by Jean Roberta
In Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy about the causes and results of jealousy, the provocateur who plants suspicion in the mind of General Othello that his new bride is unfaithful warns him:
“O! beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”
Iago, the sly underling, resents Othello for reasons that are never clear enough. Iago might resent Othello for not giving him a promotion, or for rising so fast through the ranks of the army, despite his being an outsider in Venetian society. (Othello is a “Moor,” i.e. Moroccan, so he is visibly different from the Italians around him.) Iago also claims that his own wife Emilia has fooled around with Othello behind his back, though the audience never sees this. Jealousy, it seems, doesn’t need substantial evidence.
Iago’s warning about jealousy drips with irony. He, of all people, knows how it can destroy a life.
Othello is newly-married to Desdemona, a younger and whiter woman who fell in love with him when he told her about his military adventures, the battles he survived. He claims to love her because she admires and sympathizes with him, but he can’t trust her.
Here Othello makes it clear that husbands in general can’t afford to trust their wives:
“O curse of marriage, that we can call these delicate creatures ours, and not their appetites! I had rather be a toad, and live upon the vapour of a dungeon, than keep a corner in the thing I love for others’ uses.”
Othello is so much more to me than a dusty Renaissance play that many English majors have studied in university. As a student of literature and new bride in my twenties, I studied this plot AND lived it. As my desperate, ambitious, hard-drinking Nigerian husband grew angrier on alien turf (I had brought him to Canada from England, where we met), I racked my brains to find explanations and solutions. Why was he so upset that I had had other boyfriends before him, even though he knew that when he proposed to me? Why was he so convinced that I was a nympho who had random hookups with men, and when did he think I was doing all this? Was there an Iago among our friends?
Could I possibly prove my loyalty, even while my husband’s behaviour made me so hurt, angry and afraid that I didn’t see how I could stay with him much longer?
This was the most urgent question: Was he going to kill me, as Othello kills Desdemona?
Luckily for me, I was able to escape, continue my education and raise our daughter with no further violence. (Not that any of that was easy.) My ex-husband tried to persuade my parents to kick me and my baby out of their house on grounds that I was obviously a cheating wife -- otherwise I would never have left my home & husband. When his plan didn’t succeed, he went on to marry another young white Canadian whose parents seemed able and willing (at first) to support him financially. That relationship collapsed as well, and my ex-husband moved to another part of Canada, presumably to find a good job (not to mention a relatively well-off family with a daughter).
Like Othello, my ex eventually died in despair, though his life seems to have declined for years before then. On New Year’s Eve 2006, I learned in a surprise phone call that he had died of a heart attack in a town where he was alone except for the patient friend who phoned me because the hospital was asking for a next-of-kin. The reasons for my ex's isolation weren't hard to guess, and I got lurid bits of information on the day of his funeral: apparently he had gone to the local hospital several times with complaints about plots against him and evil spirits in his apartment. He had been diagnosed with a mental illness. (But my opinion of the “mental health” establishment is a whole other post.)
My current female spouse (a better choice!) usually answers my lingering questions about the drama of my first marriage with this line: “You have to remember he was mentally ill.” Case closed.
This epitaph doesn’t resolve anything to my satisfaction, and my own Othello is no longer able to speak for himself. He was definitely the most jealous man I ever met, but he wasn’t alone.
During the “sexual revolution” of the 1970s, I kept meeting guys who expected me to go with the flow and live for the moment by having unprotected sex with them, but none of them seemed to want a relationship with a sexually-experienced woman. Even in theoretical discussions about dating relationships, one guy after another paraphrased Othello’s “O curse of marriage” speech. They hated the fickle nature of women, as they saw it, and their own inability to put a chastity belt on the mind of any woman they had claimed as “theirs.”
This irrational value system has been called the Double Standard, and it seems incredibly long-lived. Trying to argue it away just doesn’t work. Trust me, I’ve tried that. Writing off every jealous heterosexual man as “mentally ill” seems parallel to summing up women in general as “weak-minded” and therefore prone to go to the Dark Side.
There has to be a way to analyze this monster, this curse or this epidemic without resorting to shallow insults.
Like Giselle, I’ve experienced some disturbing little outbreaks of jealousy in my long-term lesbian relationship. Sometimes I wonder about her real motives for being with me; love can be asserted, but never proved beyond a doubt. More often, I think I see jealousy in her eyes. (I have a much more secure job than she does -- with shorter working hours, higher pay, and no crazy-making office politics. Do I deserve all this? Doesn’t she? Who knows?) But then, I can never be sure if I am seeing and hearing her clearly, or overreacting because of the Shakespearean tragedy of my past. It’s complicated.
I’m convinced that no one is immune from jealousy, or the messy soup of feelings that are described that way. The only way I know of to minimize the damage is to think before I speak or act, and not to blurt out the first words that come to my mind.
Respect (for oneself and others) is probably the best antidote.