Jealousy was one of Shakespeare’s most common themes. In Othello, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and Troilus and Cressida to name only the best known, men behave very badly.
Jealousy is as old as human society and few human characteristics generate so much passion, violence, and rage. It is there, however, for a good reason. Men, who, until the mid-Twentieth Century had the principal responsibility for the welfare and well-being of their families, had a stake in knowing if their wives’ children were really their own. Raising children was not a matter of love and affection but a serious business of ownership.
“Why should I raise another man’s children?” has always been the principal reason for establishing parentage especially in harsher economic conditions than we know today. While these children might provide the same labor and productivity than a man’s own, there is always the sense of an unfair trade. Boys will never produce enough to compensate for what they cost; and girls’ dowries can bankrupt a man for life. Lineage counts for less among the peasant and working class. There is little to pass on to children who, if anything, inherit smaller and smaller parcels of progressively unproductive land.
David Buss wrote The Dangerous Passion – Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love or Sex, and the author contends that jealousy is an evolutionary imperative:
From an ancestral man's perspective, the single most damaging form of infidelity his partner could commit, in the currency of reproduction, would have been a sexual infidelity. A woman's sexual infidelity jeopardizes a man's confidence that he is the genetic father of her children. A cuckolded man risks investing years, or even decades, in another man's children. Lost would be all the effort he expended in selecting and attracting his partner. Moreover, he would lose his partner's labors, now channeled to a rival's children rather than his own. (David Buss, NYT)Why should we care? one might ask. Children are children, after all. Buss goes on:
But who cares who fathers a child or where a man's commitments get channeled? Shouldn't we love all children equally? Perhaps in some utopian future, we might, but that is not how the human mind is designed. Husbands in our evolutionary past who failed to care whether a wife succumbed to sex with other men and wives who remained stoic when confronted with their husband's emotional infidelity may be admirable in a certain light. Non-jealous men and women, however, are not our ancestors, having been left in the evolutionary dust by rivals with different passionate sensibilities. We all come from a long lineage of ancestors who possessed the dangerous passion.The ante is upped for the aristocracy, nobility, and royalty for whom lineage establishes kingship. Shakespeare’s histories are all about accession to the throne.
To us the Duke of York splits hairs when he challenges the right of Henry VI to the throne, claiming that Henry’s grandfather, Henry IV usurped the throne. Through an intricate parsing of lineage York splits hairs to assert his claim, and whether the king was descended from the third or fourth son of Edward III made all the difference in the world. Henry V lays claim to territories in France based on the same convoluted interpretation of lineage, and Shakespeare devotes many lines to the argument.
The paternity of Cleopatra’s sons was essential to her survival and to her ambitions. If she could rid the Empire of Octavius, then her sons with Antony and Julius Caesar could become Emperors. Margaret, the wife of Henry VI goes to battle to defend her rights and those of her son in the War of the Roses. Constance, mother of Arthur, aligns herself with the French king in a power struggle to assure Arthur the throne which she thinks that John has attained illegitimately.
Jealousy is not simply an evolutionary imperative or a means of assuring paternity and inheritance, it is a source of the most violent human emotions:
The dark side of jealousy causes men to explode violently to reduce the odds that their partners will stray. Women seeking refuge at shelters for battered women almost invariably report that their husbands seethe with jealousy. In one study of battered women, many of whom required medical attention, the typical woman reported that her husband "tries to limit my contact with friends and family" (the tactic of concealment), "insists on knowing where I am at all times" (the tactic of vigilance), and "calls me names to put me down and make me feel bad about myself" (the tactic of undermining self-esteem). Jealousy is the leading cause of spousal battering, but it's even worse than that. Men's jealousy puts women at risk of being killed (David Buss)There must be something else going on here, and Shakespeare discusses it directly in Othello, A Winter’s Tale, and Troilus and Cressida. All three male protagonists express not only their rage at their lovers’ suspected infidelities; they hate them. They hate women, and feel that because they can deceive men, they will. Women can never be trusted. They are nothing but whores at heart.
Men hate women because they will always hold the trump card in the sexual wars.
In The Father Strindberg takes another tack – it is Laura who deliberately plants the seeds of jealous doubt in her husband’s mine and drives him to insanity. She uses women’s ultimate weapon. Hamlet is jealous of his mother for whom he has incestuous longings; and it is this jealousy and the frustration that he feels for his inability either to fully love her or to kill her husband.
