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Elizabethan Drama as a Mirror or Looking Glass
compiled by
Alan Dessen


How [God] hath dealt with some of our countrymen your ancestors, for sundry vices not yet left, this book named A Mirror for Magistrates can shew; which therefore I humbly offer unto your Honors, beseeching you to accept it favorably. For here as in a looking glass, you shall see (if any vice be in you) how the like hath been punished in other heretofore, whereby, admonished, I trust it will be a good occasion to move you to the sooner amendment.
William Baldwin, A Mirror for Magistrates (1559)


In Playes, all cosonages, all cunning drifts ouer guylded with outward holinesse, all strategems of warre, all the cankerwormes that breede on the rust of peace, are most lieuely anatomiz'd: they shew the ill successe of treason, the fall of hastie climbers, the wretched end of vsurpers, the miserie of ciuill dissention, and how iust God is euermore in punishing of murther. And to proue euery one of these allegations, could I propound the circumstances of this play and that play ... they are sower pils of reprehension, wrapt vp in sweete words ... and as for corrupting [prentices] when they come, thats false; for no Play they haue, encourageth any man to tumults or rebellion, but layes before such the halter and the gallowes; or praiseth or approoueth pride, lust, whoredome, prodigalitie, or drunkennes, but beates them downe vtterly.
Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penilesse (1592)


0 London, mayden of the misstresse Ile,
Wrapt in the foldes and swathing cloutes of shame:
In thee more sinnes then Niniuie containes,
Contempt of God, dispight of reuerend age.
Neglect of law, desire to wrong the poore:
Corrpution, whordome, drunkennesse, and pride.
Swolne are thy browes with impudence and shame.
0 proud adulterous glorie of the West,
The neighbors burn, yet doest thou feare no fire
Thy Preachers crie, yet doest thou stop thine eares.
The larum rings, yet sleepest thou secure.
London awake, for feare the Lord do frowne,
I set a looking Glasse before thine eyes.
0 turne, 0 turne, with weeping to the Lord
Repend 0 London
Thomas Lodge and Robert Green, A Looking Glass for London and England (1590), lines 2388-2404


Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you overstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as Œtwere, 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 to the players (III. ii. 19-25)


A play's a briefe epitome of time,
Where man may see his vertue or his crime
Lay's open, either to their vice's shame,
Or to their vertues' memorable fame.
A play's a true transparant christall mirror,
  To shew good minds their mirth, the bad their terror:
  Where stabbing, drabbing, dicing, drinking, swearing,
  Are all proclaim'd unto the sight and hearing,
In ugly shapes of heaven abhorrid sinne,
Where men may see the mire they wallow in....
A whore, a thiefe, a pander, or a bawd,
A broker, or a slave that lives by fraud;
An usurer, whose soule is in his chest,
Until in hell it comes to restlesse rest;
A fly blowne gull, that faine would be a gallant;
A ragamuffin that hath spent his tallant;
A self wise folle, that sees his wits out stript,
Or any vice that feeles it selfe but nipt,
Either in Tragedy or Comedy,
In Morall, Pastorall, or History...
John Taylor, dedicatory poem to Heywoods' An Apology for Actors (1612)


The definition of the comedy, according to the Latins: a discourse consisting of divers institutions, comprehending civil and domestic things in which is taught what in our lives and manners is to be followed, what to be avoided .... Cicero saith a comedy is the imitation of life, the glass of custom, and the image of truth .... If we present a tragedy, we include the fatal and aborative ends of such as commit notorious murders, which is aggravated and acted with all the art that may be to terrify men from the like abhorred practises. If we present a foreign history, the subject is so intended, that in the lives of Romans, Grecians, or others, either the virtues of our countrymen are extolled, or their vices reproved .... To end in a word, art thou addicted to prodigality, envy, cruelty, perjure, flattry, or rage? our scenes afford thee store of men to shape you lives by, who be frugal, loving, gentle, trusty, without soothing, and in all things temperate .... Wouldst thou be honorable, just, friendly, moderate, devout, merciful, and loving concord? thou mayest see many of their fates and ruins who have been dishonorable, injust, false, gluttonous, sacrilegeous, bloody minded, and broachers of dissention .... What can sooner print modesty in the souls of the wanton, than by discovering unto them the monstrousness of their sin?
Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors (1612)


with an armed and resolved hand,
Išll strip the ragged follies of the time
Naked as at their birth....
And to these courteous eyes [i.e., the audience] oppose a mirror
As large as is the stage whereon we act;
Where they shall see the time's deformity
Anatomised in every nerve, and sinew,
With constant courage, and contempt of fear.
Asper, the satirist, in the Induction to Jonson's Every Man Out of His Humour (1599)


If there be any, that will sit so nigh
Unto the stream, to look what it doth run,
They shall find things, they'd think, or wish, were done;
They are so natural follies, but so shown,
As even the doers may see, and yet not own.
Ben Jonson, Prologue to The Alchemist (1610)


The next property that of his owne braine (but in Ciceroes name) hee giues to a Play, is, that it is a very Glasse of behauiour. The corruption of manners is there reuealed and accused. Which is easily confuted ... At Stage Plaies it is ridiculous, for the parties accused to replye, no indfferency of iudgement can be had, because the worste sort of people haue the hearing of it, which in respect of there ignorance, of there ficklenes, and of there furie, are not to bee admitted in place of iudgement .... A Iudge must be immoueable, vncorrupted, vpright, neither turning to the right hand, nor to the left; the meaner sorte tottre, they are carried away with euery rumor, and so easily corrupted, that in the Theaters they generally take vp a wonderfull laughter, and shout altogether with one voyce, when they see some notable cosenedge practised, or some she conueighance of baudry brought out of Italy. Whereby they showe them selues rather to like it then to rebuke it .... If the common people which resorte to Theaters being but an assemblie of Tailers, Tinkers, Cordwayners, Saylers, olde Men, yong Men, Women, Boyes, Girles, and such like, be the iudges of faultes there painted out, the rebuking of manners in that place, is neyther lawfull nor conuenient, but to be helde for a kinde of libelling, and defaming.
Stephen Gosson, Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582)


Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.
Swift "The Preface of the Author," The Battle of the Books


To render virtues loved and vices hated on stage, Jonson does not, in his best plays, resort to moral extremes in the manner of many morality plays but offers his audience complex situations that challenge and perplex. The Tide Tarrieth No Man shows us a preacher bringing hellfire and damnation to his dramatic congregation; Bartholomew Fair (or Volpone or The Alchemist) shows us the satiric manipulator forcing his audience into untenable positions and making them find their own way out. The laughter evoked by moral comedy is carefully controlled so that eventually it turns back upon the laugher. The man who told Drummond "of all stiles he loved most to be named honest" could not in his best plays fabricate a dramatic world built upon a wished for reality or a moral formulation that did not exist in the world as he knew it. To improve that world Jonson forced his audience to recognize the truth about themselves and the implications of that truth, whether through the rhetorical question of a Voltore or the epilogue of a Face or Cokes or the failure of a Surly or Overdo. Only by forcing the viewer to see himself in the glass of satire can moral comedy succeed.
Alan C. Dessen, Jonson's Moral Comedy (1971), pp. 249-50

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