When is Jealousy Unhealthy? Three Signs from Shakespeare

Shakespeare's plays, and recent studies, show us the warning signs.

Posted Nov 20, 2018

“Anyone who loves is jealous.” [1]

So says Maurice Bendrix, the cynical narrator of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. But should we believe him?

Some would claim that we shouldn’t: that jealous, possessive people are just too selfish to love. Francois de la Rochefoucauld once opined that “in jealousy, there is more of self-love, than of love.” [2] Alain Badiou, much more recently, takes the point further, writing that “[j]ealousy is a fake parasite that feeds on love and doesn’t at all help to define it.” [3]

If Badiou is right, Bendrix is wrong. Jealousy is always unhealthy, and no one who loves is jealous.

Then again, maybe Bendrix is right—because everyone has felt jealousy. The psychologist David Buss has conducted surveys which suggest that nearly all men and women—regardless of age group or culture—have had an episode of intense jealousy. [4] Buss, along with others, believes that jealousy is pervasive because it’s an evolved trait, one that helps people avoid wasting resources on partners who might cheat. Buss even believes that a moderate amount of jealousy can be good for us.

When Jealousy Becomes Unhealthy

Whether we think well or ill of jealousy depends on how we define what makes for healthy relationships. But even the staunchest defender of jealousy’s possible benefits would admit to its downsides. As Bendrix himself puts it, “jealousy twists meanings and poisons trust.” Jealousy can cloud our vision. It can make us obsessive. It can even lead to violence.

Jealousy can be unhealthy. But how do we know when it is? Exactly how does it distort the way we think?  

Books are a great resource here, not least because literature is littered with jealous characters, from Odysseus to Gatsby to Abigail Williams. For some of the most famous examples, we can look to Shakespeare, who fills his plays with pathologically jealous characters. (I’m not sure, in fact, if there’s a single example of “healthy” jealousy in the Bard’s works.)

Othello would be an obvious place to start. After all, the tragedy’s main character has a syndrome named after him. But I want to focus on The Winter’s Tale, a late and lesser-known play that reworks Othello’s themes.  For those unfamiliar with the play (and if you haven’t seen or read it, you should), The Winter’s Tale features Leontes, a King of Sicilia who has one of the most toxic bouts of jealousy that I know.

Early on, Leontes asks his wife, Hermione, to persuade his best friend, Polixenes, to extend his visit to their kingdom. Hermione succeeds in her plea, but her success makes Leontes wildly jealous. It’s as if he thinks that Hermione could only have such influence with Polixenes if she were having an affair with him.   

Leontes’ thoughts show us just what can make jealousy unhealthy. In a book published earlier this year, Robert L. Leahy writes that “[w]hen we are jealous, we are often hijacked by thoughts and feelings that make us think that we are unraveling, that our world is falling apart, and that something needs to be done immediately.” [5] Leontes thinks and feels all of this.

In fact, he exhibits almost every sign of the jealous mind that Leahy outlines. Leahy shows how jealousy leads to many irrational habits of thought, from (among others) mindreading to labeling to discounting positives. Let’s look briefly at these habits: at what they are, how they work, and how we can recognize and overcome them.

1. Mindreading

Even as jealousy clouds our judgment, we can claim to see quite clearly—more clearly, even, than everyone else. We observe our partner laughing with someone and conclude that that means they want to be unfaithful. They seem distracted and we believe that they’re obsessing about someone else. As Leahy puts it, when you’re in Jealousy Mode, “[y]ou assume that you know what your partner, or others, are thinking without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts” (63).

When Leontes tells his trusted advisor, Camillo, about the affair he assumes Hermione is having, Camillo responds that Leontes has no basis for his suspicion. The king then rattles off justifications for his feelings. Certain items on his list could be seen and perhaps confirmed, but others require precisely the mindreading that Leahy discusses. “Is whispering nothing?” Leontes asks.

Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?

Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career

Of laughter with a sigh?—a note infallible

Of breaking honesty!—horsing foot on foot?

Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?

Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? (1.2.284-290) [6]

Leontes might not have seen any of this. Yet he thinks he knows not only what his wife’s sigh means, but also that Hermione wants time to pass quickly when she’s apart from Polixenes and slowly when they’re together. Leones simply presumes that he can read her.

It’s true that reading about characters in books helps us cultivate a Theory of Mind (ToM): the ability to understand other people’s minds as different from ours, but similar enough that we can guess at their desires and motives. Jealous people, though, claim too much of this ability. They think they know exactly what that look, or that laugh, meant. Leontes, too, shows how risky mindreading can be, how much caution we need before presuming to know what someone else thinks. 

2. Labeling

Mindreading feels especially easy if we view others a certain way: not as complex individuals but as simple, readily identifiable types. We’re more likely to do this when we’re jealous. In Leahy’s words, “[y]ou assign global, negative traits to yourself and others. ‘I’m boring’ or ‘He’s a cheat.’” (63).

Leontes, likewise, labels Hermione—and not just Hermione, but all women. After jealousy takes hold, the king calls his son, Mamillius, to him in order to consider the boy’s parentage. “[T]hey say we are / Almost as like as eggs,” Leontes observes. “Women say so, / That will say anything.” (1.2.130-132)

Leontes regards all women as unreliable, willing to say anything to avoid trouble. Leahy remarks that certain core beliefs make unhealthy jealousy more likely, and one of those beliefs—which Leontes clearly holds—labels all women (or all men, or all people) untrustworthy. People are not types, and labels can’t capture anyone’s essence. This should be obvious, but Shakespeare shows how easily we label people despite this—and how toxic labels are.

3. Discounting Positives

Jealousy can also become unhealthy when we focus on negatives: on the fact that someone seemed to be flirting, or praised someone’s else’s looks, or has acted distant. What about the positive aspects of your relationship, the things which suggest that your partner might not be cheating?

When you’re jealous, positives can seem meaningless. In Leahy’s words, “You claim that the positive things about you, or your relationship, are trivial” (63). Leontes, certainly, sees no positives. When he first hears that Hermione has persuaded Polixenes to stay in Sicilia, for example, here’s how he reacts:


He’ll stay, my lord.

LEONTES          At my request he would not. (1.2.89-90)

Leontes is the one who asks Hermione to persuade Polixenes to begin with, yet when she does what he asks—presumably as an act of love—he not only discounts the positive but turns it into a negative. The jealous mind, Shakespeare suggests, can change just about anything into evidence of infidelity

New Habits of Thought

When you’re jealous, you need to curb certain habits of thought. Don’t act like you can read minds. Don’t label people. Don’t discount positives. Don’t be Leontes! We need reminders of this, and The Winter’s Tale is a powerful one. When jealousy is mild or even moderate, the reminder ought to be enough.

But what about when the green-eyed monster really has us in its grip? Sometimes we can’t eradicate jealousy and instead must find ways to accept and cope with it. What do we do then?

Some of psychology’s coping strategies, it happens, are pretty literary. One of Leahy’s recommendations is to apply metaphors to our jealous feelings in order to lessen their significance and, ultimately, their force. Leahy advises trying to think of jealous feelings as visitors (e.g., your eccentric uncle who comes to Thanksgiving, talks constantly, but offers little wisdom); as telemarketing calls (which you can just ignore); or as trains (which you can leave at the next stop) (118-121).

Such metaphors can help limit jealousy. Other metaphors might also be of use. Where might we find them and become makers of helpful metaphors ourselves? In what better place could we look, when dealing with jealousy in this way, than our best storehouse of metaphors: the pages of books?


[1] Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (New York: Penguin Classics, 2004), 43.

[2] Francois de la Rochefoucauld, Selected Maxims, trans. A.S. Bolton, (New York: Warner Library Co., 1917), maxim 97.

[3] Alain Badiou, In Praise of Love, trans. Peter Bush (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2012), 59.

[4] David Buss, The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love and Sex (New York: The Free Press, 2000), 8

[5] Robert L. Leahy, The Jealousy Cure: Learn to Trust, Overcome Possessiveness and Save Your Relationship (Oakland: New Harbinger, 2018), 49.

[6] William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, ed. Frances E. Dolan (New York: Penguin, 1999).