Study Guide

The Winter’s Tale Jealousy

By William Shakespeare


The heavens continue their loves!
I think there is not in the world either malice or
matter to alter it. (1.1.4)

Shakespeare injects a whole lot of irony into the play when Camillo and Archidamus predict that nothing could ever come between Leontes and Polixenes, who have been best buds since childhood. We know that Leontes's jealousy will break up the friendship (as well as Leontes's family).

[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? (1.2.11)

Out of nowhere, Leontes turns CRAZY jealous at the sight of Polixenes and the pregnant Hermione chatting it up and touching hands. (If you’ve read Romeo and Juliet, you know that hands and fingertips are considered to be erotic appendages, which is why Romeo gets all excited about pressing his palms against Juliet’s.) Although there’s been some suggestion that Leontes and Polixenes are a bit competitive (check out “Friendship” for more on this), we don’t really see this coming, especially given that Hermione is merely entertaining her husband’s childhood friend and Polixenes is being nice to his pal’s wife. Still, Leontes interprets their behavior as that of two secret lovers. When Leontes turns to his young son and says “Mamillius, Art thou my boy?”, we know that Leontes is questioning whether or not he’s the biological father of Mamillius and his unborn child.

We also notice that the quality of Leontes’s speech is affected by his jealousy. Notice all the pauses (marked by commas) in the middle of his lines? This gives his speech a choppy, erratic affect that mirrors his distraught emotional state. Leontes is so worked up about the imaginary affair between his wife and BFF that his speech breaks up and lacks the kind of fluidity that we’ve come to expect from the formerly eloquent king.

Why, that's my bawcock. What, hast
smutch'd thy nose?
They say it is a copy out of mine. Come, captain,
We must be neat; not neat, but cleanly, captain:
And yet the steer, the heifer and the calf
Are all call'd neat.--Still virginalling
Upon his palm!--How now, you wanton calf!
Art thou my calf? (1.2.12)

Now that Leontes suspects Hermione of sleeping with Polixenes, Leontes’s continues to wonder if Mamillius is in fact his son, despite the fact that Mamillius looks just like a “copy” of his dad. This is a pretty strange moment – as Leontes horses around with Mamillius, he keeps one eye on his wife and friend and speaks in veiled terms about being cuckolded (cheated on). For instance, Leontes puns on the word “neat,” which means “clean” (he tells Mamillius they need to be tidy) and also “cattle with horns” (Leontes’s name for Mamillius is “calf”). This is all tinged with sexual meaning. Horns, as we know, are associated with cuckolds, which is exactly what Leontes believes he is.

Thou want'st a rough pash and the shoots that I have,
To be full like me: yet they say we are
Almost as like as eggs; women say so,
That will say anything but were they false
As o'er-dyed blacks, as wind, as waters, false
As dice are to be wish'd by one that fixes
No bourn 'twixt his and mine, yet were it true
To say this boy were like me. Come, sir page,
Look on me with your welkin eye: sweet villain! (1.2.13)

We weren’t kidding earlier when we said that Leontes is obsessed with the idea that Mamillius may not be his son. (He also thinks Hermione is carrying Polixenes’s love child, which is why he later has Perdita abandoned in the countryside.) Here, Leontes notes that a lot of women have commented that Mamillius and Leontes look alike but then he insists that most women are also liars. It seems that Leontes’s view of women may play a role in his (unfounded) jealousy. If Leontes believes that most women are dishonest (socially and sexually), then it’s not so surprising that he would think his wife is deceitful as well.

If you would seek us,
We are yours i' the garden: shall's attend you there?
To your own bents dispose you: you'll be found,
Be you beneath the sky.
I am angling now,
Though you perceive me not how I give line.
Go to, go to!
How she holds up the neb, the bill to him!
And arms her with the boldness of a wife
To her allowing husband! (1.2.15)

Leontes think he’s pretty crafty and suggests that he’s going to catch Hermione and Polixenes in a compromising position. Basically, Leontes refuses Hermione’s invitation to join her and Polixenes in the garden and then uses it as an excuse to build a case (in his mind) against his wife and friend, who are merely being friendly and playful toward each other.

And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in's absence
Whiles other men have gates and those gates open'd,
As mine, against their will. Should all despair
That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind
Would hang themselves. […]
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)

Leontes’s jealousy leads him to conclude that “many a man” has been cheated on by his wife, which implies that most women are promiscuous. He also uses a pretty crude metaphor to describe infidelity when he suggests that a woman’s vagina is like a “gate” that can be penetrated by a military enemy (another man). When he insists there’s “no barricade [defense] for a belly,” he’s basically saying there’s no way for a man to guard his wife’s womb/sexuality. All of this has the effect of turning matters of love and sex into a kind of warfare, which speaks to jealousy’s destructive nature.

Business, my lord? I think most understand
Bohemia stays here longer.
Stays here longer.
Ay, but why?
To satisfy your highness and the entreaties
Of our most gracious mistress.
The entreaties of your mistress! satisfy! (1.2.5)

At Leontes’s prompting, Camillo innocently remarks that everybody knows Polixenes has decided to stay in Sicily because Queen Hermione asked him to. (We should point out that Leontes is the one who asked Hermione convince his friend to stay a while longer in the first place.) When Camillo says Polixenes wanted to “satisfy” Hermione, he means that Polixenes wanted to be polite and make the queen happy by staying in town a little while longer. But Polixenes (deliberately?) misinterprets Camillo – his repetition of the phrase “satisfy!” suggests that Leontes thinks Polixenes has decided to stay in Bohemia in order to sexually gratify Queen Hermione. Poor Camillo has no idea what’s going on and doesn’t realize that he has inadvertently fueled Leontes’s jealousy and suspicion.

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh?--a note infallible
Of breaking honesty--horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that's in't is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing. (1.2.29)

As Leontes’s jealousy builds, he continues to manufacture “evidence” that Hermione and Polixenes are sleeping together. Leontes’s irrational thinking is a lot like that of Othello, the Shakespeare character who kills his wife when he wrongly suspects she’s having an affair. Both men have no real proof of infidelity but they are absolutely convinced that their women are disloyal. One difference between Othello and Leontes, however, is that Othello’s jealousy is fed by Iago, who convinces him of his wife’s “guilt.” Leontes, as we know, convinces himself that his wife is unfaithful.

Good my lord, be cured
Of this diseased opinion, and betimes;
For 'tis most dangerous. (1.2.11)

Here, Camillo urges Leontes to get a grip on his jealousy, which is like a terrible “disease.” The metaphor appears later as well, when Camillo insists that jealousy is a “sickness” that infects everyone around it (1.2.22). This turns out to be true because Leontes’s jealousy destroys his family, his friendship with Polixenes, and his kingdom’s political health (since Sicily is without an heir after Mamillius’s death and Perdita’s abandonment).

Dost think I am so muddy, so unsettled,
To appoint myself in this vexation, sully
The purity and whiteness of my sheets,
Which to preserve is sleep, which being spotted
Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps, (1.2.33)

Leontes’s insistence that he wouldn’t “sully the purity and whiteness of his sheets [marriage bed]” by wrongly accusing his wife of infidelity seems to echo Shakespeare’s earlier play, Othello. In the play, Othello goes on and on about how his wife, Desdemona, has been “sullied” by her sexual infidelity and decides that it would be “just” to strangle her on their soiled marriage bed (4.1.39). Both Othello and Leontes, as we’ve said earlier, unfairly accuse their wives of cheating.