Mac Flecknoe is one of the four major satires of esteemed English poet John Dryden. The poem is personal satire that has for its target Thomas Shadwell, another poet who had offended Dryden with his aesthetic and political leanings. It is also literary satire, and is considered one of the most famous mock-heroic verses in the English tradition. It is 218 lines of rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter. Like Dante’s Inferno, the poem has numerous references to Dryden’s contemporaries.
The titular Flecknoe was named after a recently deceased Irish poet named Richard Flecknoe. Though popularly considered to be very dull, Dryden most likely had no personal grievance against Flecknoe. In his poem Dryden writes that Flecknoe has numerous progeny and therefore many contenders for the throne after him. Shadwell, then, is the son and heir to Flecknoe’s reign over the realm of Nonsense.
The poem grew out of a longstanding debate that Dryden and Shadwell had over the nature of comedy. During the Restoration, Shadwell was considered a playwright of considerable brilliance, but Dryden did not agree with this assessment. In Dryden’s opinion, Shadwell was a subpar poet and dramatist who believed much too highly of himself. Dryden uses Mac Flacknoe to point this out, highlighting throughout the satire the ridiculousness of Shadwell’s self-indulgence. With regards to the dueling poets’ thoughts on humor, the satire serves as a defense of wit against humor, which Dryden believed to be a much more noble and intelligent form of comedy. Shadwell was a proponent of the “Comedy of Humors,” a genre of comedy that was popularized by Ben Johnson toward the end of the sixteenth century. The comic interest in this genre revolves around the exhibition of a character or characters whose conduct is controlled by one characteristic or “humor.” Some single psychophysiological characteristic or exaggerated trait give the important figures in the action a bias of disposition and supply the chief motive for their actions. Dryden thought these plays were unintelligent and stale. He preferred the “Comedy of Wit,” in which reason is stressed over emotion. These comedies were more concerned with demonstrating cleverness and generally took a detached stance on others’ concerns, rather than sympathizing with their conditions.
It is unknown exactly when the poem was written. Some scholars say 1682, while others claim it was as early as 1676-77 and was circulated in manuscript form until a first authorized published edition in Miscellany Poems came out in 1684. Dryden did not acknowledge the work until 1692 but contemporaries knew it was his.