The play is narrated by the poet (Dryden) in the third-person perspective and is introduced as “A Satire on the True-blue Protestant T.S.,” or Thomas Shadwell.
The poet introduces Flecknoe, who like the Roman ruler Augustus, was called to rule when he was young. He rules the peaceful realm of Nonsense now, but is growing old and decides that Fate wants him to settle the business of the State.
Flecknoe ponders which of his sons should succeed him in warring eternally with wit. It will be the one who resembles him most: Shadwell, who even while young in years is mature in dullness. He is “confirm’d in full stupidity” (line 18), and while some of his brothers occasionally grasp meaning, he never has any sense at all. Other people are illuminated by beams of wit, but Shadwell’s “genuine night admits no ray” (line 23).
His “fogs” (line 24) clog up the day and his elaborate, histrionic clothing is thoughtless like the thoughtless monarch oaks that solemnly rule over the plain.
The proud father deems Shadwell “the last great prophet of tautology” (line 30), not dissimilar to Heywood and Shirley before him. As for Flecknoe, he admits he is just a dunce who paved the way for Shadwell. When he warbled with his lute for King John I of Portugal, he was merely preluding the day when Shadwell would sail down the river Thames, puffed up and proud with his royal task.
There has never been his like – it is as if a new Arion is sailing. Treble and bass sound out, the name Shadwell resounds from Pissing-Alley and Aston Hall. Little fishes surround the boat, clamoring as they would on morning toast.
St. Andre’s feet never kept equal time like this, nor did Shadwell’s own Psyche. Like tautology they collapsed. The jealous Singleton forswears his lute and sword, and will never act like Villerius again.
Flecknoe stops talking for a moment. He weeps for joy of his son, knowing that Shadwell’s plays persuade “that for anointed dullness he was made” (line 63).
Near the walls of London (called Augusta) there once stood a barbican and a watch tower, but now it is just a pile of ruins. There are brothel houses that rise from the rubble; mother-strumpets keep court there. A nursery rises as a birthplace for queens and future heroes; “unfledg’d actors learn to laugh and cry” (line 76).
Great Fletcher will not wear his boots here, and neither will Jonson in his socks. Simkin finds a nice reception, though, amid this “monument of vanish’d minds” (line 82).
This is the well-known place where Flecknoe designs Shadwell’s throne. A long time ago, Decker prophesied that a mighty prince shall rule this pile, a prince “born for a scourge of wit, and flail of sense” (line 89). The prince’s pen will create misers, humorists, and hypocrites, as well as whole families of Raymond and tribes of Bruce.
Empress Fame publishes the account of Shadwell’s name. Nations hearing of him meet together. There are no Persian carpets lining the street, only “scatter’d limbs of mangled poets” (line 99). Writers like Heywood, Shirley, and Ogleby lay in the street, but it is mostly Shadwell that clogs it up.
Finally, the prince appears in all his majesty, sitting atop a throne of his labors. Flecknoe compares Shadwell to Ascanius, son of Aeneas, who famously sat at his father’s right hand and inherited the kingdom. Shadwell’s brows are like thick fogs, and dullness swirls about his visage.
Shadwell swears he will maintain dullness until his death. He will never make peace with wit and never sign a truce with sense.
The king, having made his own unction of ale, places a mug of it in his son’s hand. He conveys the right to rule over his son who had, since a young age, practiced the “righteous lore” (line 124). The king seems to consecrate his son’s head, and at that very moment it is as if twelve owls fly off from his left hand. This is reminiscent of Romulus’ expectation of rule from his observation of twelve vultures.
The admiring crowd shouts acclamations.
Flecknoe, his forehead dewy with oblivion, shakes his head and scatters the drops on his son. He stands there in a prophetic mood and declares that Heaven shall bless his son and he shall reign from Ireland to Barbados; there will be no end to his dominion and it will be greater than his father’s.
Flecknoe pauses to let the people cry “Amen!” He continues, proclaiming admiringly that his son still advances in impudence and ignorance. Others can learn success, but from Flecknoe, Shadwell has learned “pangs without birth, and fruitless industry” (line 148).
