Hamlet and the mirror

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word
to the action; with this special observance, that you
o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so
overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end,
both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere,
the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure.

Hamlet, III,2,16-24

I remember writing an essay about Hamlet and the mirror for my literature undergraduate course and my whole point was that this passage is often misquoted. Shakespeare is indeed saying that theatre mirrors life but as a men of the theatre he was also highly aware of its limitations to reflect society. Action in a stage where commoners could dress as kings and queens and where women were played by boys could hardly be seen faithful to the real world – Shakespeare is more ironic and subtle than his ‘quoters’ are.  He knew that all mirrors distort. Likewise, Hamlet knew that the actors on the stage would never be able to faithfully perform Claudius villainous deeds because all the plot creation had been intermediated by himself, based on a ghost’s account!! He instructs them to suit the action to the word and the word to action – but he knows that word & act do not represent fact – fact is never used. Moreover, actors would have to use their ‘own discretion’ while performing.

It is not uncommon to hear people discussing teacher’s reflection and using the mirror as a image to represent the concept. I cannot see it. Instead, I insist on my Shakespearean interpretation of the mirror. You can hold the mirror up to yourself but what you will see is just theatre – its costumes, make-up and acting. It is a subjective reflection because you can only see through your own lenses. We will only see what our educational background, family upbringing, and experiences will allow us to see. This is a vision created by our own ghosts. It can never be objective or detached from your own interpretations.

I think that to be able to be reflective you have to try to see yourself, your actions, ideas and language from different points of view – your own, the others’ and the literature. The others and their readings will bring to you other perspectives and other ways to look at yourself. Shakespeare also knew it and that’s why, unsure about what to do regarding his uncle, Hamlet asks a troupe of players to perform the murder to the murderer. He thinks that perhaps seeing his act through the eyes of the others Claudius would realise the heinous crime he had committed and repent.

It didn’t work very well though because what others show you will also be interpreted according to your own assumptions and you should be open to accept it, but at least it can give you a little bit more of information upon which to build your reflection and operate some transformation on your values and attitudes. It would be interesting to try to trace similarities and differences between the play-within-the play and reflection.