Lend me a looking glass
May 16 2016
In Shakespeare, the act of viewing one's self in a real or figurative mirror forces truths by destroying known truths
In medieval tradition, the mirror was a symbol of incorruptible truth and purity. But its use in most fiction is complex as a literary motif of self-scrutiny. What is the self that the mirror reflects? The face is an image of the self and the mirror an image of that image. The multiple, reciprocal reflections of the face shapes a language of both conscious self representation and alienation, of recognition and loss, bordering at times on an existential emptiness. Mirrors appear not necessarily as mirrors, but as the “other” that compels the self to question and re-appraise a familiar experience. The act of mirroring uses a Descartian method of posing the cogito, the individual’s consciousness and the “other” part of the self that observes that consciousness.
Beholding ones face in the mirror to suggest the tension between the subjective-objective duality in human consciousness is almost archetypal, occurring in all ages in almost all genres of literature. In Shakespeare, the trope of the mirror or gazing at the face of the other that mirrors one’s thoughts is a recurring theme evoking a sense of displacement- sometimes gently, sometimes harshly. The symbolism of reflections in Shakespeare, invites invoking well known stories where this trope is central and almost mythic.
There are many unforgettable images of the face gazing at itself. In Greek mythology, Narcissus known for his beauty, fell in love with his reflection in a pool of water, unaware that it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, and unable to get the object of his love, Narcissus lost his will to live and died staring at his reflection. In the fairy tale, Snow White, the magic mirror always confirms to the queen that she is the fairest one of all till one day it declares that Snow White is fairer. Jealous, the queen plots to kill Snow White, but is eventually killed herself. In both instances, the face in the mirror signifies the objectification of the self as the “other”, the delusional love of it and the sense of alienation from that object of love, as unbearable leading to the destruction of the false consciousness of the self.
In Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shallot the lady cannot look at the world directly but only as reflection in the mirror and she dies when she falls in love with an image in the mirror — the form of Sir Lancelot. The mirror cracked from side to side, the curse has come upon me, cried the Lady of Shallot.
In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the face in the painting of Dorian Gray changes according to his changing nature and mirrors his ugly reality.
In these instances, the viewer falls in love with the reflected image. The reverse is the case in Sartre’s novel Nausea. The protagonist Roquentin looks at himself in a mirror and is filled with disgust and nausea. His dualistic personality allows him to observe himself, but to his horror he does not recognise his own face. The “nothingness” he perceives in his face fills him with anxiety but exactly what this “nothingness” eludes him. But in all cases, seeing a mirrored image is fatal.
Shakespeare’s plays are fraught with instances of his protagonists gazing at a mirror or at the face of the other. This can shatter the subjective experience of the self, without yielding a more reassuring reality, and give rise to a sense of alienation. In Shakespeare’s comedies, there is a return to the socially given self, but not without inflecting their light hearted veneer with an irony and a sense of unsettling discomfiture; in the “tragedies” there is no return and the loss of self is stark and relentless.
In Midsummer Night’s Dream, the switching of Bottom’s head and the bewitched eye of the beholder Titania destabilise known realities by alienating the self from the world it identifies itself with. Whereas Bottom remains much the same as he was, it is the story of Titania and the pairs of lovers that shows that deceptiveness, mutability and illusion are inherent in the perceiving self, not the object it beholds. Such displacement suggests that identities have shifting shapes. As Helena puts it, things out of focus, and I’m seeing everything double. This problematises the subjective-objective nature of experience and asks the question ‘what is real? The “self” is embodied in the ephemeral shapes offered by its reflections, the way it sees itself and the way others see it. This makes it unfathomable. This is expressed as a comic pun in Bottom’s dream that is experienced and yet hath no bottom.
In Hamlet, it is assumes the form of a troubled question — in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil?
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 24 enacts a reciprocal reflection in the face of the beloved, Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me are windows to my breast… yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art; they draw but what they see, know not the heart. The act of mirroring enables selves to be revealed more “truly”; but paradoxically, it also admits the elusiveness of interiority. In it one finds the measurement not only of what one is, but also of what one is not. In Sonnet 62, the poet peers into the looking glass — Methinks no face so gracious is as mine, no shape so true, no truth of such account. And yet it is so for my self mine own worth do define. The glass evokes a speaking self that indulges in itself but also concedes the absence of any real stable identity. In both the sonnets, mirroring faces suggest a reflexive self-consciousness akin to modern subjectivity.
