Article Title

Magic Mirrors in Richard II


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Almost fifty years ago, Ernst Kantorowicz opined rather enigmatically that the looking glass in Richard II’s deposition scene (act 4, scene 1) “has the effects of a magic mirror.”1 While much critical energy has been well spent on the rich iconographic tradition of the mirror—as symbol of both truth telling and falsity, of both vanity and self-knowledge—Kantorowicz’s suggestive intuition has remained unexplored.2 Yet, to ask why King Richard’s mirror does seem somehow magical is to activate some of the deposition scene’s most powerful dramatic effects. One way to understand the mirror’s magical aura is to recognize the mirror episode as the climax in a sequence of three ritualized “magic mirror” spectacles that Richard deliberately imposes on Bolingbroke’s would-be “resignation” scene. (Shakespeare’s imagination also deliberately imposed them, for none of these incidents is traceable to his sources.) In each of these—the joint crown-holding tableau, Richard’s formally enacted “decoronation,” and the mirror episode proper—Richard conjures up specular images designed to have specific “magical effects” on the stage audience and on Bolingbroke in particular. His aim in the first two is to expose the contrived proceedings for what they are: a ceremonialized theft, a demonically inversive theater of state befitting Bolingbroke’s upside-down “new world” (79). In the third of these spectacles, embedded in a cluster of echoes from Doctor Faustus that evoke contemporary magical practices and witch beliefs, Richard deploys the stage-property mirror in two complementary ways. As iconic symbol, it enriches the political and moral meanings of the preceding magic mirror shows, which now coalesce within its frame. As literal looking glass wielded ritualistically, it enables Richard to simulate Elizabethan mirror magic in a last effort to identify and indict Bolingbroke as demonic thief. However, while Richard’s “magic” fails to move his on-stage audience, it brings about an unexpected inner transformation. For in each of the “magic mirror” spectacles calculated to reflect Bolingbroke’s demonic treason, Richard also glimpses himself. As a result, the mirror episode proper is charged not only with Richard’s animus toward Bolingbroke and his craving for self-justification but also with an anguished and courageous determination to confront his own moral being, his own demons. Situated at the play’s climax, the scene’s “magic mirrors” therefore bear heavily on Richard’s characterization and on Shakespeare’s representation of history both within and beyond the play.


1 Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 39. Richard is said to be “comparable to the trapped and cornered wizard in the fairy tales, [who] is forced to set his [unspecified] magic art to work against himself.” Without further explanation, Kantotowicz emphasizes the disjunction between “outer appearance” and the “inner man”; when the mirror breaks, he says, “there shatters not only Richard’s past and present, but every aspect of a super-world. His catoptromancy has ended,” and the king’s two bodies are forever severed (40).

2 For symbolic mirrors, see Peter Ure, ed., King Richard II, 5th ed., Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1961), lxxxii– lxxxiii and sources cited; Ernest W. Talbert, The Problem of Order: Commonplaces and an Example of Shakespeare’s Art (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962), 187–91; Ernest B. Gilman, The Curious Perspective: Literary and Pictorial Wit in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 167–77; and Herbert Grabes, The Mutable Glass: Mirror-Imagery in Titles and Texts of the Middle Ages and English Renaissance, trans. Gordon Collier (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 214–16 and passim. The “complex [mirror] iconography of medieval and Renaissance ideas,” says Charles R. Forker (in the introduction to his edition of King Richard II, Arden Shakespeare [London: Thomson Learning, 2002], 135), allows for the brilliant dramatization of Richard as “at once narcissist, self-deceiver, victim of flattery, seeker after self-knowledge, escapist from reality and destroyer of his own identity, while associating these personal roles with the literary traditions of de casibus tragedy … and historical or moral truth itself as exemplified in such titles as … A Looking Glass for London and England.” See also ibid., 36–38 and 407 (studies cited in note to 4.1.275). Quotations from Richard II cite Forker’s edition and are indicated in parentheses in my text; in my discussion of 4.1, I have given the line numbers only, and in some cases I have silently added italics for emphasis. For other plays, except where noted, I cite The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed., gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

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