Shakespeare’s Halls of Mirrors

  • Adam Max Cohen


If it is true as former Royal Shakespeare Company director John Barton has claimed that time is the most important word in Shakespeare’s plays, then it may also be true that the mirror is one of Shakespeare’s most important metaphors. Because mirror imagery is so prevalent in the plays it has received a great deal of critical attention.1 In his comprehensive study of mirror imagery in medieval and early modern English literature Herbert Grabes dedicates a chapter to the study of Shakespeare’s seventy mirror passages. Grabes claims that even though Shakespeare’s mirror imagery covers conventional territory, he often “exploits conventions of metaphor, extending, varying and combining them contextually and enriching them functionally.”2 This chapter will focus on the technological and historical contexts of Shakespeare’s mirror metaphors, paying special attention to those metaphors that depict individuals as mirrors and those metaphors that reveal moral ambivalence regarding the mirror.


Optical Distortion Crystal Glass Mirror Type Convex Mirror Glass Mirror 
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  1. For studies of mirror scenes and mirror passages see H. T. Price, “Mirror Scenes in Shakespeare,” in Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. J. G. McManaway et al. (Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1948), pp. 103–113;Google Scholar
  2. Rudolf Stamm, “The Glass of Pandar’s Praise: The Word-Scenery, Mirror Passages, and Reported Scenes in Troilus and Cressida,” in The Shaping Powers at Work: Fifteen Essays on Poetic Transmutation ( Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1967 ), pp. 32–51.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Herbert Grabes, The Mutable Glass: Mirror Imagery in Titles and Texts of the Middle Ages and the English Renaissance ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982 ), p. 204.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Benjamin Goldberg, The Mirror and Man ( Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1985 ), p. 140.Google Scholar
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    See Caroline Barron, “Richard II: Image and Reality,” in Making and Meaning: The Wilton Diptych ( London: National Gallery Publications, 1993 ), p. 13.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Jean des Caurres, Recueil des Oeuvres Morales et Diversifiées (Paris, 1575).Google Scholar
  7. 24.
    See, e.g., Norman Rabkin, “Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V,” Shakespeare Quarterly 28 (1977): 279–296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Lawrence Danson, “Henry V: King, Chorus, and Critics,” Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    From Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones, trans. Thomas H. Corcoran ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971 ), pp. 2–3.Google Scholar
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    In Frederick Goldin, The Mirror of Narcissus in the Courtly Love Lyric ( Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967 ), p. 6.Google Scholar
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    For more on the history of scrying see Theodore Besterman, Crystal-Gazing: A Study in the History, Distribution, and Practice of Scrying ( London: W. Ryder, 1924 ).Google Scholar
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    In George L. Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1929 ), p. 185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Melchior-Bonnet, p. 189. Francis Bacon criticized mirror scrying on epistemological grounds. He used the distorting mirror of divination as a metaphor for the way that the intellect interacts with and ultimately distorts the stimuli it receives from nature: “Just as an uneven mirror distorts the rays of things, so the mind also, when it is acted upon by things through the sense, treacherously implants and mixes its own nature into the nature of things, in the process of forming its own erroneous notions.” Only the regimented use of a philosophical method could transform the intellect into a true reflecting glass. See Francis Bacon’s “Plan of the Work” for The Great Instauration, in Novum Organon, ed. and trans. Peter Urbach and John Gibson ( Chicago: Open Court Press, 1994 ), p. 23.Google Scholar
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    See A. Goodrich-Freer, “Recent Experiments in Crystal-Vision,” Proceedings of the Society for Physical Research 5 (1889): 495.Google Scholar
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    For more on the mirror’s role in this scene see Peter Ure, “The looking-glass of Richard II,” Philological Quarterly 34 (1955): 219–224.Google Scholar
  18. 52.
    For more on drama as a mirror see Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare’s “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy ( San Mateo, CA: Huntington Library, 1958 );Google Scholar
  19. Willard Farnham, The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy (1936; repr., Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1970 );Google Scholar
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  22. 54.
    N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998 ), pp. 13–14.Google Scholar

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© Adam Max Cohen 2006

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  • Adam Max Cohen

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