Mac Flecknoe

Mac Flecknoe Themes

Wit versus Humour

Dryden is a proponent of wit while he sees Shadwell as someone caught up in extolling the "humors" in poetry. Characters who embodied the humors were one dimensional, inclined to predictability and indicative of a deterministic worldview. They were ruled by their passions and could never change; they were consistent and, according to Dryden, only duplicated "the follies and extravagances of Bedlam." Dryden cared about wit and repartee in comedy and saw humors as akin to farce. They were outdated and did not make for good and meaningful comedy.

Debasing of Poetry and Art

In the original version of the poem, Shadwell is spelled as "Sh--" (it is often spelled out fully for modern readers), which is an effective way to suggest that Shadwell's writings are, for lack of a more decorous term, "shit." Dryden indirectly accuses Shadwell of debasing poetry and art. Shadwell's dullness, lack of sense, ignorance, impudence, and reliance upon appealing to audience's baser proclivities contribute to the overall debasement of contemporary poetry (at least in Dryden's view). Dryden emphasizes his stance through the gross surroundings in which the coronation takes place.


In the final section of the poem, Flecknoe exhorts his son not "labour to be dull; But write thy best, and top; and in each line, Sir Formal's oratory will be thine" (lines 166-168). This is important because it shows that Shadwell is not adopting dullness of his own accord, and he doesn't even need to try to do so; rather, he is inherently dull. This is what he was born with, and this is what he will always be. He is a poetaster from birth. As critic Michael Alssid writes, in Shadwell "there is also an innate, divine disfigurement of intellect, an ironically irredeemable gift."

Creator versus Created

Critic Michael W. Alssid writes, "Dryden blurs the lines between creator and created... Shadwell's artistic life exists in the context of his characters' lives." This is not a compliment, for what Dryden is doing is indicating that Shadwell has no real creativity, intelligence, or originality. He writes characters who are essentially self-portraits: fatuous, overblown, self-important, and essentially empty creations. The evocation of Psyche, Sir Formal, and other characters from The Virtuosos hammer home the idea that Shadwell is a hack and possesses no real artistic merit.