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Harriet Archer and Andrew Hadfield, eds., A Mirror for Magistrates in Context
by Jim Ellis

A Mirror for Magistrates in Context: Literature, History and Politics in Early Modern England. Edited by Harriet Archer and Andrew Hadfield. Cambridge UP, 2016. xiv + 258 pp. ISBN: 978-117104358. $82.00 cloth.

The Mirror for Magistrates has for many years posed a seemingly endless series of critical challenges, the first of which is how to recover or even understand the pleasure that it clearly offered its contemporary readers. As the editors detail in the introduction to this volume, the poem had a long and complex publication history. It was originally suppressed and then first published in 1559, and continued to be printed and republished in expanded editions over the next fifty years; a final version appeared in 1610, but even this was repackaged and sold for years after. For a book disparaged as hopelessly drab by critics like C. S. Lewis and E. M. W. Tillyard, it clearly had a substantial and enthusiastic following. Understanding what they saw in it is not always easy to specify, although the two most frequent explanations have been the Elizabethan love of history and of didactic literature. However, for a work with a clearly stated aim of offering counsel to magistrates, it is difficult to reconcile the text’s polyphonic and multi-vocal nature, which offers contradictory statements at almost every turn. How seriously are we to take the prose framing narrative (and the competing frame narratives that get offered in subsequent editions), and the commentary it offers on the poetic tales? How are we to understand the relation between the original, more historically circumscribed group of characters, and the subsequent editions of the text, which sprawl outwards across the years, covering more and more eras of history and indeed myth? There are compelling reasons to deal with these questions, the most obvious being the overwhelming popularity of the Mirror in the period. But we might also remember the praise of critics such as Sidney and Spenser, and the influence it had on other writers, the appeal of whose texts we better understand. The Mirror clearly has much to teach us about the culture of reading and writing in the period, but it has not always been easy for us to extract those particular lessons from this text, or even, really, to specify where this text begins and ends.

This current volume brings together some of the key critical voices on the poem in recent years, who grapple with many of these questions and do much useful work by clearing away some of the misconceptions and critical condemnations that have stood in the way of a re-evaluation. They do this in part by exploring and illuminating some of the many contexts of the various editions of the poem. The essays are arranged in a such a way as to give us a progressive view of the successive editions of the Mirror, and offer us closer looks at some of the key (and often obscure) figures in the Mirror’s long development. This arrangement allows us to see the Mirror not as an incoherent monolith, but rather, as Andrew Hadfield observes, as “a work in continual evolution” (164), and one which is responding to its multiple historical contexts in complex ways. Further, the essays illuminate some of the many intersections of the text with other key works and figures across its lengthy publishing run. The text’s multiple historical contexts, Bart Van Es argues, mean that not only does the number of texts continually grow, but also that the meaning of the original texts also shifts across the Mirror’s publication history, going from being seen as politically oppositional in the early years to being regarded in 1610 as “a monument of patriotism” (219). Although one of the complaints frequently leveled against the Mirror (and explored in some of these essays) is its lack of coherence, in this case, introducing more fragmentation into the analysis helps us to appreciate how successive writers and editors were working to align this lumbering omnibus with the literary, historiographical, and political interests of their respective moments. Attempts to deal with the contradictions of the text by seeing them as conscious, as attempts at humor or subversion, are for the most part unconvincing: a text with two (or more) competing frame narratives is obviously not that interested in consistency for its own sake, let alone for any complex ironic stance.

