The Mirror in Literature
Wicked Queens, deposed Kings and curious, little girls.
Very few people, men or women, can imagine getting through a normal day without looking at least once in a mirror. Modern self-consciousness means that we must see ourselves as others see us. A mirror is a polished surface, usually of amalgam-coated glass, or metal, which reflects an image, reads the Oxford English Dictionary. A mirror need not be the familiar object of silvered glass that we are all used to, but any surface that reflects an image. We can only imagine that our forbears looked at their images in pools of still water, before the existence of manufactured mirrors. Judging by the number of fables and stories that involve reflections and mirrors, people believed that there was something magical surrounding this "doppelganger" world.
In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Narcissus was a handsome youth who saw the reflection of his face in the waters of the Styx River. He became so captivated by his own reflection that he sat looking at himself until he died and a small flower grew in his place. Six thousand years ago, people looked into surfaces of polished obsidian, a volcanic rock. Later in history, mirrors were made of highly polished bronze and copper. Early mirrors were associated with wealth. The Romans coated glass with a layer of lead to make mirrors that allowed them check the state of their hair and jewellery. By the Renaissance, the mirror had evolved into something like it is today. The spread of mercantile wealth made mirrors more ubiquitous but few people still had access to one. Leonardo da Vinci famously wrote his notebooks in mirror writing, something that many left-handed people are able to easily do, making his work more arcane. For the majority of people, the mirror remained surrounded by superstition and sorcery. In the Grimm fairytale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the Wicked Queen uses the surface of a mirror to conjure a demon that enables her to track and kill (she thinks) her hated stepdaughter.
The eponymous hero of William Shakespeare’s play of 1595, Richard II, takes a glass mirror and after a long and eloquent speech, shatters it. Hath Sorrow struck/ So many blows upon this face of mine/ And made no deeper wounds? (Act 4, Scene 1, 277-80), he declares. Although Richard was actually a medieval king, Shakespeare was dramatizing the growing self-awareness of the Renaissance mind, the disjuncture between the image and the self. Shakespeare was not concerned with superstition; the hero had already had his bad luck. However, the psychology surrounding the mirror had to take a back seat for a few centuries.
In the 1600s, a plethora of optical devices were in invented, then perfected by scientists like Galileo Galilei. The age of looking had arrived. The universe had opened up and the world would never be the same again. The telescope was followed by the microscope, which was followed by the camera. By the nineteenth century, the mirror had lost its connotations of magic and become simply an object with which to reflect “reality”. However, the romance surrounding the mirror still lived on. In 1833 the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his poem, The Lady of Shalott. She lives in a tower, under a spell that forbids her to look at the real world least she should die. Her mirror comes to her rescue, enabling her to see the outside reflected as she works her loom. However, one day she sees the reflection of the handsome Sir Lancelot, and falls in love. I am half-sick of shadows, she declares, before leaving the tower and going to her doom.
The meaning of the poem was clear; it was the lady who was enchanted, and not the mirror. Forty years later, Lewis Carroll published Through The Looking-Glass. I never cease to marvel at the prescience of his work. Today, in the wake of Albert Einstein and other physicists, we are well used to the strange theories of the parallel universe, of matter and anti matter and I wonder, over and over again, just how this nineteenth-century mathematician wrote this extraordinary book. Another OED definition of the mirror is anything regarded as giving an accurate reflection or description of something else. In the modern world, we have become used to parallel actions and situations. We have access to technology that allows us to capture exact images on a hither-to unimagined scale. You would imagine that the doppelganger world would have lost its magic, but there we are, creating virtual worlds with film and computer technology. It seems that The Matrix is here to stay.
- Alice Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
- Metamorphosis by Ovid
- Richard II by William Shakespeare
- The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson