Polixenes and Leontes: fear and loathing in Sicilia

In The Winter’s Tale, we get another male lover who fears cuckoldry. Leontes follows a line of others: Ford (Merry Wives, completely comic), Claudio (Much Ado, comic with tragic tinges), Othello (just plain tragic), and Posthumus (Cymbeline, ditto). A couple of months back, I wrote a paper on military homosociality and the fear of cuckoldry in Much Ado and Othello. Tomorrow, I deliver a talk on it at the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Wooden O Symposium (and nervous as hell, to be completely honest with you…but that’s besides the point).

So the timing’s right to take a look at this concept (briefly before I catch my flight)…

Now, first things first. Cuckoldry was a big motif in Elizabethan drama. Though mostly played for laughs (a la commedia dell’arte), Shakespeare was obviously more interested in plumbing the depths of the concept–and more importantly, the fear of it–in his plays.

In my paper and talk, I deal with the concept of homosociality, so a brief (and probably too brief) intro: Homosociality is the idea of same-sex love or affection that is not sexually or erotically-based. Mentorship. Non-combative competition. Friendship.

In that paper, I wrote:

In a study of male homosociality at a military academy in Australia, Michael Flood concludes that “heterosexual sex itself is the direct medium of homosocial bonding” (349). But where competition among these military men collides with the sexual medium becomes the nexus at which male anxiety and sexual jealousy flourish. According to Girard, Othello’s “jealousy is rooted neither in what Desdemona does nor in what Iago says, but in the internal weakness that forces Othello to resort to a go-between in the first place” (290). While Girard is writing about Othello, the same argument applies to Claudio resorting to use Don Pedro as his go-between in Much Ado About Nothing; in both cases, the lack of socio-sexual experience and status serves only to cause the man to question the intentions of his fellow soldiers, his representative, his second self. According to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, this wariness is justified; she posits that “the object of man’s existence is to cuckold men” (Sedgwick, “Sexualism” 231). This certainly seems to be taken as a given within the worlds of the plays. In Much Ado, the second line of Balthasar’s song for the gathered gentlemen is “Men were deceivers ever” (Much 2.3.61), and none of the on-stage male audience complains; in fact, the ranking gentleman, Don Pedro, calls it a “good song” (2.3.74). In Othello, however, it is the woman Emilia who explains the ways of men, including the “pour[ing of their] treasure into foreign laps … chang[ing one women] for others” (Othello 4.3.88, 97). Even the supposedly inconstant female sees males for what they are–and that the female’s assumed natural lasciviousness might very well be a reaction to men’s deception (rather than a cause of it), or as Emilia explains, “And have not we affections, / Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have” (4.3.100-1). The male frailty is doubly weak: too ethically weak to keep from cuckolding their fellows, and too emotionally weak to keep the fear of their own cuckolding from blossoming into sexual anxiety. Such a double-edged frailty is bound to create “hatred and destructive relationships” (Scheff 150). And it is this breakdown of the homosocial bond–not by cuckoldry, but by the viral and virulent fear of it–that tears both plays apart.

Let’s take a look at our history of imagined cuckolds: Ford–knows about his “rival” but is in no homosocial relationship with him (I would argue he’s in no relationship at all with Falstaff–only his disguised alter ego Brook is); Claudio has no clue who his rival is, so no homosocial relationship; Othello is in a deeply homosocial relationship with his; Posthumus–barely knows Iachimo, so barely a relationship, certainly no homosociality.

And then we have Leontes.

While Othello suspects his brother-in-arms, Leontes and Polixenes are presented as practically brothers.

They were trained together in their childhoods, and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection which cannot choose but branch now. Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society, their encounters, though not personal, hath been royally attorneyed with interchange of gifts, letters, loving embassies, that they have seemed to be together though absent, shook hands as over a vast, and embraced as it were from the ends of opposed winds. The heavens continue their loves.
  • I.i.22-31


We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun
And bleat the one at th’ other. What we changed
Was innocence for innocence. We knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed
That any did. Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher reared
With stronger blood, we should have answered heaven
Boldly “Not guilty,” the imposition cleared
Hereditary ours.
  • I.i.68-76


My brother…
  • I.i.163

This is probably the most homosocial relationship of the bunch.

Does this, should this, make a difference?

I think it does, and in this way. I think the more of a homosocial relationship there is between the two men (the imagined cuckold and oblivious rival), the more brutal the sense of betrayal. And thus the need for action against both the rival and the betraying wife.

But here’s the rub…maybe it isn’t the relationship between the rivals that’s the key. Maybe it’s the relationship between the lover and the source of the “evidence.” In Ford’s case, that source is the same as the rival–Falstaff–and thus no homosocial bond. Both Claudio and Othello trust their brothers-in-arms in the news of the cuckoldry. And Posthumus believes his rival, but has no relationship with him.

And Leontes? There is no source of the suspicion. He is the source. His suspicion springs fully grown from his own mind and imagination. Does this make his case of sexual anxiety (relatively) better or worse than those who came before him? What causes him to jump to this conclusion solo? Or is it that Leon thing I talked about earlier?