Scott Lucas’s essay opens the first major section of the volume, which deals with the first and most canonical editions of the Mirror, which appeared between 1559 and 1563. Starting with a reading of a printer’s mark that illustrates William Baldwin’s devotion to Froben, Lucas challenges the reputation of Baldwin as an uninspired plodder in the Medieval footsteps of John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes. Lucas demonstrates that on the contrary, Baldwin was thoroughly a product of the European Renaissance, and the text he shepherded through the press offered an imaginative and productive negotiation of a Medieval form with contemporary poetic concerns, one which moreover reflected current humanist historiographic practice. It was, writes Lucas, a “unique synthesis of old and new” (30). Subsequent essays in the opening section by Paul Budra, Mike Pincombe, Jennifer Richards, and Angus Vine all draw attention to aspects of the historical context for the early Mirror, with a few recurring emphases. All gesture, to greater or lesser degree, to Renaissance rhetorical theory, and in particular, to the Mirror’s use of prosopopoeia, the figuring forth of a speaker (often signaling Gavin Alexander’s influential discussion of that figure).[1] This was Philip Sidney’s favorite rhetorical device, which may go some way to explaining his enthusiasm for the Mirror in the Defense of Poesy. Paul Budra notes that prosopopoeia was associated with the generation of affect (certainly this is the case in Sidney’s Defense), and connected to theatricality (Pincombe makes this point as well, in his argument about the non-serious nature of the poem’s talking corpses). Jennifer Richards uses the rhetorical figure to explore “vocality” in the text, which was clearly of much interest to Baldwin, the writer of the eerie tale of interspecies communication, Beware the Cat. Angus Vine looks at prosopopoeia more in the context of legal testimony and the rise of the expert witness, which would clearly resonate in this litigious age.

Although they have different interests, taken together these opening essays point us towards seeing the text as highly invested in performance and indeed performativity. These poets emerge from a humanist educational system that taught rhetoric partly through performance, through the same method of impersonation of historical figures that we see in the Mirror, within a larger culture that was alive to the rhetoric of performance. The Mirror’s frame offers us a fiction where writers take on and perform for each other the personae or the ghosts of historical figures, and these performances are meant to move us, through affect, to some kind of self-reformation. These critics’ salutary attention to rhetoric and affect helps to see past the manifest contradictions in different tales about the role of fate and culpability, or between the testimony of the ghosts and other historical accounts. Baldwin himself, noting the divergent accounts in the Chronicles of one historical incident, says that deciding between them is not “nedefull to our purpose, which minde onely to diswade from vices and exalte virtue” (qtd. in Vine 99). This is a very useful point to remember. Baldwin is writing historical poetry, not history or moral philosophy; as with Sidney, the important thing is the generation of affect that would move the reader to reformation, not biographical or historical truth.

The essays in the next major group in the collection tackle the subsequent editions of the Mirror, as it sprawled outwards from the ghosts of the relatively recent past to include the histories of exemplary Romans, of early Briton rulers, and sundry other figures left out of the first editions. (Most of the writers in this section observe that the edition they are working on has been maligned or neglected, but of course neglect and scorn is relative for a book like the Mirror.) Cathy Shrank looks at the contributions of George Ferrers, and in particular the tangled publication history of the tale of Elianor Cobham, the title of which was listed in the table of contents of two early editions, with the tale itself not appearing until the 1578 edition. Shrank compares Elianor’s tale with those of other, better-known and more highly-regarded female figures like Jane Shore. She argues that Elianor “reclaims an agency denied her in the historical record” (119), in an argument that once again rests on the power of prosopopoeia, and “an accomplished and carefully constructed rhetorical performance” (120). Paulina Kewes considers the twelve Roman histories that were included in the 1587 edition, which constitute “the first poetic treatment of Roman history in Elizabeth’s reign” (126) and inaugurate “an important new phase in the English reception of Roman history” (128). The most immediate context for which Higgins writes these is the trial of Mary, and Kewes shows that the Roman histories do not offer a clear allegory for how to respond to that situation.