The ambiguity of the reflection is reinforced by language. In Julius Caesar, Cassius remarks to Brutus, you have no such mirrors as will turn, your hidden worthiness into your eye, that you might see your shadow. The mirror, reveals only a “shadow”, — an ephemeral self-representation signalled in its moment of expression.
This ambiguity acquires dark overtones in the tragedies where it mirrors a deep displacement and a ruptured consciousness. Before Duncan’s murder, Macbeth exhorts lady Macbeth make our faces vizard to our hearts, disguising what they are. Lady Macbeth remarks on Macbeth’s face — Your face, my lord is a book where men may read strange matters advising him to alter favour is to fear. This is not just dissimulation. It is a deliberate double self-alienation — a deep rupturing of a familiar social identity, then re-imposing it on its ruptured surface, but being aware all the time that this is not real. The knowing self both dissimulates as well as watches its self- dissimulation destabilising all sense of reality. Lady Macbeth’s sleep walking signifies this complete self-alienation.
In King Henry VI, Richard remarks Why I can smile and murder whiles I smile... and frame my face to all occasions. This objectification of a false face suggests a complete self determinism — but ironically this, too, is only an illusion, just a performance, wrapping the self in the illusion it creates.
What one sees is both familiar and unsettling. The faces that Hamlet gazes at are the ones he loves and yet they subvert his reality. First is that of his father’s ghost — unreal but it destroys his real world. Then there is Ophelia beholding whose face, Hamlet veers between love and cruelty, the desperation to believe and scepticism. Ophelia recalls Hamlet’s face that falls to such perusal of my face as he would draw it. (and) raised a sigh so big so piteous and profound as it did seem to shatter his bulk and end his being. Ophelia’s description of Hamlet studying her face creates a double reflection with its latent dramatic irony — in his “unreal” insanity she is unknowingly viewing her own self that is on the verge of coming apart. The entire play revolves on the trope of the play where performance holds up as t’were, the mirror up to nature. The play creates an illusion that mirrors interiority. Hamlet forces his mother Gertrude — you go not until I set up a glass where you may see the inmost part of you. What Gertrude sees in the mirror is her sin. Self-knowledge leads to the complete loss of self. In Hamlet, physical nothingness and existential nothingness fuse. The skull of “poor Yorick” mocks its own grinning with its bare bone face. Yet, all through, Hamlet is obsessed with the scathing knowledge that outward images construct the self. Yorick’s skull mirroring the nothingness of being is immediately juxtaposed with get you to a lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick. Ophelia’s face is the object of his cruel barbs god has given you one face, and you make yourselves another. The shifting images of the face make the self elusive, shifting, uncertain. Hamlet lets the self dissolve in this vertigo of images.
In some other plays, the protagonist seeks desperately to stabilise his identity by fixing his image in the mirror. The act of peering into a mirror is a way of objectifying the self as a stable reality “out there”. But the reflection of oneself both stabilises and destabilises the subjective experience of the self. Immediately after he’s deposed, Richard (Richard II) asks for a mirror. Give me that glass, and therein will I read. No deeper wrinkles yet? Hath sorrow struck so many blows upon this face of mine, and made no deeper wounds? Finding that the “objective” reality of the mirror fails to manifest his broken self, Richard smashes the glass. For there it is, crack’d in an hundred shivers. Mark… How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face. Shattering the mirror signals Richard’s effort to break with his former identity as the king of England. Paradoxically, the shattered mirror uncovers the “truth” about Richard’s subjectivity — his lack of autonomy and his dependence on others to create his sense of self. At a more ambivalent level, Richard is aware of the discrepancy between what the glass reflects and what he wants to believe in — an ambivalence reinforced by Bolingbroke’s response that The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed the shadow of your face. This not only invokes the fragility of reality that can be broken at an instant — it blurs the borders between illusion and reality — the self as whole or fragmented is just a construct.
The ambiguity of the mirror is most poignant at the end of King Lear, when Lear, knowing Cordelia is dead as earth says Lend me a looking glass, if that her breath will mist or stain the stone, why, then she lives. Lear’s mirror is to reflect the objective “truth” of Cordelia’s breathing. But the truth — Cordelia’s death, the hypothetical mirror shows is his own deluded self that had sought its measure in the false words of others. Who is it that can tell me who I am? he asks. His fool answers Lear’s shadow.
In Shakespeare, the act of viewing one’s self in a real or figurative mirror or in the face of the other, is a moment of alienation- it forces truths by destroying known truths, rippling off unstable epistemological uncertainties and anxieties.