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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Immediately after he's forced to give up his crown, Richard asks for a mirror. Huh? What's that all about? We know the guy's arrogant, but geez, this isn't exactly the best time for Richard to be checking to see if his hair got messed up when he took off his crown. What's going on here?

Well, as it turns out, Richard's not being a diva. In fact, it's just the opposite. Check out what he says when he sees his reflection:

No deeper wrinkles yet? Hath Sorrow struck
So many blows upon this face of mine
And made no deeper wounds?

Okay, now we get it. After losing his title and all his power, Richard looks in the mirror and expects to see that his face has aged as a reflection of his sorrow and grief. Ever see the before and after pictures of US presidents? Powerful political leaders often age dramatically as a result of their stressful jobs (Barack Obama's hair seemed to turn gray almost overnight), so Richard seems to be onto something here. But as he continues to look into a mirror, Richard is surprised to find his face basically unchanged.

O, flatt'ring glass,
Like to my followers in prosperity,
Thou dost beguile me
. (4.1.10)

Since he feels like he's been transformed by losing the crown, Richard thinks it's strange that his face hasn't aged a gagillion years to reflect his suffering and stress. Here he accuses the glass of "flattering" him, or making him look better and healthier than he actually is – kind of like his brown-nosing advisers did when he was still in power.

Then things get really weird. Richard grabs the mirror, smashes it, and tells King Henry to look at how sorrow has "ruined" his face. (Uh oh – broken mirrors are never a good symbol.) Actually Richard's face isn't ruined – it's the mirror that's broken into a bunch of little pieces, so now Richard's reflection looks as awful and distorted as Richard feels on the inside. In other words, this is Richard's way of showing us that his loss of the crown has shattered him emotionally.

What, you don't buy that theory? Okay, here are some other options. This moment could signal that Richard is symbolically breaking with his former identity as the king of England. Or this mirror-breaking scene could be Shakespeare's dramatic way of telling us that life is one big illusion that can be broken in an instant.

What, you've got a better idea? That's fine with us, as long as you can back it up.

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