No one will ever accuse Shadwell of “toil of wit” (line 150). Let the others, like George who treads the stage, and his characters Dorimant, Cully, Fopling, and Cockwood, try to charm audiences. Shadwell’s fools will always defend him and his lack of sense. The others should try to imitate him and thus be not mere copies but his own issue. All the men of wit ought to be full of Shadwell, only differing in name. Care should be taken not to let someone like “alien” (line 163) Sedley interject wit into prose.
Flecknoe tells Shadwell to trust in his own dull nature and when he does, Sir Formal’s “oratory will be thine” (line 168) and he will help his quill. He hopes no false friends seduce him by using Ben Jonson’s name; it is only his father and Uncle Ogleby whom he should heed.
Flecknoe urges Shadwell to remember he is of his blood and Jonson has no part there, for “What share have we in Nature or in Art?” (line 176). Jonson never rails at wit he does not understand, does not have a Prince Nikander or a Psyche, or promise a play and give a farce instead. On oily water he floats while Shadwell sinks.
Flecknoe exhorts his son to remember that this is his place, his way; he gets to add new humors to his plays and indulge in dullness. Shadwell may be a large, bulky man with a huge belly, but his plays never bite or offend. Even though his heart may have venom, it dies the moment it touches his Irish pen.
Shadwell’s genius does not lie in iambics but rather in simple anagrams. He should not, Flecknoe counsels, worry about plays; instead, he should focus on acrostics. In those he can be famous and torture words in thousands of ways. If not those, then perhaps songs set to a lute.
As Flecknoe speaks, his words fall away because Bruce and Longvil spring their trap: Flecknoe sinks down, leaving his robe behind, and born upward by flatulence, the mantle settles on the son who possesses “double portion of his father’s art” (line 217).
Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe is a brutal, brilliant, incisive, and at times hilarious poem. Taking for his target Thomas Shadwell, Dryden creates a mock-heroic poem utterly permeated with satire and wit. Even if critics cannot quite agree why Dryden skewers Flecknoe and Shadwell, they can agree that it is one of the poet’s most memorable and complex works.
First, a bit of background (also see the “Other” section in this study guide): Richard Flecknoe was a recently deceased minor poet and Shadwell was a well-known poet and playwright with whom Dryden differed on contemporary political and literary questions. Flecknoe is a satire and is written in a heroic style. The language is high and flowery, there are long similes and grand metaphors, the setting and references to kings and emperors and heroes are epic, and there are multiple comparisons to ancient Greece and Rome. Flecknoe’s speeches are vibrant, the poem’s tone is at times grave and exuberant, and there is pervasive use of skillful irony.
All of this, though, is contrasted with low, lewd, and debased images and comments; these include references to excrement, prostitutes, “pissing-alleys” (streets where people would literally urinate in the street), flatulence, and to Shadwell’s corpulent, grotesque body. Critic John R. Clark writes that “the poem’s overall plot is itself a masterpiece of uncreativity; Dryden’s verse imitates bad poetry. It is shaped with a series of ludicrous events, none of which ever mature to fruition or climax.” Stanley Archer explains, “The poem employs the mock-epic or mock-heroic mode of satire, making low nonsense and dullness ridiculous by juxtaposing them with solemn, important matters such as imperial Rome or the question of monarchical succession. Placing literary dunces within the exalted context of a coronation ceremony and dignifying the event with comparisons to religious prophets and allusions to the Roman Empire at its zenith serve to deflate the satiric victims by drawing attention to the differences between the exalted and the lowly. The satire achieves a devastating attack on Shadwell and other poets through an ironic inversion of values.”
Thus, Dryden does not slavishly imitate the heroic or epic poem, or bitterly and blatantly attack his enemies, but instead, as T.S. Eliot himself wrote, “applies vocabulary, images, and ceremony which arouse epic associations of grandeur to make an enemy helplessly ridiculous.” He fashions ironic metaphors and alludes to real heroes of ancient Greece and Rome to indicate that Shadwell is wanting. Similarly, Flecknoe’s bombastic speech and the elaborate coronation with its solemn, religious overtones add to the ridiculousness of the central figure.
