The poem starts with the mention that it is a satire and the subject of the satire is True-blue Protestant Poet T.S., referring probably to the poet Thomas Shadwell.
The first line of the poem creates the illusion of it being an epic poem about a historical hero. The next lines talk about Mac Flecknoe, a monarch who instead of ruling an empire, rules over the non-sense. The king is old and thus must choose a successor to his throne. The poet wonders whether the king will chose a poet who has talent and wit or if he will chose someone like him, a man with no literary talent whatsoever.
The poem then introduces the character of Shadwell, a man with no talent, dull, stupid and boring who resembles his father the most. The poet then continues to insult Shadwell in a mock heroic tone, calling him a dense man, comparing him with a tree that has no intelligence and saying about him that he writes in an illogical way.
Shadwell’s arrival in London is described and Dryden tells about him that he came sailing like a king. Allusions are made towards two of Thomas Shadwell’s plays, Epsom Wells and The Virtuoso and towards the metrical feet and rhyme scheme used by Shadwell in one of his poems Psyche. Shadwell’s arrival is described and the water on which he sails is presented as being full with human waste and with people coming from the Pissing-Alley coming to great him. While the common people are happy to see Shadwell, Singleton, a contemporary writer is envious that he wasn’t chosen as successor to the throne.
Starting from line 64, the poem continues with the mock-heroic tone. London is described and references are made to a fortification in London transformed into brothel and the rumors that circulated during those times regarding a supposed plot to assassinate the King are mentioned.
The brothels are compared to nurseries where kings, queens and ‘’punks’’, referring to prostitutes are born. Inside this place, the children learn how to become actors and how to play different roles. The poet explains that comedies and tragedies have no place in the brothels and the only type of writing that survives is the simple one, meant for a simple audience.
In this environment, Shadwell will rule over those who have no literary talent. The descriptions offered by Dryden only served the purpose of highlighting the incompetency of Shadwell and have the purpose of creating the image of a fool ruling over peasants.
Shadwell’s coronation is also described in an ironic way. The realm over which he rules is small, stretching between Bun-Hill and Watling-street thus accentuating the lack of influence Shadwell had over other writers. The streets are filed with the limbs of other poets, suggesting that Shadwell managed to get a hold on his position at the expense of talented writers. Once more, the poet mentions human waste and links it with Shadwell’s writing an compares him with a historical figure, Hannibal, to transmit the idea that Shadwell’s purpose is to destroy wit and replace it with dullness.
During his coronation, the oil used to anoint a new king is replaced by ale, signifying the poet’s dullness. After he crown is placed on his head, Shadwell sits on the throne and the former king prepares to give the cheering crowd a speech.
The former king begins by presenting the land over which the new king will rule, a territory where no one lives. Mac Flecknoe urges him to remain true to his writing and to not let anyone make any changes in his work, Mac Flecknoe praises Shadwell’s abilities and then ends his speech by telling Shadwell to continue to remain dull.
After the speech ends, the poet continues to mock Shadwell’s writing, noting how Shadwell’s poems have the complete opposite effect on his audience that he wants to. He then ends the poem by telling the reader that Shadwell has more talent than Mac Flecknoe, meaning that his writing is more boring and witless than the writings of his predecessor.