Enter one with a glass
RICHARD Give me that glass and therein will I read.
No deeper wrinkles yet? Hath sorrow struck
So many blows upon this face of mine
And made no deeper wounds? O flatt’ring glass,
Like to my followers in prosperity
Thou dost beguile me. Was this face the face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? Was this the face
That like the sun did make beholders wink?
Is this the face which faced so many follies,
That was at last outfaced by Bolingbroke?
A brittle glory shineth in this face;
As brittle as the glory is the face,
[He throws down the glass]
For there it is cracked in a hundred shivers. (4.1.276-289)
Well this is a moment. Vanity (the mirror is most of all associated with that quality, for example in the emblem tradition) but also vulnerability. This is one of the places where the play’s interest in doubles and pairs and shadows and reflections has been leading (and there’s much more still to come). It begins with tremendous, recognisable humanity: no deeper wrinkles yet? All that suffering and pain, and it’s left no trace—hath sorrow struck so many blows upon this face of mine and made no deeper wounds? (You’re looking really well, kindly friends say to the gravely ill, the bereaved, the heartbroken; the ironic unfairness of looking fine when inside you’re falling apart in agony.) Everything is so terrible that surely it should have left some trace? But no. O flatt’ring glass, like to my followers in prosperity—my favourites, my fawning courtiers and so-called friends—thou dost beguile me. You’re reassuring me that everything’s alright, when it clearly isn’t. This mirror, rather than being an instrument of revelation, flatters and deceives.
It’s hard to believe that this is the face that every day under his household roof did keep ten thousand men. I used to be in charge. Like the sun, this face used to make beholders wink, blink; I used to dazzle all who saw me with my glory and splendour and power. Yet this face is the one that confronted so many follies, so much foolishness—but was, finally, outfaced, defeated, by Bolingbroke. The point here, however, isn’t the content, although the underlying point is a desperate one (I don’t recognise myself anymore, just a memory of who I used to be)—it’s the rhetoric. Is this or was this the face echoes Faustus’s terrible, ecstatic response to the vision of Helen of Troy in Marlowe’s play: ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burned the topless towers of Ilium?’ What’s going on here? Self-aggrandizement, certainly: my situation is like the fall of Troy. Nostalgic, self-deluding, elegiac beauty, Richard as fading starlet, creating beauty and power in language that he no longer has in life. An overwhelming sense of loss, which might include the loss of Marlowe too, dead long before his time a few years earlier; his Edward II lurks behind Shakespeare’s play at times, not always straightforwardly.
A brittle glory shineth in this face: it was all illusion, light on water, dazzle, smoke and mirrors. And as brittle as the glory is the face, for there it is cracked in a hundred shivers. Richard has undone himself, and now he destroys himself, in so far as he has only existed as that glory, that sun, that dazzling illusion. Shivers just means fragments but it has an unavoidably corporeal frisson, a bodily tremor. The stage manager holds her breath: the mirror has been checked and tested; will it remain neatly cracked within the frame, or splinter hazardously? It’s a shocking moment, and it’s not done yet.