To complicate matters, women in Shakespeare’s day were idolized. Petrarch is credited with beginning the tradition in the 14th Century with his veneration of Laura. Chivalric love came to fruition in the late Middle Ages, and the tradition had not dissipated in the late 16th. Once romantic love came on the scene, it had to be protected:
Once humans evolved love, the bonds they created required protection. It would be extraordinarily unlikely that evolution would fail to defend these fragile and fruitful unions against interlopers
In humans, guarding a bond must last more than days, months, or even years because love can last a lifetime. The dangerous emotion of jealousy evolved to fill this void. Love and jealousy are intertwined passions. They depend on each other and feed on each other (Buss)
At the heart of the matter is paternity. Jealousy is a function of reproductive control. Since men can never absolutely know whose children their wives are bearing, they reduce the risk. Women throughout history have been restricted in their social and economic opportunities, denied full participation in the electoral process, and kept under close watch. Female infidelity was a concern not only to husbands but to the community at large which endorsed sexual propriety as fundamental to social integrity and cohesion. Society is built on the basis of class and status; and unless paternal order is maintained, this integrity disappears.
Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter describes the extent to which communities – in this case 17th century Salem, Massachusetts – will go to chastise, punish, condemn, and even execute female adulterers.
At the same time few Western societies excluded women entirely. Despite the collective concerns about paternity, women were never locked away. Without a doubt mothers-in-law, duennas, priests, and doctors were all enlisted to keep wives faithful; but men were still willing to take a risk to enjoy the company of women. The history of art is nothing if not a millennia-long paean to female beauty and charm. Shakespeare’s women are attractive, alluring, strong, independent-minded, and canny.
Rosalind, Isabel, Dionyza, Volumnia, Desdemona, Gertrude are the most interesting and compelling characters in his plays. Men love these women but can never understand them. In their simple, restrictive view of women, they can only guess at their motives. Petrarch’s new idea of romantic love advanced men’s thinking about women, but idolatry could only go so far.
In any case women in Western history and literature were far from marginalized. Men, despite the all important need to control paternity, were still willing to take a risk. Strong women like Beatrice, Kate, and Viola were worth it. Shakespeare’s Comedies are lively sexual games where both men and women enjoy the pursuit of each other. His Tragedies are darker. Cleopatra is the most complex, intelligent, and canny women of all his characters. She runs rings around Antony who, despite his brilliance as a military strategist and leader, is so besotted and easily manipulated by the Egyptian queen.
The works of Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, and Tolstoy have women as central characters. Hedda Gabler, Laura, Rebekka West, Anna Karenina, and Miss Julie are strong, deliberate, exciting women whom men cannot best.
All of which brings me to Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabis who have carried concerns for paternity to an extreme rarely seen in any culture or any period of history. While there has been some relaxation of the draconian rules which isolated women from all but female society and that of their families; and while Saudi women have become professionals, most women are still severely restricted. They dress in the most severe chador, designed to remove even the hint of femininity are restricted to the company of women and whose presence in wider Saudi society must be closely monitored and controlled by men.
Saudi men have decided that adultery and unfaithful paternity is so dangerous, threatening, and destabilizing that they are willing to forgo the company of women. In reducing the risk of infidelity to near zero, they have deliberately and willingly isolated themselves to the pleasures that all other Western and Asian societies have enjoyed.
The reasons given are well-known. Sexual pleasure, feminine beauty, and any form of sybaritic life are distractions from the practice of faith and obedience to God. There can be no middle ground. There is room for nothing but an absolutely austere, almost penitential religion.
Hinduism, a religion more than a thousand years older than Islam, and one profoundly influential in Indian life, is far more tolerant of sexual relationships.
The temples at Khajuraho, for example, feature erotic sculptures. Tantrism, an offshoot of Hinduism is based on the principles of sexual energy. The Kama Sutra is well known for its references to sexual power and place in spiritual evolution.
While all religions have their ascetics – Hindu sadhus, Christian monks, and Buddhist recluses – who have chosen a celibate life away from all temptation, such asceticism has become the norm for all men. Holy men show the way to those less disciplined or eager for spiritual enlightenment. They are the ideals to which ordinary men should aspire. Saudi society is taking no chances. It is not enough to have, admire, and emulate the most religious within it. All men automatically and unquestionably must adhere to the most strict and rudimentary principles of social interaction.
In very crass terms, what do Saudi men get out of all this? They cannot possibly be any more religious than Indians or Americans who profess and practice a fundamental evangelism but for whom women are included in their social vision.
Western societies are now in a post-patriarchal period. Children now cost more than they return, are not needed for old age security, are soon free and independent with only marginal ties remaining to parents and family. In an age of mixed ethnicity, race, and social class, few people are concerned about the purity of their genetic line. In other words, why worry about infidelity?
Saudi men are in much the same boat. While the royal family still rules, and while drops of royal blood are found everywhere, is lineage really that important? And when all the cultural trappings are taken off of Saudi society, aren’t families still rearing children because that is what they are supposed to do?
If other religions as complex, profound, and spiritual as Islam have found ways to combine secular and religious interests; if the value of children is declining in all cultures; and if paternity matters less and less; then Saudi men have given themselves a very bad deal indeed.