A Mirror for Scorn and Virtue: Renaissance Warnings Against Wilful Pleasures (Essay)


A Mirror for Scorn and Virtue:
Renaissance Warnings Against Wilful Pleasures


The Mirror for Magistrates, first published in 1559, was a collection of poetry providing an account of the downfall of different historical figures. Its purpose was to offer a moral warning to its readers, encouraging the pursuit of a virtuous life and restraint from ‘wilful pleasures’. This perhaps explains why it is presented as a series of lamentations in which the prominent historical icons are the narrators of their own demise, each coming forward to ‘make his moan for his unhappy fate to William Baldwin, editor of The Mirror[1]. By holding the mirror up to reflect their deeds and actions in the past, they allow others to examine their mistakes and learn from them in the present. It was produced during a period of intense regulation by secular and ecclesiastical authorities, intent on stamping out moral deviancy. People were already ‘well accustomed to being told how wicked they were’[2] for indulging in life’s pleasures, particularly if those pleasures were sexual. During this time, homilies such as ‘the Homily against Whoredom and Uncleanness’ were read in place of sermons in Church, spitting scathing criticisms at those willing to let ‘true godliness and virtuous living… decay’[3] at the hands of the ‘great swarms of vices’[4] present in their lives. Within this cultural climate, the theatrical profession was strongly linked to ‘sinful and aberrant sexuality’[5] and inherent wickedness. It received strong opposition from Puritans who regarded the theatre as no more than ‘a stimulus to sexual vice’[6] that must be suppressed to preserve moral decency. Stubbes, a vocal enemy of the theatre’s eroticism, warned that ‘[learning] to play the whoremaster, the glutton [or] the drunkard’[7] is to be schooled in the art of ‘[becoming] unclean’[8].

Nor was this association without truth or evidence. London was, as it is now, the epicentre Britain’s theatrical and sexual industries. Rumours regarding the players and their sexual relationships (with both audience members and one another) frequently circulated – not even Shakespeare could escape them[9]. The theatre was also unable to escape its links to the court, and it is well noted that ‘courtiers were notoriously promiscuous’[10]. Though Queen Elizabeth (dubbed the ‘virgin Queen’) was officially chaste, gossip about her secret relations flourished, and under her successors including James I, both Kings and courtiers were the objects of notable scandals[11]. As a result, the personal lives of ‘weak, flawed and tyrannous monarchs continued to figure prominently in literature throughout the Renaissance’[12]. It may be surprising to note, then, that Shakespeare strived towards the same purpose as William Baldwin et al – that is, to use drama to create an accurate and telling reflection of the virtues and vices of humanity. Shakespeare alludes to this in Hamlet, advising that ‘the purpose of playing… is to hold… the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature [and] scorn her own image’[13].

It would not be accurate, though, to declare that Shakespeare’s work embodies the ideals set forth by Baldwin et al., because his plays demonstrate a critical advancement in their thinking. The Mirror was originally meant as a continuation of Lydgate’s The Fall of Princes and, as a result, it strongly reiterates Lydgate’s medievally-influenced moral ideals. Lydgate’s poetic narratives made a direct and deliberate link between happiness and morality. Carroll notes how Lydgate perceives ‘the decline of happiness to misery… as a fall from grace’[14] which could easily be avoided by those living a virtuous life. Whilst many of the tragic plays written during the sixteenth century (particularly the earlier examples) reiterate this rather simplistic connection between sin and consequential misery, playwrights such as Shakespeare and Marlowe progressed beyond the ‘medieval practice of allegorising the struggles of the soul between sin and virtue’[15] as a clear-cut, ‘black and white’ moral battle. Although Shakespeare’s works share the tragic demise ‘impelled by heroic greatness’[16] as these earlier plays, they also make allowances for human weaknesses, and the personality’s contradictions and complexities. The humanist influence on the writers of the Renaissance is evident in his writing. Deep exploration into what constitutes the ‘self’ helped to stress the significance of the individual, because it gave writers like Shakespeare unprecedented insight.

