Green-Eyed Monsters

Othello and Iago (Photo credit: wikipedia)

In the shitstorm that broke over the head of poor Samantha Brick last week, after she wrote a piece for the Daily Mail, claiming other women hated her for her looks, I was struck by how often we fail to distinguish between envy and jealousy.

Brick was at it her original piece, saying she was held back at work by a female boss who was “jealous of her”, and in her follow-up, saying her husband dismissed the initial reaction to her claims as “the spiteful remarks of a few jealous women”. Ruth Langsford was at it on daytime TV. It was the refrain of the commentators: are women jealous of her looks, or is she just an arrogant, deluded narcissist?

None of this is technically incorrect, it just misses one of the nicer distinctions of the English language. It would have been better to ask if women were envious of her looks.

When they are used as distinct terms, jealousy is fierce protectiveness of one’s rights or possessions, often but not always over a sexual partner, the jealous husband or wife convinced their partner is cheating on them.

Envy is resentfully longing for what some one else has that you do not, beauty, sexual attractiveness, skill, luck, wealth, power, fame, talent, material possessions.

I’m not being pedantic. As I said, there’s nothing technically wrong in using jealousy to mean envy: there’s a long history of the word being used this way, and many dictionaries include this definition.

But what I fear is that when we blur the two words, we lose sight of the distinction between the two emotions. When we use jealous to mean envious, we are losing sight of true jealousy, that potent and terrible motive in human affairs.

Long a motive for murder, the subject of great art and literature, jealousy is the dark underbelly of love. It is all about what we have invested in The Other, and our most deep-seated fears about what we cannot control.

At least one response to Samantha Brick invoked Shakespeare’s “green-ey’d monster”, but that was wrong, because Shakespeare was most certainly talking about sexual jealousy:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

Othello is about envy and jealousy, Iago’s envy for Othello’s power and fame, and Othello’s jealous suspicions of his wife, Desdemona. But for Shakespeare, envy is a mean thing, the motive of a man who sets out to destroy another through lies and deceit, while jealousy is the tragic flaw of a great man, the overwhelming human emotion even he cannot control.

Jealousy is something so immense that even gods can be said to experience it: “He is a jealous God,” says the Old Testament. Not because he envies something mere mortals have, because he is protective of their devotion; the passage, in the Book of Joshua, is a warning not to worship other gods.

Envy, that tawdrier, meaner emotion, seems more in keeping with our narcissistic age, when everyone wants their moment in the glare of the camera lights, when people see a relationship not as something to nurture for itself, but as something to parade before the tabloids and the papparazzi, when love is reduced to a status update on facebook, when everyone seems to be screaming for attention.

We seem to have reached the point where people look for their own validity in others’ envy of them. Like poor Samantha Brick, so desperate to believe other women envy her looks.


  1. Love it am very envious of your use of English

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