Andrew Hadfield looks at Richard Niccols’ 1610 version, perhaps the least-loved of the Mirrors, and explores its nostalgia for a more militant Elizabethan era that would explain why Niccols undertook the continuation in the first place. As with Harriet Archer’s discussion of the 1578 Seconde Part of the Mirror for Magistrates, where she offers new detail on the career of Thomas Blenerhasset, part of the value in Hadfield’s contribution is the attention he pays to Niccols’ career and publication history, particularly his 1616 poem London’s Artillery. Hadfield shows that Niccols’ revisions to the tales show an awareness of how these or similar characters were portrayed on the English stage, completing a circle of influence that highlights once again the performativity of the earlier poetry. Michelle O’Callaghan writes about another poem by Niccols, his Sir Thomas Overburies Vision (1616), which builds on the Mirror tradition but departs from its more usual project by presenting the story of a recently departed figure, and one who speaks not to his fellow magistrates, but rather “to the interests of an urban citizenry” (181). O’Callaghan shows how this poem reflects an interest in a newly emerging world of news, and in particular the popular interest in the sensational Overbury murder; it is the forerunner of the “ghost news pamphlets of the 1620s” (184). The truly innovative aspect of the text, she argues, is how it queries and critiques public opinion, from a non-aristocratic perspective; this continues the genre’s evolution from offering advice first to princes, then magistrates, and now educated citizens.

The final major section of essays looks at the Mirror in relation to Elizabethan poetry and drama. Jessica Winston follows one tradition of interpretation of the Mirror to argue that its political radicalism “offers an alternative to the absolutist model of governance assumed in the de casibus tradition and [that] it provided an example for others of the time to query absolutism as well” (200). She traces this out in English tragedies of the 1560s such as Sackville and Norton’s Gorboduc (Sackville was also a contributor to the Mirror). As she notes, this play was initially performed for the 1561/2 Christmas Revels at the Inner Temple, whose audience was precisely the one that the Mirror imagined for itself: the magistrates and future magistrates of the country. Another play, Gascoigne and Kinwelmersh’s Jocasta, was performed at Gray’s Inn during the 1566 Christmas Revels. She notes that Gabriel Harvey writes on the title page of his copy of this play, “A Mirror for Magistrates,” which might once again point to an original understanding of the poem as highly performative (211).

Bart van Es argues that the 1559 edition establishes for the period an understanding of the mirroring function of this sort of literature as directed not towards historical accuracy but rather self-improvement, and thus helped to install a new form of reading in the period, one in which readers were urged to see themselves in representations of the past. He goes on to assess the poem’s likely influence on Spenser, a self-described “poet historical,” and in particular, on Spenser’s use of the mirror metaphor and the way Spenser imagines history as a reforming mirror for the present. Van Es shows, however, how shifting contexts cause the text to appear to mirror different events; the poem read in 1590 might reflect different crises than when read in 1596 (or when written in 1580), which should provide something of a caution to attempts to fix the political relevance of texts.

Finally, Philip Schwyzer considers the poem’s disorderly order, its obsession with chronological sequence and its failure to marshal its stories accordingly. Temporal matters are further confused when we recall that these are ghosts speaking, in the present, sometimes recalling what others have said of them after their deaths. He argues this may be one place where we can look to the poem’s influence on Shakespeare, and in particular, on his history plays: “their shared predilection, verging on compulsion, to indulge in unconventional and preposterous temporal effects” (238).

Schwyzer makes this observation apropos of the critical consensus that while Shakespeare knew the Mirror well, there are very few verbal echoes to be found in the plays. Following van Es’s suggestion that the Mirror encouraged a new way of reading history, one which can be seen in Shakespeare’s plays, it may well be more generally that the lively presentation of English speakers bodied forth by the poem’s prosopopoeias, helped to shape a presentation of tragic characters on stage. The essays in this collection, in their repeated gestures towards the theatricality of the Mirror and its performative understanding of poetry, might suggest a diffuse but nonetheless profound influence on the way the period understood the reading process and the function of literature, and in particular, the pedagogical or self-fashioning possibilities of lively fictions. Taken together, the essays show us that this garrulous assembly of the talking dead was a lively force throughout its long publication history, and suggest some useful new ways of listening to what it was actually trying to say.


Jim Ellis
University of Calgary

[1] Gavin Alexander, “Prosopopoeia: The Speaking Figure,” in Renaissance Figures of Speech, edited by Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber, Cambridge UP, 2007, pp. 97-112.


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Cite as:

Jim Ellis, "Harriet Archer and Andrew Hadfield, eds., A Mirror for Magistrates in Context," Spenser Review 47.3.43 (Fall 2017). Accessed January 23rd, 2018.
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