Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 3. Its popularity and influence

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

IX. “A Mirror for Magistrates”

§ 3. Its popularity and influence

As to the popularity and influence of the successive editions of A Mirror for Magistrates in the sixteenth century there can be no doubt. Besides obvious imitations in title and method, many other works were published similar in plan, though not in title. Some of these, such as George Cavendish’s Metrical Visions, were, evidently, due to the example of Boccaccio’s De Casibus through Lydgate; others, such as A Poor Man’s Pittance, are either avowed or obvious imitations of the Mirror. In the last decade of the century, isolated legends came into vogue, apparently through the success of Churchyard’s Jane Shore (Q 2), which, probably, suggested Daniel’s Rosamond (1592) and this, in turn, Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece. Drayton’s Cromwell (1607) was actually included by Niccols in his edition of the Mirror, but, together with his Legends of Robert Duke of Normandy, Matilda the Chaste and Piers Gaveston (1596), Lodge’s Tragical Complaynt of Elstred (1593) and Fletcher’s Richard III (1593), it belongs to the class of poems suggested by the Mirror rather than to the cycle proper. Probably, the influence of the Mirror on the public mind through the interest it aroused in the national history did as much for literature as the direct imitations. In this way, the Mirror contributed to the production of Daniel’s Civil Wars, Drayton’s Barons’ Wars, England’s Heroicall Epistles and Warner’s Albion’s England, though there is little evidence of direct connection. As to the influence of the Mirror upon the history plays, fuller investigation only serves to confirm Schelling’s summary of the probabilities:

  • Upwards of thirty historical plays exist, the subjects of which are treated in The Mirour for Magistrates. And, although from its meditative and elegiac character it is unlikely that it was often employed as an immediate source, the influence of such a work in choice of subject and, at times, in manner of treatment cannot but have been exceedingly great.
  • In critical esteem, the Mirror hardly survived the period of its popular influence. No sooner had the book been given to the public, than Jasper Heywood proclaimed the “eternall fame” of its first editor, Baldwin (prefatory verses to Seneca’s Thyestes, 1560); Sidney, in his Apologie, praised the Mirror more discreetly as “meetly furnished of beautiful parts”; Hake, in 1588, commended it as “penned by the choicest learned wits, which, for the stately proportioned vein of the heroic style, and good meetly proportion of verse, may challenge the best of Lydgate, and all our late rhymers”; and Harington, in his Ariosto (1591), praised the tragedies without reserve as “very well set downe, and in a good verse.” After this date, the fame of the Mirror became less certain, and the modern reader will hardly feel surprise at the fate which has overtaken it. The moralising is insufferably trite, and unrelieved by a single spark of humour. Seldom does the style rise to the dignity and pathos of subject and situation; the jog-trot of the metre is indescribably monotonous, and one welcomes the interruption of the connective passages in prose, with their quaint phrases and no less quaint devices. Joseph Hall ridiculed its “branded whining ghosts” and curses on the fates and fortune; and, though Marston tried to turn the tables on Hall on this point, his Reactio does not appear to have succeeded in impressing the public. Chapman, in May Day (1611), makes fun of Lorenzo as “an old Senator, one that has read Marcus Aurelius, Gesta Romanorum, Mirror of Magistrates, etc.” Edmund Bolton and Anthony à Wood imply that the Mirror had been rivalled, if not superseded, in popular favour by Warner’s Albion’s England. Both refer to it as belonging to a past age.