A Mirror for Magistrates is a collaborative collection of poems in which the ghosts of eminent statesmen recount their downfalls in first-person narratives called ‘tragedies’ or ‘complaints’ as an example for magistrates and others in positions of power. The first edition was published in 1559 with contributions from William Baldwin (died in or before 1563), George Ferrers (c. 1500–1579) and others, mostly on subjects from the 14th century or later. It was expanded in numerous editions and in 1574 John Higgins added the tragedies of early rulers of Britain, including the tale of Leir and Cordilla. This edition was called ‘The First Parte’ as it covered an earlier section of history. Interestingly, Higgins makes Cordilla, not Leir, the spokesperson for the tale.
The various editions of A Mirror were popular and influential. Many contemporary dramatists – including Shakespeare – were inspired by its procedures for drawing lessons for the present from historical figures; its mixing of historical narrative with a focus on the individual; and its mixing of Christian rhetoric with tropes from Classical tragedy.
The poem is written in rhyme royal, a verse form introduced by Chaucer and popular in the late Middle Ages, but slightly dated by the Elizabethan period. Shakespeare uses this form in his narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece (1594).
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- Power, politics and religion, Tragedies
Shortly after James I took the throne, he announced that he would be the new sponsor of Shakespeare's theatre company, which renamed itself the King's Men. Andrew Dickson explains how the royal sponsorship affected the company, and the ways in which the playwright's later works engage with his transition from an Elizabethan to a Jacobean subject.