Despite their insight into the paradoxical qualities of human nature, the humanist movement did not bring about a radical redefinition of what constitutes sin in the short period between publication of The Mirror and the first of Shakespeare’s plays. On the contrary, the distinct favouritism expressed by the humanist movement towards literary classicism and the revival of Greek and Roman literature ensured Shakespeare’s artistic familiarity with texts such as Dante Algheri’s The Divine Comedy, which offers an uncompromising view of sin. In this text, Dante actively explored the consequences of indulgence in pleasures considered ungodly or impure as he took the reader on a journey passing through Hell’s inferno, witnessing as characters are punished for their sinful blunders whilst living. Seven sins are named as punishable above all others in The Divine Comedy, which have all managed to retain their cultural relevance and importance into the twenty-first century. They are commonly known as the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’[17], and they are thus: ‘luxuria’ (lechery, or lust); ‘gula’ (gluttony); ‘avaritia’ (avarice, or greed); ‘acedia’ (discouragement, or sloth); ‘ira’ (wrath); ‘invidia’ (envy); and ‘superbia’ (pride)[18].

Shakespeare would be aware of the significance of undertaking any of the actions listed above. However, he evidently did not see these vices as something that could be absolutely avoided or abstained from. Further investigation into the Shakespeare’s conception of the human character reveals that he views them as forces that are constantly at work in our lives, ones with the power to ruin or define us. They co-exist alongside the more positive forces that exist, such as ‘honour… [or] conscience’[19] that also affect our behaviour by creating ‘conflicting… mental processes… and qualities of character’[20]. He placed great emphasis on the balance of the relationship between the vice and its virtuous partner. Lust lacks the purity of, but still relates directly to, love; ambition is not a sin unless it is overindulged, allowing it to transform into greed; appetite is not a bad thing, but gluttony is destructive; admiration is not dangerous, unless it mutates to jealousy, and so on. Instead of black and white of medieval morality, he saw the innumerable shades of the human personality that were indefinable in terms of absolute sin or virtue. However, these two forces were not complimentary and cooperative; they cannot be soothed, or separated. This idea has been addressed in countless forms, but perhaps the most potent is Freud’s analogy of the battle of the life and death instincts[21]. Put most simply, if the indulgence is controlled, virtue generally wins. If the vice is granted control, though, darkness may prevail.

The most potent example of this throughout Shakespeare’s illustrious career is his treatment of sex. Shakespeare was driven by both personal and artistic interest in human sexuality, which developed alongside his experiences in both life and art. This unavoidably brought both his life and his writing into contact with what is considered the most potentially destructive of all seven of the deadly sins: lust, or sexual desire. Shakespeare was aware of the dangers present in ‘mistaking animal desire for a higher passion’[22] and that misuse of the sexual instinct can lead to ‘a prostitution of all that is best in man’[23], reducing great men to acts of rape, violence and even murder. Despite that, he was unable to disassociate the act of sex from the concept of love and, as Wells notes, ‘continually saw sex as an instrument of relationships between people… [and] an essential component of even the highest forms of human love’[24].

This introduces the idea that these potential sins are not only unavoidable, but their roots may be found in virtuous places. Take, for example, the virtue of amorous love and the vice of envy. Combined, they create the most fascinating and powerful destructive power of all – sexual jealousy. To use Bates’ phrase, love ‘is shown to contain the seeds of evil’[25]. Comparing its portrayal in a comedy such as Much Ado About Nothing[26] with a tragic counterpart like Othello[27] allows for the exploration of how these two forms dictate how characters’ sins are handled. In both plays, Shakespeare places great emphasis in the plot on the complications caused by distortions of the truth. In Much Ado About Nothing, though, the deceptions undertaken by the characters are much more simplistic in nature, causing Wells to dub them as simply ‘two-dimensional plot mechanism[s]’[28]. The deceptions undertaken by characters – excluding the actions of the malevolent villain, Don John – are relatively positive in nature. They allow ‘virtue [to] hide itself’[29] temporarily using sin as a disguise, but return to it swiftly.a-mirror-for-magistrates2.jpg

