Biography 24.3 (2001) 616-619
[Access article in PDF]
The Mirror for Magistrates enjoyed a brief period of popularity in Tudor England. Initially published in 1559 (although compiled earlier), the first edition of the Mirror contained a collection of tragic monologues in verse that were introduced and connected by prose links, and covered recent English history by way of notable English figures (from Robert Tresilian to Edward IV). William Baldwin was the editor and chief author, but the Mirror was a composite effort by a group of writers assembled by him. In 1563 a second, enlarged edition appeared, which included two of the few pieces that are still sometimes read: Thomas Churchyard's "Shore's Wife" and Thomas Sackville's "Induction" to the complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham. Subsequent editions extended the time frame both forward and backward and added legendary figures to the collection; in 1575, for example, The First Part of the Mirror for Magistrates appeared, so called because it [End Page 616] started with the mythic founder of Britain, Brute. This "prequel" (12), written by John Higgins, was followed in 1578 by The Second Part of the Mirror for Magistrates, by Thomas Blennerhasset, which covered the period from A.D. 44 to 1066. Finally, in 1610, the largest edition of the Mirror appeared; edited by Richard Niccols, it filled in the chronological gaps with additional tragedies, and ended with an encomium for Queen Elizabeth.
By 1610, however, the reading public had lost interest in the Mirror. Nor have subsequent generations reclaimed it, despite occasional scholarly remarks on the work's historical importance. According to C. S. Lewis, in fact, "No one lays down the Mirror without a sense of relief." At the same time, Lewis granted that "an immense amount of serious thought and honest work went to its composition" (246). It is in a similar spirit that Paul Budra has turned to the Mirror, hoping to resurrect it by clarifying its genre--and hence what he calls "the concomitant formal expectations by which the Mirror should be evaluated" (xii). Only so, he argues, will critics and scholars be prepared to include the Mirror in current critical debates about "nation building," "the relation of power to cultural production," and "the politics of subjectivity" (xii). Budra's ultimate goal is a worthy one: almost certainly the Mirror could be tapped in studies of Tudor English culture. In fact, a recent article by Jim Ellis, "Embodying Dislocation: A Mirror for Magistrates and Property Relations," is a provocative study of the work's "fascination with the mutilated bodies of its subjects," which finds "evidence of cultural trauma" there and in "its compulsive retelling of ambition punished" that reflects the "subjective consequences of changing conceptions of property" in the very period that the Mirror was a popular text (1032).
Budra's argument, however, is less cultural than formal; that is, his focus is generic or genealogical, and his understanding of genre is, unfortunately, too schematic, and his readings of the text too literal, to give a great deal of new life to the Mirror or to make a major contribution to the study of Tudor culture. In any case, I rather doubt the present applicability of his insistence that the cultural resonance of a work depends, in part, on familiarity with the literary forms used. Cultural criticism, as it is practiced today at least, is hardly concerned with generic or aesthetic issues. And while Budra has clarified the de casibus form that characterizes the Mirror, the Mirror as he describes it remains largely formulaic and tedious, unlike the writings of the near contemporaries--Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare--that he cites as culturally resonant. Almost certainly he could have strengthened his argument for the work's cultural significance had he devoted more time to editions and the immediate contexts of the Mirror at the height of its popularity, in the 1560s and 70s. Nevertheless, he has accumulated...