Mac Flecknoe is very much rooted in its time and place in that Dryden references many contemporary poets, playwrights, and other literary figures (see Characters for a complete list). However, as scholar Michael West reveals, the poem is also representative of several strains of Continental literature. Dryden, like other literary lights, would have been saturated in the trends of his day. His poem “weaves together motifs found to be floating at large throughout various satiric currents of the European Renaissance… Dryden assumes a conscientiously and industrially European outlook.” West begins by noting a connection to the “paradoxical encomium” style, with Erasmus’ Praise of Folly as the most prominent example. There is also a debt to the “genre of mock didactic” as in Ovid’s Ars amatoria and Friedrich Dedekind’s Latin satire Grobianus, as well as the satiric models of Traiano Boccalini’s Ragguagli di Parnaso and his News from Parnassus. West also looks to John Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Bible. Of the former he writes, “the Miltonic associations are partly responsible for the internal flavor,” and of the latter he says, “the infernal dimension becomes overt at the conclusion of the poem. Flecknoe’s descent through the trap-door prepared by Shadwell’s characters more is more than a graphic illustration of the art of sinking in poetry. The parody of Elijah’s translation reveals Flecknoe’s destination.”
Scholar J.E. Tanner agrees with West, noting how in Shadwell “Dryden unites the images of him as prophet and as priest-king.” Flecknoe is a veritable John the Baptist, prophesying the imminent arrival of the son and king. Later, Flecknoe is compared to Elijah the prophet. Dryden seems to want to “keep the reader mindful always of the Messiah, to depict Shadwell against the huge background of the Christ.” Heywood and Shirley also seem to be depicted as Old Testament Messiah types, and Dekker, Tanner suggests, can be viewed as an Old Testament prophet as well. Thus, Shadwell-as-Christ is a “unifying device in the poem” that “makes Shadwell ridiculous by blowing him up all out of proportion to his actual shape.” Giving the bloated and senseless Shadwell the qualities of a Messiah heightens both the satiric and comedic elements of the poem; Dryden inverts traditions of art, rule, decorum, and reason.
Let us now turn to the poem in more specific detail, utilizing the line breakdowns from the summary (these are somewhat arbitrary in that the poem is not naturally broken in all these places, but they are useful in making the work more manageable).
In lines 1-28, Dryden evokes Augustus, the founder of the Roman empire, in order to falsely convey to the reader that the poem will take for its subject someone (literally) august and worthy of veneration (Augusta will be London in the poem). However, he then identifies the place over which the ruler presides: the realm of Nonsense. Flecknoe goes on to say, in the most guileless and straightforward way, that his son Shadwell will be his heir because he “most resembles” him (line 14). He then boasts that his son is stupid, wars continually with wit, and “never deviates into sense” (line 20).
In lines 29-63, Flecknoe compares his son to other minor poets: Heywood and Shirley. He calls his son “the last great prophet of tautology” (line 30), using that aforementioned messianic imagery. “Tautology” means needless repetition and redundancy, and is thus clearly an insult. Flecknoe depicts himself as a coarsely clad figure with a lute heralding the coming of his son. Shadwell’s passage to his coronation is described in a ludicrously ornate way, “Swell’d with pride of thy celestial charge” (line 40). His father compares him to Arion, an ancient Greek poet and musician who jumped overboard after hearing of a plot to kill him but was saved by dolphins. Dryden makes two of many references to Shadwell’s work, both in the line about Epsom blankets, which is from The Virtuoso, and in reference to Psyche, the subject of one of Shadwell’s opera librettos. Dryden also calls attention to contemporary places, as Pissing-Alley (actually numerous sites in London), and Aston Hall, which is not definitively identified but is assumed to be a place important to Dryden. Finally, in these lines, Dryden uses the word “dull” to describe Shadwell, which is one of the most ubiquitous terms used to skewer the poet. Shadwell “for anointed dullness he was made” (line 63) and was deemed “Mature in dullness from his tender years” (line 16). It is clearly one of Dryden’s most damning insults.
