A Fragile Equilibrium

The Winter's Tale (Modern Library Classics) BY William Shakespeare. edited by Jonathan Bate, Eric Rasmussen. Modern Library. Paperback, 240 pages. $5.

The cover of The Winter's Tale (Modern Library Classics)

Jealousy may be the closest a sane person can get to the experience of psychosis. I’m referring to the kind of florid, full-blown jealousy that strikes poor, enraged Leontes in The Winter’s Tale—a jealousy that leads to complete ruin. It is sometimes confused with envy, but the difference is fundamental: With envy you want to possess what the other person has—money, power, beauty, fame—whereas with jealousy you want to possess the actual person. Its true cousin is paranoia; both are anchored in a kind of warped, iron-clad logic. The thrill of jealousy, like that of paranoia, is that every sign and gesture, threatening or joyous, proves the central obsession, with a reasonableness that throws into question the very meaning of “reason.” The mind narrows, and a kind of inspired imbecility ensues.

In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes, king of Sicily, becomes convinced, on the basis of a few friendly caresses and glances, that his closest friend is sleeping with his pregnant queen. The attack comes over him in an instant, like a spell. “My heart dances; / But not for joy—not joy.” When his most trusted adviser tries to disabuse him of his belief, Leontes says, “You lie, you lie . . . and I hate thee.” He orders his wife brought before him to be condemned. She realizes she cannot mount a defense because whatever doesn’t amplify Leontes’s jealousy has become detestable to him. “My life stands in the level of your dreams,” she tells him. “Your actions are my dreams,” he answers.

I got to thinking about this after unexpectedly running into my friend Tara in Washington, DC. She approached me after a book reading I had given, wearing red moccasins she had made herself, drop earrings fashioned from vintage wallpaper, and short, black, bed-tousled hair, arranged just so. I recognized her at once, despite the fact that we hadn’t laid eyes on each other in fifteen years. Tara once lived across the hall from me in New York. She was a street performer back then, a tightrope walker who performed with a balancing bar in Tompkins Square Park. Men adored her, and I was briefly one of those men, though I contented myself with being her neighbor and occasional confidante. After leaving town with a touring trapeze show, she gave up the apartment, and we fell out of contact.

At dinner, after the reading, we bused through the years like tourists. She got married seven years ago, she told me, to a man named Wyatt who worked in cybersecurity for the government. “The kind of guy who once he decides he’s going to take care of you, he doesn’t let go. The guy I never found in New York.” Having quit doing “high-wire tricks for strangers,” as she put it, she now trained therapy dogs for war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. “The dogs are like Wyatt,” she said. “When you’re having a nightmare, they wake you up before it gets worse.” She seemed both happy and agitated, restless and thrilled, pinching her earrings, shuddering her right foot. With more humor than regret, she remarked that her life, like most lives, had turned out predictably, “The possibles seem limitless, but the actuals are few.”

Tara described her husband as a gentle man with an infallible memory and an almost romantic love of detail. “His only obvious flaw,” she said, “is his tame need for control.” But six months ago, something happened that made her feel as if she never knew him. He discovered a batch of vaguely flirtatious e-mails between Tara and a former boyfriend, “innocent e-mails, really, the flirtiness was just the way we talked, a surviving vernacular from the past.” After reading them, Wyatt was transformed. A latent fury seemed to come to life in him, but what was more terrible, said Tara, were his tense efforts to suppress it. “He was so eerily careful with me, so intent on not offending me, like I was some kind of object he didn’t want to damage.”

I wondered if what he was really protecting was jealousy itself, with its maximum hell-bent drive to increase and live on. When Tara tried to make him see that he had no rival, he lashed out at her, as if the suggestion that his jealousy was an illusion threatened the very foundation of his being. To bolster his case, Wyatt offered what he believed to be an irrefutable argument, based on the very objectivity he had lost: Would he be putting himself through this if it wasn’t true? Would he be risking their marriage, their peace of mind? “You wrote to him, ‘You’re the best,’” he told Tara, referring to a sign-off line in one of her e-mails. “What does that mean? Best cook? Best friend? Best lover? All the while we’ve been married, he was your best. I feel like I’ve set myself on fire.”

A couple of weeks after Wyatt discovered the e-mails, he and Tara were to meet for dinner. Tara arrived late, explaining that she had gone to the wrong restaurant. Wyatt noted that the first letter of the wrong restaurant was the same as the first letter of Tara’s former boyfriend’s name; obviously, her true wish had been to meet him, not Wyatt. He continued on in this vein, painting an almost mythic portrait of his rival, talking not only of him but to him, as if Tara weren’t there, imagining the sentiments she lavished on him and withheld from Wyatt, endowing him with all the attributes Wyatt believed he lacked. He trembled so violently he was unable to bring a glass of water to his lips. Tara reached for his hand across the table, and he drew it away in horror. “It was as if he was trying to make himself as contemptible as possible. Like he was driven to reach some level of complete self-humiliation.”

Tara left him in the restaurant and ran to Union Station, where she caught a train to New York. “I had this picture of us living in a sealed jar. Airless. Self-enclosed.” Arriving in New York, she went to the apartment of her closest friend, a woman. When she emerged from the building, five hours later, Wyatt confronted her on the sidewalk like a mugger. He had followed her from Washington and waited outside in the freezing cold. She wasn’t surprised to see him. He had become omniscient during the past two weeks—not only hacking into her e-mail account and finding, with a special data-retrieval formula, the ones she had double-deleted but also tracking the activity logs of her cell phone, her Skype account, and her credit card, and even watching her sleep in hopes of overhearing some incriminating utterance from her dreams. Nevertheless, on seeing him, she felt strangely overjoyed. While describing the hell of the past weeks to her friend, she had experienced a surge of affection for Wyatt. They had achieved a heightened intimacy, a kind of negative connectivity “that had us really inside each other for the first time, like we were attached to the same electric wire. I thought I understood his suffering,” she said.

Sure that she had just come from the apartment of the boyfriend, Wyatt picked up a seven-foot length of broken parking-sign pole that lay by the curb. He held the piece of metal aloft like a rod, “a power symbol,” as Tara saw it. She understood the potency of these objects from working with a balancing bar, the tool of equilibrium. “I ran to embrace him, and he swung the pole at me and broke my left arm.”

During the cab ride to the nearest emergency room, Wyatt snapped out of it as if from a hypnotized sleep. At the hospital, he made a nuisance of himself, demanding that the staff tend to Tara right away, while trying to explain to her what couldn’t be explained, talking rapidly of his father’s coldness toward him in favor of his sister, his mother’s glum, low-wattage indifference, and the suicide of his brother at age thirteen, an occurrence that left a phantom presence his parents both grieved over and loved in a frozen way that seemed to erase Wyatt. She did her best to quiet him down. “I never loved him so much. I still think of that emergency room as the place where we truly married, not the city clerk’s office where we exchanged nervous, uncertain vows seven years earlier.”

Later, I thought that what had allowed Tara to look past the ugliness of Wyatt’s seizure was the fact that he had laid himself bare. “He finally lost control,” she told me. “He let go. He shattered.” In Wyatt’s case, the monstrous logic under which he was operating collapsed the instant he swung the pole. (“The act,” he would later call it, according to Tara, “the deed.”) What had shocked him, perhaps, was his momentary wish to kill her. In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes awakes from his jealous spell only after it has caused the death of his queen and their son. He buries them together. “Once a day I’ll visit / The chapel where they lie; and tears shed there / Shall be my recreation.”