APPEARING the year following Queen Elizabeth's accession, the Mirror for Magistrates--a biographical compendium of Eng lish historical figures beginning with the reign of Richard II and extending to that of Henry VIII--was arguably the most influential publication of the sixteenth century, in large part because of its many literary derivatives. Designed to continue Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium (translated by John Lydgate at the end of the fifteenth century as the Fall of Princes), the narratives were to exemplify the inconstancy of Fortune in human affairs. Thus nearly half of the "tragedies" included in the second edition ( 1563) were laid at the door of capricious Lady Fortuna; others were blamed on the evil nature of the individuals under review; and still others were attributed to the influence of the stars, or of the four humors, or of Providence and the ill will of man. Their import was largely admonitory--contemporaries might see in them, as in a looking glass, the appropriate punishment for evil deeds.
The scheme adopted for these versified narratives required the appearance of a ghost before an interlocutor to whom he related his story with its generally tragic conclusion. The various accounts were based on the contemporary chronicles of Robert Fabyan and Edward Hall and were linked by the prose exchanges among the several interlocutors; the major consequence of their publication in the Mirror was that history was now established as a suitable subject for poets to turn to.
Because the recitations of these historical ghosts were ex post facto, there was no dramatic tension in the accounts, but the narratives them
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Publication information: Book title: The Columbia History of British Poetry. Contributors: Carl Woodring - Editor, James Shapiro - AssociateEditor. Publisher: Columbia University Press. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1994. Page number: 156.