Loving Reflections: The Effects of Mirroring in Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Plato’s Phaedrus
Though they were written centuries apart and in completely different societal conditions, Plato’s Phaedrus and several of William Shakespeare’s sonnets share distinct similarities. The more obvious, surface correlation is that they each describes a relationship (sexual or otherwise, depending on one’s reading of Shakespeare) between a young boy and an older man. The type of bond described in Phaedrus falls under the category of ancient Grecian pederasty: put simply, pederasty was a mutually beneficial relationship between an older man and a young boy, in which the boy is intellectually mentored by the man in exchange for sexual compliance. Though it may seem outlandish today, this practice was surprisingly common among Athenian scholars like Plato and his peers. While Shakespeare’s depicted relationship would not be considered pederasty, it is important to note that in its own way it involved an older, learned man and a young boy.
Setting aside the fact that both pieces partially revolve around same-sex relations, a second similarity arises. Both Shakespeare and Plato utilize the image of the mirror (or “glass,” in Shakespeare) to aid in portraying their relationships. While this may initially seem like a positive, romantic comparison, further analysis of each work reveals that this concept can have harmful implications, as well.
In sonnet XXII, Shakespeare begins:
“My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date” (10).
Here, the narrator is essentially stating that, though his mirror shows his age, he feels young because his beloved is young. This sentiment can be commonly found in more contemporary artistic professions of love, from Frank Sinatra’s “You Make Me Feel So Young” to the Cure’s “Lovesong” (“you make me feel like I am young again whenever I’m alone with you”). However, in this sonnet, Shakespeare goes even further with the analogy. He suggests that the reason he feels so youthful is not just because of his beloved’s age, or the strength of their love, but because they have effectively traded hearts. If he does indeed now have the heart of a young boy, “[h]ow can I be elder than thou art?” he asks, rhetorically of course (10). So, in this instance, the older lover is made young again not just because his beloved’s youthfulness rubs off on him, but because the beloved has actually given a part of himself to his lover.
The final couplet of the sonnet ends with Shakespeare proclaiming the permanence of this exchange of hearts, saying “[t]hou gav’st me thine, not to give back again” (11). By asserting the finality of this trade, Shakespeare insinuates that his lover and he are bound together forever. The lines that separate lover from beloved begin to blur; if one has the other’s heart, then is he really himself? Or is he merely a combination of the two beings, two souls living in one body? Through this use of the poetic metaphor of the mirror, Shakespeare begins the dissolution of any sense of separation between lover and beloved that he continues in several other sonnets about this particular beloved.
This unification of lovers continues in sonnet XXIV, where Shakespeare states that his beloved’s “true image” lies within “his bosom’s shop” (11). By stating that the only true depiction of his beloved is not within the boy himself, but in him, Shakespeare takes the lack of separation between the two a step further. Though a further possibility is not explicitly mentioned in the sonnet, one might conjecture that the same phenomenon occurs in reverse: the only true image of the lover-poet exists within his beloved. Thus, neither is complete without the other. Additionally, the final word of the poem, “heart,” seems to intentionally hearken back to the mention of hearts in sonnet XXII. Perhaps it is a subtle reminder that the the two lovers still possess each other’s hearts.
The lack of separation between lover and beloved is at both its most complete and problematic state in sonnet XLII. Shakespeare begins the poem in a state of grief over his belief that his boy-lover and female lover have become lovers, as well. But, in the fifth line, he decides to “excuse” their actions (19). His reasoning for this seemingly strange pardon is that the boy only loves the woman because he, himself, loves her, and the woman only “suffer[s]” the boy so that he will “approve her” (19). While one could write off this part of the poem as evidence of extreme narcissism, a more nuanced reading, one that recalls the previous two sonnets discussed in this paper, supports a different conclusion. It seems that, in Shakespeare’s mind, he and the boy have become so intrinsically linked that they even have the same desires–not only for each other, but also for other individuals outside of their relationship.
The final couplet again evokes a sense of narcissism, which may well be present, yet also contains an outright declaration of the unity of the lover and the beloved in the line: “my friend and I are one” (19). While this idea has obviously been previously insinuated, never has Shakespeare said so in such plain terms. But with the utmost unity come problems: Shakespeare is certainly jealous of the boy’s relations (whether they are real or not) with the woman. This sense of jealousy can be felt in the previous sonnet, XLI, in which the narrator accuses the boy of committing “wrongs,” “straying,” and “being false” (18, 19). So, it seems that lovers being the mirror image of one another can lead to problems for the relationship, as well as a potential crisis of identity. The boy, after all, only seems to desire the woman because Shakespeare does, not because he himself is truly interested in her.
In Phaedrus, Plato uses the metaphor of the mirror in ways that both converge with and diverge from Shakespeare’s usage. When he evokes the mirror, it is in Socrates’ second speech, when the philosopher is discussing a young boy’s emerging desire for an older man. The boy can “see himself in his lover as in a mirror” (255d). Thus, the boy’s love for the man allows him to see part of himself in the man, just as Shakespeare is able to see his lover’s youth in himself in sonnet XXII. Plato also states that “love’s image…dwells within him [the boy]” (255d). So, not only can the boy see himself in the man, but the boy can also see the man in himself. This is quite similar to the scenario in sonnet XXIV, in which Shakespeare has a metaphorical painting of his lover in his bosom. Here, Plato uses the image of the mirror to show how a man and boy in an ideal pederastic relationship are intrinsically entwined.
Despite these similarities, there is an important difference in the way this metaphor is implemented. In contrast to the setup in Shakespeare, the two are united even before their relationship begins in full. Though the boy sees himself in his lover, he “is not conscious of the fact” at first (255d). The boy is deeply confused about what is going on; he is “in love” but not does not know “with whom” (255d). Perhaps this change is due to the shift in perspective: Shakespeare’s sonnets are from the view of the man, while this part of Plato’s work describes the emotions of the younger boy. Certainly the two are likely to experience the relationship differently because of their difference in age. However, they both seem to have the same endpoint: the two lovers find that there are unremovable parts of themselves in each other.
As Shakespeare, there are some potentially negative aspects to this “mirror image” phenomenon. Plato compares the boy’s feelings to a “disease of the eyes”; the word “disease” obviously has very negative connotations (255d). The confusion surrounding the boy’s emerging desire could also be interpreted negatively–perhaps it would all be less confusing if the lovers were simply seen as separate entities. As in Shakespeare’s sonnets, plenty of drama and strife seems to arise over the fact that the two lovers are practically one person.
Overall, both authors use the image of a mirror to describe both positive and negative aspects of love between a boy and a man. The mirror serves to show the intense bonding that occurs between the two, to the point that they are almost one being. It also shows the confusion or loss of personal identity that a beloved may experience when he is so enraptured by his lover. Like a real mirror that falls and breaks, these relationships can reveal sharp, dangerous edges.
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