For example, Beatrice and Benedict’s fervent arguments that the virtues of marriage are a shackle to be avoided are soon reversed through the good intentions of their friends, misleading both characters to believe the other is enamoured. When Hero accuses Beatrice of the sin of pride[30] knowing she will overhear, it is only to enable her to embrace the idea that Benedict is in love with her. The couple’s witty banter and resistance is purely for appearances and, in reality, they are in love and marry alongside Hero and Claudio. Similarly, Hero’s pseudo-death and public resurrection after Claudio has publicly disgraced her serves primarily to accentuate how virtuous their union is, once it is reinstated and they are joined in matrimony.

Bates explains that Shakespeare engineers the supposed destruction of their love ‘in order to reverse [it] in a glorious moment of redemption’[31]. Therefore, the lie of hero’s death acts as a positive deception too; one which is reversed easily when the truth is revealed and serves to resolve all the characters’ issues.

The exact opposite is true in Othello. Under the disguise of the virtuous friend and loyal servant, Iago manipulates Othello into committing irreversible sins. Instead of the crude physical deception used in Much Ado About Nothing, Iago employs the weapon of civility – language – to gain Othello’s trust and make him doubt the virtue of those closest to him. Don John is a resentful opportunist. Iago, however, takes time to weave an intricate web of lies and nurses Othello him down the path to self-destruction with care and deliberate consideration. He manipulates the others around him into aiding him – Emelia’s retrieval of the handkerchief[32], Cassio’s overheard bragging of sexual conquest [33] and Othello’s vengeful decision to ‘strangle her in… the bed she hath contaminated’[34] are all prompted by Iago’s ‘sly suggestions and expert handling’[35].

It is apparent, then, that Shakespearean comedies and tragedies offer the audience two very different breeds of villain. Much Ado About Nothing honours the comic tendency to caricature the antagonist of the piece. Don John is assigned the unfavourable characteristic of being a grotesque ‘bastard’[36] because it subscribes to the popular notion that ‘illegitimate sexual activity can produce social malcontents’[37]. Shakespeare is no stranger to manipulating the cultural prejudices of his audience for dramatic effect. His portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice[38], for example, demonstrates a deliberate evocation of the existing discrimination against the Jewish community. That Don John presents no solid reasoning for his actions, other than that he is a ‘plain-dealing villain’[39] and has a generalised sense of ill will towards others, has raised questions among critics. His melancholy has been attributed, amongst other things, to envy (of both Claudio’s ‘most exquisite’[40] good looks and military success) and a secret lust for Hero. Gay goes further, suggesting that Don John may even ‘harbour some frustrated, homosexual desire for Claudio’[41].

Similar subtextual motives of homoerotic desire are also often used to explain Iago’s actions, to the extent that this modern interpretation citing ‘latent homosexuality has become… a cliché’[42]. However, none of the motives Iago openly suggests – resentment at Cassio’s promotion[43], circulating rumours about Othello bedding his wife Emelia[44]/[45] or jealousy of Othello’s fortunate marriage[46] – seem sufficient to prompt such a ferocious response. Iago’s sexually provocative speech intended to substantiate his claims of Desdemona’s adultery (in which he claims to have shared Cassio’s bed and been made love to in her place[47]) fuels the fire of this theory by providing ‘the most homoerotically charged lines in the whole of Shakespeare’[48], and when he tells Othello he is ‘[his] own, forever’[49] it sounds like the dedications of a marital ceremony.

