Mac Flecknoe By John Dryden

Mac Flecknoe (full title: Mac Flecknoe; or, A satyr on the True-Blew-Protestant Poet, T.S.) is a verse mock-heroic satire by John Dryden’s. It’s a direct assault to another famous poet of the period, Thomas Shadwell. It opens with the following lines:

All human things are subject to decay,

And when fate summons, monarchs must obey.

Written in 1678, but not published until 1682, “Mac Flecknoe.” is the result of a series of disputes between Thomas Shadwell and Dryden. Their disagreement arose out of the following discrepancies:

“1)their different estimates of the genius of Ben Jonson,

2)The preference of Dryden for comedy of wit and repartee and of Shadwell, the chief a disciple of Jonson, for humour comedy,

3) Sharp disagreement over the true purpose of comedy,

4) Contention over the value of rhymed plays, and

5) Plagiarism.”

Shadwell had fancied himself the heir to Ben Jonson and the multiple comedy that the latter had commonly written. Surely Shadwell ‘s poetry was not of the same standard as Jonson’s, and it is possible that Dryden wearied Shadwell ‘s argument that Dryden undervalued Jonson. Shadwell and Dryden were separated not only by literary grounds but also by political ones as Shadwell was a Whig, while Dryden was Stuart Monarchy’s outspoken supporter.

The poem depicts Shadwell as the heir to the kingdom of poetic dullness, represented by his association with Richard Flecknoe, an earlier poet already satirized by Andrew Marvell and displeased by Dryden, even though the poet does not use belittling techniques to satirize him. Multiple allusions in the satire to literary works of the 17th century and to classical Greek and Roman literature show Dryden’s complex approach and mastery of the mock-heroic style.

The poem starts in the tone of an epic masterpiece, presenting Shadwell’s defining characteristic as dullness, just as every epic hero has a defining characteristic: Odysseus’s is cunning; Achilles’s is wrath; the hero of Spenser’s The Queen of Faerie is holy; while Satan in Paradise Lost has the defining characteristic of pride. Therefore, Dryden subverts the idea of a distinguishing trait by giving Shadwell a negative character as his only virtue.

Dryden creates a mock-heroic by using the heightened vocabulary of the epic to view trivial topics as poorly composed and essentially reprehensible poems. The juxtaposition of a high style with unintended nouns, such as ‘dullness,’ provides an ironic contrast and makes the satirical point a strong disparity. In this, it works on the verbal level, the language being carried by a persuasive rhythm and rhyme.

Context of the Poem

One of the best recipes for great literature is a setting in which writers and poets mock and confront each other. A great example of this is the restoration period, which lasted from 1660 to around 1698. Like many eras of literature and art, the period of restoration is strongly influenced by its political context. Most of its literature is concerned with the instability arising from the political events that have taken place in previous decades, in particular the dispute between the Catholic supporters of the conventional royal government and the Protestant supporters of a more democratic parliamentary government.

After the Catholics were defeated by the Protestants in the English Civil War which lasted from 1642 to 1651, England was ruled by a Protestant Parliament from 1651 to 1660. The violence that took place during this time ended once Charles II claimed the throne, and that restoration of a traditional king is what gives the period the title “Restoration.”

Many of the Restoration literature writers believed that the violence of the preceding decades was caused by strict adherence to extreme political and religious ideologies, hence the suspicion of anyone who held dogmatic positions among Restoration writers. This context helps to explain why the Restoration era ‘s poetry and drama were marked by a witty and often relentless satire that mocks orthodox positions and those that held them. Restoration writers also rejected some unrefined elements of English society and firmly accepted luxurious lifestyles as opposed to the Protestant calls for a modest living.

John Dryden, who lived between 1631 and 1700, wrote some of the most influential works of the Restoration Satire. Known for his unbelievably impersonal poems and his unwavering wit, Dryden had a significant impact on the language and rhetoric of future writers.

Mac Flecknoe is a great example of his influential work, which is believed to have been written at the end of 1678 or 1679, although it was not published until 1682. In his poem, Dryden mocks Thomas Shadwell, a fellow poet with whom Dryden had been friends for many years.

Although it is not known exactly what the events of friendship ended and the feud began, Shadwell and Dryden had quite a few differences, including their theories of literature, their religions and their politics.

Mac Flecknoe Summary

The poem identifies itself as a satire of which the subject is “the True-blue Protestant Poet T.S.” referring to the poet Thomas Shadwell.

The poem’s first line creates an impression that it is an epic poem about a legendary hero. The next lines speak of Mac Flecknoe, a monarch who rules the realm of Nonsense instead of governing an empire. The King is old and must, therefore, choose a successor to his throne. Dryden wonders whether a poet who has talent and wit will be chosen by the king or whether he will choose someone like him, a man with no literary talent.

