Leontes’s just “crazy,” or is there something else going on here? If we think about Leontes’s overall attitude toward women, we may find some clues about where his jealousy comes from. After convincing himself that Hermione is unfaithful, he says that “many a man there is” that has been cheated on by his wife, and he implies that most women are promiscuous by nature (1.2.18). (We’ve heard this kind of thing before, haven’t we? Hamlet and Othello make the same kinds of assumptions.) In one of his most paranoid moments, Leontes uses a military metaphor to describe infidelity:
No barricado for a belly; know't;
It will let in and out the enemy
With bag and baggage: many thousand on's
Have the disease, and feel't not. How now, boy! (1.2.18)
When Leontes says there’s “no barricado [defense] for a belly,” he’s basically saying there’s no way for a man to guard his wife from being penetrated by enemy forces (other men). Clearly, Leontes is paranoid about whether the child in his pregnant wife’s “belly” is actually his. It also seems that this misogynistic attitude has been lurking beneath the surface all along. In the jealous king’s mind, all women are sexually promiscuous and dishonest, so, according to this skewed logic, it follows that his Hermione must be promiscuous too.
If you’ve read Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, you’re probably wondering if Leontes is trying to beat out Othello for the “most jealous husband of the year" award, right? Good thinking. Both Leontes and Othello suspect their innocent wives of sexual infidelity and their violent responses destroy their families and upset the political balance.
The differences, however, are pretty significant. Unlike Othello, Leontes convinces himself of his wife’s “affair” all on his own – there’s no Iago figure whispering in his ear and goading him along. (If anything, Leontes is his own Iago.) More importantly Leontes’s abuse of his family is not entirely permanent, unlike Othello’s. After losing Mamillius and hearing that his wife is also dead, Leontes repents and, after sixteen long years of suffering, Leontes is miraculously reunited with his wife and long-lost daughter. Leontes’s redemption is much more optimistic than Othello’s tragic fate, don’t you think?
Leontes’s childhood friendship with Polixenes may also offer some clues about Leontes’s jealousy. The relationship between Leontes and Polixenes is portrayed as a pure bond that developed during the innocence of childhood and was interrupted by an adolescent interest in women and sex. Check out what Polixenes says about the childhood BFFs:
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. (1.2.10)
According to Polixenes, when he and Leontes played together, they were like “twinn’d (identical) lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,” which is a very sweet way to describe the “innocence” and joy of a carefree childhood friendship. Polixenes goes on to say that they would not even have been “guilty” of original sin if they had remained young and innocent. Note: The doctrine of “original sin” (a.k.a. the “doctrine of “ill doing”) is the idea that all human beings are born tainted because Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. In other words, Polixenes suggests that he and Leontes would have remained innocent if they hadn’t grown up to become interested in sex (“stronger blood” means “sexual passion”) and girls (like Hermione and Polixenes’s wife). According to this passage, sex and women mark the end of childhood. They’re also the very things that have come between Polixenes and Leontes’s friendship bond. For Leontes, whose adult relationship with Polixenes is characterized by rivalry, Hermione is not only disloyal and promiscuous, she’s also come between him and his best friend.