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The Winter’s Tale: Jealousy that can ‘seep into you like a poison’

Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer in The Winter’s Tale.

Karolina Kuras/courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada

I've always had a readerly interest in jealousy – its presence and, maybe just as equally, its absence. I like to blame my interest on Wuthering Heights, which I first read when I was much too young and which, no doubt, gave the emotion a certain romantic amplitude. Literary characters don't get much more jealous than Heathcliff, who spends 30 years destroying the lives of everyone around him after his childhood love marries the wrong guy. There's been much made of the fact that this insanely torrid novel was written by a lonely and isolated 19th-century woman who (allegedly) died a virgin at 31. The poet Anne Carson has an explanation for why jealousy feels so big in the book that it becomes practically metafictional: "I find myself tempted/to read Wuthering Heights as one thick stacked act of revenge/for all that life withheld from Emily."

Shakespeare was also interested in jealousy, but his jealous characters are different from the ones I grew attached to. Mine suffered their tortured heights of feeling as a consequence of loss. Humbert Humbert chases Lolita down an interstate highway once she's left him for Clare Quilty. Lydia Davis's narrator in The End of the Story sits in her car outside her ex-boyfriend's house and watches his new girlfriend's shadow move back and forth in the window. But for Shakepeare's jealous men, the loss is initially just hypothetical. It's only made real through their own desperate revenge.

British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's adaptation of The Winter's Tale, a co-production by the Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, premiered in the fall of 2014 at Covent Garden to strong reviews. (The National Ballet's production opens Nov. 14 at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts). While Othello is typically the go-to example for Shakespearean jealousy, Leontes from The Winter's Tale may offer an even more disturbing embodiment of the feeling. The difference between these leading characters' respective manias is that Othello's suspicions have a source. Iago plants the idea of Desdemona's infidelity in his general's head, then gets up to all kinds of mischief to stage its substantiation. Leontes, on the other hand, paranoiacally stages his own provocation. He asks his pregnant wife, Hermione, to convince his childhood friend Polixenes to stay a little longer in their home. Then, for no discernible reason, he becomes intractably convinced that the two are having an affair. In the words of lit-crit heavyweight Harold Bloom, Leontes is "his own Iago."

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The Winter's Tale is often grouped under the "problem play" heading, and not because of the infamous stage directions that require a predatory bear to chase a character into the wings, or a 16-year-old statue to suddenly come to life. The designation is due to what some critics perceive as the play's basic structural discord: The first three acts feel like psychological tragedy while the last two exist in the realm of pastoral comedy. But this discord is part of what attracted Wheeldon to the challenge of turning the play into a ballet. "It's an incredible set of contrasts, with operatic levels of emotion," he says.

Making sense of Leontes's jealousy was a narrative question Wheeldon had to grapple with from a choreographic perspective. "Jealousy is so interesting to physicalize. It lends itself so well to a particular kind of contorting movement." So instead of trying to rationalize Leontes's increasing paranoia, as might behoove a director in the theatre, Wheeldon stayed focused on the emotion's inscrutability. "I don't think Shakespeare intended Leontes's jealousy to be explained in any way. I think you're either a jealous person or you're not – it's part of Leontes's DNA. What's so fascinating is that it comes out of the blue."

Wheeldon's interpretation may be somewhat at odds with the critical tendency to see Leontes's distrust as a manifestation of deep-seated misogyny. Bloom gives Leontes the rather bleak distinction of being the most outstanding misogynist in all of Shakespeare. In fact, Bloom thinks that Leontes reveals something harrowing about "male nature" because he melds the kind of desperate nihilism we see in King Lear's Edmund with a sadistic hatred of women. Kenneth Branagh's production of the play, which just opened in London's West End, takes a slightly different approach. According to The Guardian's Michael Billington, the production connects Leontes's disgust for female sexuality to repressed homosexual desire. "… Branagh's fine Leontes is driven less by insane jealousy over his wife's possible adultery than by the loss of Polixenes's love."

For me, it's here that the emotion becomes interesting again, when it's not simply about ego and property, but the unshakeable longing that comes from not having someone you've decided should be yours. I find the tendency to look on jealousy as narcissism or moral weakness a bit sanctimonious, and certainly a little boring. Think of literary representations of its absence – scenarios in which jealousy would seem the only natural response and, yet, it finds itself oddly missing. In Graham Greene's The End of The Affair, Henry Miles doesn't get all that worked up over his suspicions that his wife is cheating on him. Does his equanimity come off as noble? Not really. It just makes him seem passionless, and certainly emotionally shallow.

National Ballet principal dancer Piotr Stanczyk, who'll perform the role of Leontes on opening night, finds that he can easily access the necessary intensity for the part. "I know what jealousy is – I know how it creeps into men and into our egos. Men have horrible egos. Why are we designed like that?" He pauses and sighs a bit dejectedly. "I don't know. Emotions are not rational. Jealousy can seep into you like a poison and overtake you. It can lead you to do things you would never otherwise do."

The National Ballet's The Winter's Tale runs at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto from Nov. 14 to 22 (ballet.ca).

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