The Mirror for Magistrates is a tough nut to crack. A repeatedly revised and expanded collection of narrative poems first conceived as a continuation of John Lydgate’s sprawling fifteenth-century poem The Fall of Princes (itself a translation and adaptation of Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrem), the Mirror for Magistrates was intended to feed the early and mid-Tudor appetite for de casibus poetry: the morally instructive tales of the falls of great (or notable) persons. The Mirror poems feature reflective ruminations from English figures—historical and pseudohistorical—ranging from Brutus to Cardinal Wolsey, with prose framing. The poems were composed by a range of authors, initially overseen by William Baldwin. The Mirror was printed by Thomas Marshe in 1559 following the suppression of an earlier Marian edition, with expanded and revised editions appearing throughout the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Though the Mirror has been acknowledged as a source for canonical Elizabethan writers, scholarly interest has been limited largely—to borrow a phrase from Paul Budra’s excellent 2000 monograph on the Mirror—to the ‘archaeological and apologetic’ (p. xi). This is due in no small part to C. S. Lewis’ influential castigation that the Mirror was emblematic of his ‘Drab Age’: indeed, Lewis derided the Mirror in his essay ‘Edmund Spenser, 1552-99’ as ‘about as bad as it could be’, though he acknowledged (or more accurately, lamented) that it was ‘fatally popular’ amongst Elizabethan writers. Yet the Mirror is more than just a footnote to Shakespeare’s works; even if we leave aside the subjective assessment of its artistic quality, we should recognize its importance on its own terms. It was hugely influential for writers and readers thinking about how to depict and make use of England’s past in a turbulent era, and it represents a seriously neglected opportunity for work in a wide range of fields. For this reason, it is wonderful to see this present volume emerge amidst a growing body of scholarship taking the Mirror seriously. Harriet Archer and Andrew Hadfield have drawn together a number of the historians and literary scholars whose work on the Mirror and related texts over the past two decades has resulted in something of a surge in wider interest, especially amongst a growing number of mid-Tudor specialists. This volume thus works to set a marker down and assess the state of Mirror scholarship to prompt further study; what emerges from this volume is a vista over the complexity of the Mirror and the people who made it. A grand unifying statement about what the Mirror ‘does’ may not be achievable, and this collection does not set out to provide one, except to say that the Mirror meant—and perhaps was intended to mean—different things to different readers, and that this diversity is worth more of our attention. This is not to say this collection does not make strong and well-made points, however. The editors have brought together something like a Mirror ‘dream team’ in an effort to provide enough coverage to indicate the scale of work available to be done on the Mirror, and to provide authoritative discussions of the text’s genesis, adaptations, and effects. The volume comprises a substantive introduction to the Mirror and the volume, with 13 essays divided into three sections covering the early Mirror (1559–1563), the ‘Later Additions’ (1574–1616), and aspects of the Mirror’s influence (with a particular focus on politics, genre, Spenser, and Shakespeare). One of the real strengths of this collection is that it does an excellent job indicating the importance of the later editions, contributions, authors, and editors. In particular, the volume brings much-needed attention to Richard Niccols’ 1610 additions and revisions (as well as his 1616 Sir Thomas Overburies Vision), with two chapters (by Andrew Hadfield and Michelle O’Callaghan) discussing Niccols and the final iterations of the Mirror. Even a brief examination of the Mirror (in any of its manifestations) reveals the necessity of this collection, and anyone hoping to begin work on the Mirror will be grateful to the editors and contributors. The editors have done an excellent job showcasing the complexity of the Mirror, and in so doing, they have made three emphatic points. First, the Mirror merits critical attention because of its multivocality in composition and production, its conceptions and uses of history, and its politics. Secondly, the Mirror provides a wealth of starting-off points for studies of underexamined mid-Tudor literature. Thirdly, the Mirror rewards multidisciplinary approaches that demonstrate the ways in which literature, politics, and history interacted in Tudor England. It is understandable—and perhaps inevitable—that there should be some gaps in coverage in a volume of this size, and Archer and Hadfield should be commended for providing a clear and coherent narrative that connects the various essays. It is logical to devote a fair proportion of an essay collection on the Mirror to the authors and the circumstances that framed the production of the texts; after all, there is so much to cover in this area. Much space is also given to discussions of how the Mirror poems illuminate aspects of Tudor political thinking, and this too is of real importance: naturally, we want to know what these poems meant to say to readers. There are generic discussions about the ways in which the Mirror-poets’ interpretations of de casibus poetic conventions reveal much about Tudor ideas about tragedy and the shape of history. But much of this is about writers and editors; less space is given to readers, though the editors acknowledge the ‘substantial readership’ (p. 5) imagined by the publishers, and a number of the individual essays address particular aspects of readership relevant to their sections. The final section of the volume attempts to address readership and influence more cohesively, and it does an excellent job hitting some of the major relevant areas: contemporary (that is, 1560s) de casibus tragedic conventions, Spenser, and Shakespeare. This will satisfy many readers, but it would have been good to have seen some more in-depth discussion of issues raised throughout the volume but not comprehensively addressed: comparative readings of the Mirror and popular histories like those by Grafton and Stow, for example; or further discussion of the role of soldier-poets like Thomas Churchyard and George Gascoigne. This is not really a criticism, however. While readers may not find all of their own wished-for topics covered, this is a vindication of the editors’ argument; with a text like the Mirror for Magistrates, there is something for everyone—and there is so much left to be done with it. This collection represents a really successful gathering of work on a fascinating text, and it is sure to spur more excellent work in the future. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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