However, it can be argued that Don John’s simplicity merely provides a suitable counterpart to the relatively dim-witted Claudio, and that the intricate complexities present in the tragic villain, Iago, must exist in order to counterbalance the psychological sophistication demonstrated by Othello. When Claudio and Othello’s sexual jealousy are placed in direct comparison, the differences are striking. Where Othello is driven into anguished incoherence by jealousy’s overwhelming force and is reduced to near-primal savagery, Claudio manages to retain his perspective and remain somewhat detached from the event. Claudio’s emotional pain is expressed in the sharpness of his tongue, but even here he retains enough self-control to lament, employing both alliteration and paradox as he bids Hero goodbye, declaring she is ‘most foul, most fair… pure impiety and impious purity’[50]. In his place, Othello is reduced from his former eloquence – the quality that allowed him to woo Desdemona in the first place – to a raving near-lunatic (‘Confess? Handkerchief? O devil!’[51]), driven to commit acts of violence and murder against his innocent wife. This may be attributed to a crucial distinction between the two men – Othello possesses a carnal knowledge of his wife Desdemona that Claudio and Hero, as virgins, are yet to experience. Because Claudio has refrained from the physical expression of passionate lust, he is unable to feel the full force of his sexual jealousy; his love is one of the mind, but not of the body. Othello, however, having indulged in this sin, is made to suffer the full consequences.

It would be foolish, though, to attribute the differences in Shakespeare’s portrayal of love and sexuality in these two plays solely to the constraints of the genre. They show not only a development of his dramatic technique, but also perhaps a deepening of his own personal, sexual experience. Wells notes that while Much Ado About Nothing seems to be written ‘from observation rather than experience’[52], in Othello Shakespeare fully appreciate love’s bittersweet and self-destructive nature. The ironic truth that Shakespeare has uncovered – that often our greatest strength is also our biggest weakness – is a lesson that permeates real life on a daily basis. However, when this concept is examined under the microscope of theatre it must inevitably be assigned a narrative structure. By fixing a beginning, middle and end to a series of events, it brings about a forced resolution that reality is unable to replicate. Reality rarely has the luxury of punishing sin, rewarding virtue and tying up all loose ends in an allocated space of time. Presenting events in this way unavoidably emphasises the causal relationship between the characters’ weaknesses and their consequential blunders, accentuated by the speed of their downfall. Perhaps, then, it would be fair to say that the warnings issued by Baldwin et al in The Mirror also resonate throughout the works of early modern historical playwrights such as Shakespeare – that men, particularly those of important social standing, should ‘embrace… [a] virtuous life’[53], because the overindulgence of ‘wilful pleasures’[54] will cause them to ‘blunder’ irrevocably[55], particularly if they find themselves on the wrong side of the stage’s velvet curtain!

(Images: The British Library)


[1] E.I. Feasey, ‘The Licensing of The Mirror for Magistrates’, Oxford Journals, March (2005), pgs178-193

[2] Stanley Wells, Shakespeare, Sex & Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pg13

[3] Anon., ‘The Homily against Whoredom and Uncleanness’, cited in Shakespeare, Sex & Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pgs13-14

[4] Anon., ‘The Homily against Whoredom and Uncleanness’, pgs13-14

[5] Wells, Shakespeare, Sex & Love, pg14

[6] Wells, Shakespeare, Sex & Love, pg14

[7] Phillip Stubbes, Anatomy of Abuses, in The English Renaissance: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. by Kate Aughterson (London: Routledge, 2002), pgs180-185

[8] Stubbes, Anatomy of Abuses, pg180-185

[9] Bill Bryson, Shakespeare (London: Harper Perennial, 2008), pgs 65-94

[10] Wells, Shakespeare, Sex & Love, pg15

[11] Castiglione, The Courtier, trans. by Thomas Hoby, in The English Renaissance: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. by Kate Aughterson (London: Routledge, 2002), pgs159-163

[12] Andrew Hiscock, ‘Renaissance, 1485-1666: Historical Overview’, in English Literature in Context, ed. by Paul Poplawski (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pg135

[13] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (second edition), ed. by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), Act III Sc II lns20-23

[14] Claire Carroll, ‘Humanism and English Literature in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries’, in The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, ed. by Jill Kraye (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pg247

[15] Hiscock, ‘Renaissance, 1485-1666: Historical Overview’, pg154

[16] Carroll, ‘Humanism and English Literature in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries’, pg247