In lines 64- 93, Flecknoe describes the part of town where the coronation will take place. It is near the Barbican, a defensive wall in London that surrounds a ruined Roman watchtower, and is in a notorious neighborhood filled with prostitutes and subpar actors. According to Flecknoe, the great dramatists do not come here, especially not Fletcher in his buskins (buskins were the high boots worn by actors in Greek and Roman tragedies; thus, there are no great tragedies performed here). This is a place where low drama thrives; it is a place for simpkins (clowns) and clinches (puns). Critic Virginia Brackett notes, “This nursery produces actors, and Dryden employs the contemporary association of acting with prostitution, as the nursery is near the brothel. Scholars explain that such imagery allows continuous contrast between the glorified past and a debased present.” She adds that many of Dryden’s references “serve to juxtapose the tawdry existence of the individuals who serve as targets of his poem against that of the high values held by classic and 17th-century laudatory writers… a heroic past has dissolved into a debased present, when artists are wasting a once noble heritage.”
In lines 94-133, news of the coronation spreads and hacks and poetasters (inferior poets) flock to the stage. One of Dryden’s most memorable images is that of the streets lined with the “scatter’d limbs of mangled poets” (line 99) leading to a throne constructed of “his own labors” (line 107). The entire coronation is farcical, with the anointing oil replaced by ale and his solemn proclamations including things such as “Ne’er to have peace with wit, nor truce with sense” (line 117). The twelve owls at the end of the section refer to stupidity, as wisdom is fleeing the site.
In lines 134-164, Flecknoe passes on his “filial dullness” (line 136) and offers, as discussed above, a prophecy of his son’s reign. The religious overtones are strong, as in line 144 when “all the people cry’d Amen.” Flecknoe references the writings of George Etherege, and the characters Dorimant, Cully, Cockwood, and Fopling are from his plays; Etherege was actually talented and Dryden through Flecknoe is suggesting Shadwell is not. Dryden again calls attention to Shadwell’s own works, as in “Let Virtuosos in five years be writ” (line 149) and “thy hungry Epsom prose” (line 164).
In lines 164-217, Dryden continues conjuring up figures from Shadwell’s own plays, as with Sur Formal. The comment about “Northern Dedications” references Shadwell’s sycophantic flattery of William, Duke of Newcastle. Flecknoe winds up his lengthy speech with comments about writing itself. He is pleased that Shadwell will be duller than him and advises him not to even try to be dull; rather, just trust in his natural proclivities. He should also not bother to write plays or high literary forms and instead focus on the lesser forms like acrostics, anagrams, and songs. Finally, like in Shadwell’s play, a trapdoor opens below Flecknoe and he falls in. A wind (it is unknown if it is normal wind, flatulence, or a draft from Hell) pushes up his cloak, which then adorns his son. This is also what happens when the prophet Elijah’s mantle falls on Elisha.
There a few general points with which we can conclude our analysis. The first is that through criticizing Shadwell, Dryden promulgates certain things that, in his opinion, make good art. He does not approve of how Shadwell conflates the creator and the created, how his characters are mere self-portraits, how Shadwell prefers comedy and the humors to real drama. Dryden insinuates that Shadwell, as Brackett writes, “bows to outside [political] forces and sacrifices his art.” Archer agrees, claiming, “the satire upholds canons of neoclassic criticism. One perceives Dryden’s sense of a hierarchy of values in the overall plan of the work… the all-important neoclassic standards of ‘nature’ and ‘art’ serve to condemn Shadwell’s unnatural railing at arts he does not understand and his producing works that never rise to the level of art… the ideals, with their opposites, are frequently repeated to enforce the neoclassic insistence on lucid reasoning and felicitous expression in literature.”
Dryden is criticizing a great deal of the current theater climate by having Flecknoe give what is essentially a performative (and, obviously, overblown and tedious) speech on a stage. Critic Michael Alssid writes that Dryden’s target of attack was “a conglomeration of terrible metrics and dramatic inanity which marked the nadir of Shadwell’s art” but also made a good deal of money. Similarly, Margery Kingsley notes how the stage and brothels are conflated by their physical proximity, how there seems to be a Hell below the Restoration-era stage. The area of London Shadwell presides over is ruins of a greater civilization; the people who acclaim him are tawdry and self-absorbed. John R. Clark sums it up well: “Any glories from the immemorial past have all but vanished… the best [poem] that can be mustered in the now-fallen world of Dryden’s satire is a defective and broken piece of poetry, a mock-epic. The result is certainly amusing, but it is saddening, too…”