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  • A Mirror for Magistrates and Public Political Discourse in Elizabethan England
  • Jessica Winston

Collaboratively composed by William Baldwin and a group of seven other writers in the early 1550s, the Mirror for Magistrates (1559) is a collection of didactic poetry about the downfall of English kings, lords, and pretenders to power between the reigns of Richard II and Edward IV.1 The stated purpose of the volume is to teach the monarch and other nobles wisdom and virtue by showing them the results of a variety of vices, including tyranny, ambition, and pride. As Baldwin writes in his prefatory letter to the nobility, the Mirror provides a series of tragic stories in which noble readers might see themselves. "For here," he explains, "as in a loking glas, you shall see (if any vice be in you) howe the like hath bene punished in other heretofore, whereby admonished, I trust it will be a good occasion to move you to the soner amendment." Such admonition to virtue "is the chiefest ende, whye it is set furth," about which he hopes, "God graunt it may attayne" (65-66).

While the "chiefest ende" of the Mirror is to advise nobles to act virtuously, it is not clear how all of the parts of the work contribute to this goal. The individual "tragedies" are introduced and framed by a prose narrative that documents the activities of the authors as they create the volume itself. In a conversation about the composition of the book in the opening section of the prose narrative, George Ferrers, one of the [End Page 381] contributing authors, makes Baldwin the secretary for the group, telling him that "it shalbe your charge to note, and pen orderly the whole proces," and near the end of the work, Baldwin tells us that he "recorded and noted all such matters as they had wylled me" (71, 240).Yet neither Ferrers nor Baldwin explains why the "whole proces" of the authors' work—and not just the final outcome of it—should be "recorded and noted" in the collection alongside the tragedies themselves.

The Mirror is based on John Lydgate's Fall of Princes (ca. 1431-39), itself a translation of Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium (ca. 1358) by way of Laurent de Premierfait's French prose version, Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes (ca. 1409). Nothing like the prose frame exists in these earlier works. Nevertheless, a look at the Mirror in the context of these generic predecessors helps to make sense of the formal device. Each of the earlierworks is designed, as Lydgate puts it, to serve as a "cleare lanterne" in which the tragic examples of ancient rulers can "teach another what he shall eschue."2 Even so, both Laurent and Lydgate dramatically altered the form and content of Boccaccio's De casibus in order to make it suit the specific contexts in which they wrote. The authors of the Mirror followed in this tradition, writing to advise princes, while also altering the substance and shape of their work to suit their goals. With the addition of the prose frame, they shifted the emphasis of the de casibus genre from the "cleare lanterne" of admonitory history to their own conversations about the creation of the volume, transforming the social and political function of the genre itself. The purpose of this essay, then, is to examine the Mirror in the context of its generic precursors in order to discuss how and why Baldwin and his fellow authors altered the De casibus. In the Mirror for Magistrates, we shall find, the authors turned a kind of writing designed to speak to power into one that depicted and fostered a conversation about power, about the obligations and responsibilities of those who rule the commonwealth.3 In the end, they shaped a work that not only changed the genre in which they were working, but also transformed the culture in which they lived. The Mirror helped to promote a public discourse about governance in Elizabethan England.4 [End Page 382]

Adaptations Of The De Casibus

The Mirror for Magistrates is one in a series of adaptations of Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium. The...


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pp. 381-400
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