[17] Claire E. Honess, ‘Introduction’, in The Divine Comedy, trans. by Henry Francis Cary (London: Wordsworth Editions, 2006), pg xvii

[18] Dante Algheri, The Divine Comedy, trans. by Henry Francis Cary (London: Wordsworth Editions, 2009)

[19] Wolfgang Clemen, ‘’Introduction’ Chapter to the Tragedies’, in Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1945-2000, ed. by Russ McDonald (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), pg56

[20] John W. Draper, The Humors and Shakespeare’s Characters, cited in Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1945-2000, ed. by Russ McDonald (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), pg56

[21] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. by James Strachey, vols I-XXIV (London: The Hogarth Press, 1960), vol XXI, pg122

[22] Wells, Shakespeare, Sex & Love, pg250

[23] Wells, Shakespeare, Sex & Love, pg250

[24] Wells, Shakespeare, Sex & Love, pg250

[25] Catherine Bates, ‘Shakespeare’s Tragedies of Love’, in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy, ed. by Claire McEachern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pg192

[26] William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (second edition), ed. by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), pgs569-593

[27] William Shakespeare, Othello, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (second edition), ed. by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005),pgs873-907

[28] Wells, Shakespeare, Sex & Love, pg169

[29] Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act II Sc I ln112

[30] Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act III Sc I lns49-50

[31] Bates, ‘Shakespeare’s Tragedies of Love’, pg182

[32] Shakespeare, Othello, Act III Sc III lns294-324

[33][33] Shakespeare, Othello, Act IV Sc I lns109-165

[34] Shakespeare, Othello, Act IV Sc I lns202-203

[35] Bates, ‘Shakespeare’s Tragedies of Love’, pg190

[36] Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act IV Sc I ln190

[37] Claire McEachern, Much Ado About Nothing, cited in Shakespeare, Sex & Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pg169

[38] William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (second edition), ed. by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), pgs453-479

[39] Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act I Sc III ln30

[40] Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act I Sc III ln46

[41] Penny Gay, As She Likes It (London: Routledge, 1994), pg161

[42] Bruce Smith, Homosexual Desires in Shakespeare’s England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991), pg61

[43] Shakespeare, Othello, Act I Sc I lns8-32

[44] Shakespeare, Othello, Act I Sc III lns379-380

[45] Shakespeare, Othello, Act II Sc I lns294-295

[46] Shakespeare, Othello, Act II Sc I lns290-295

[47] Shakespeare, Othello, Act III Sc III lns423-430

[48] Wells, Shakespeare, Sex & Love, pg177

[49] Shakespeare, Othello, Act III Sc III ln482

[50] Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act IV Sc I lns103-104

[51] Shakespeare, Othello, Act IV Sc I lns40-42

[52] Wells, Shakespeare, Sex & Love, pg173

[53] Baldwin et al., A Mirror for Magistrates

[54] Baldwin et al., A Mirror for Magistrates

[55] Baldwin et al., A Mirror for Magistrates


5 thoughts on “A Mirror for Scorn and Virtue: Renaissance Warnings Against Wilful Pleasures (Essay)

  1. I think of Shakespeare as the bridge between the classical world of the ancient Greeks and the modern one being created by nascent capitalism (as Ronald Reagan would say, there I go again–being all Marxist).
    Iago is a delicious evil to be savored. “Beware of jealousy, it is the green-eyed monster,” as he goads Othello to stew in his jealous passions. I saw “Othello” once at Stratford (Canada), and it was the best play performance I’ve ever seen. “Words are words. I never yet did hear that the bruised heart was pierced through the ear.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve always wanted to see Othello brought to life in the theatre – it is unfortunately overlooked all too often in favour of Macbeth or Hamlet (although, that said, I do love a bit of Hamlet!!), so I haven’t yet had the chance. I think Iago is one of the most powerful characters Shakespeare ever wrote; he has lines that give me the shivers.

      Liked by 1 person

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