Flecknoe decides on his son Shadwell, a no-talented man who is dull, lazy, and always at war with wit. Shadwell is described as a man of great corpulence too. Through the words of Flecknoe, the poet continues to insult Shadwell in a mock-heroic tone, calling him a dunce, the “last great prophet of tautology,” and “he was made for anointed dullness.” Shadwell arrives in London, equipped as a king and lauded by the people.

Flecknoe chooses a neighbourhood of brothels and theatres birthing poor actors for his son’s throne. True drama doesn’t exist within those places; only basic plays are welcome. Dryden also alludes to some of Shadwell ‘s historical plays, such as Epsom Wells and Psyche, and mocks another contemporary author, Singleton, who is envious that he was not chosen to succeed the throne. It is clear Shadwell will rule over those who have no literary talent in this setting.

Dryden ‘s descriptions serve only to highlight Shadwell’s incompetence and create the image of a fool ruling over the peasants.

As the coronation begins, Dryden describes the streets as lined with the limbs of other poets, implying that at the detriment of talented authors, Shadwell managed to hold onto his post. Once again, the poet mentions human waste and connects it with the writing of Shadwell and compares it with a historical figure, Hannibal, implying that the intention of Shadwell is to kill wit and replace it with dullness.

The oil used to anoint a new king during his coronation is replaced by wine, which signifies the dullness of a poet. Shadwell sits on the throne after the crown is put on his head, and the former king prepares to make a speech to the cheering audience.

The former king starts by showing the land that the new king will rule over, a land that nobody lives on. Flecknoe encourages his son to stay faithful to his writing and not allow any improvements to be made in his work. Flecknoe praises the skill of Shadwell and then finishes his speech by advising Shadwell to stay boring and stop trying to be like Jonson.

Flecknoe concludes by urging his son not to concentrate on real plays but rather to work on them. The anagrams or acrostics. His last words are cut off and he sinks below the floor. His mantle falls on Shadwell, which is suitable as he has twice as much “talent” like his father.

Important Questions

1. Comment critically on the dramatic significance of the following lines:

“All human things are subject to decay
And when Fate summons, monarchs must obey”

Answer: These opening lines are significantly important for Dryden ‘s Mac Flecknoe. For they set the mock-heroic tone of the whole poem. These lines set a very serious tone in which all human beings are described as mortal and the weighty truth that even Kings must respond when the call of Death comes. But the elevated tone of the couplet crashes once Flecknoe
emerges with his “realms of absolute Nonsense”. Therefore this couplet raises the readers’ expectations which are later only ironically denied.

2. Explain briefly what Dryden suggests in the following lines:

“Shadwell alone my perfect image bears
Mature in dullness from his tender years”
Answer: Dryden exposes Shadwell ‘s confirmed stupidity in these lines when Flecknoe is described here as positively admitting that only Shadwell of all his sons perfectly resembles him from his tender years as dull and stupid.

3. Comment briefly on the following lines:

“The hoary prince in majesty appeared
High on a throne of his own labours reared”
Answer: These lines ironically identify the actual location where Shadwell would be John Dryden: Mac Flecknoe crowned as Flecknoe ‘s successor. Flecknoe himself is the “hoary prince,” and a throne built for Shadwell is one made of Flecknoe ‘s books. Thus Dryden’s mock-heroic humour continues even here. The “prince,” “majesty,” and “throne” conjure up visions of grandeur that do not correspond to the narrated satirical story.

4. Discuss briefly the satiric effect created by the following lines:

“Success let others teach, learn thou from me
Pangs without birth and fruitless industry”

Answer: The satirical effect these lines have produced here is indeed pungent. Here a special, unorthodox blessing is offered to Shadwell in which Flecknoe wishes him to learn from him how to create “pangs without birth” and “fruitless industry.” In a way, Flecknoe is simply asking Shadwell to be fruitless in his literary creations.

5. Discuss the dramatic importance of the following lines:

“The mantle fell to the young poet’s part
With double portion of his father’s art”

Answer: The dramatic importance of those closing lines is enormous. This concluding couplet ends with an anticlimactic bang, contrary to the opening couplet which began on a highly serious note. Flecknoe’s last words are scarcely heard, as he suddenly falls into the trap-door opening beneath his feet. But as Flecknoe falls, a sudden breeze of wind carries his woollen garment upwards. It is the ‘mantle’ that falls on Shadwell, and he inherits from his father dumbness that is double that of Flecknoe’s. Flecknoe’s dumbness has only multiplied in Mac Flecknoe’s stupidity, and Mac Flecknoe’s lampoon has reached its climax.

Mac Flecknoe: Summary and Questions Answers


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