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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
.Type of Work
......."Mac Flecknoe" is a mock epic. Such a work uses the elevated style of the classical epic poem such as The Iliad to satirize human follies. A mock epic pretends that a person, a place, a thing, or an idea is extraordinary
when—in the author's view—it is actually insignificant and trivial. For example, a mock epic about an inconsequential U.S. president such as Millard Fillmore might compare him to such rulers as Pericles, Julius Caesar, Saladin, Louis XIV, and George Washington.
.......In writing "Mac Flecknoe," John Dryden imitated not only the characteristics of Homer's epics but also those of later writers such as Virgil, Dante, and Milton.
......."Mac Flecknoe" first appeared in 1682 in an unedited, and probably unauthorized, edition printed in London for D. Green. Jacob Tonson published an edited and authorized copy of the poem in London in 1684 as part of a Dryden collection entitled Miscellany Poems.
Dryden and Shadwell
.......John Dryden wrote "Mac Flecknoe" to satirize another English writer, Thomas Shadwell (1642-1692), author of eighteen plays and a small body of poetry. Dryden and Shadwell had once treated each other amicably but became enemies because of their differing views on the following:
1...Politics. Dryden was a Tory; Shadwell was a Whig. .......When Shadwell attacked Dryden in The Medal of John Bayes (1682) and in a political work, Dryden retaliated with "Mac Flecknoe," a masterpiece of satire.
2...Religion. Shadwell offended Dryden when he satirized Catholic and Anglican priests in a play entitled
The Lancashire-Witches, and Tegue o Divelly the Irish-Priest (1682). Dryden was considering becoming a Catholic at the time (and did in 1686).
3...Literature: Dryden and Shadwell differed strongly on who was the better writer: Shakespeare or
Ben Jonson. Dryden took the part of Shakespeare; Shadwell idolized Jonson.
.......Although many of Shadwell's plays were popular in his time, critics generally regard him today as a writer of small merit. Dryden, on the other hand, enjoys a reputation as one of the greats of English literature.
.......Richard Flecknoe (1600-1678) was an English dramatist and poet whose writing was ridiculed by poet Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), as well as Dryden. In "Mac Flecknoe," Dryden casts him in the fictional role of the King of Nonsense. When the time comes for the aging king to select his successor, he chooses
Thomas Shadwell. (In the poem, Dryden casts Shadwell as the son of the King of Nonsense.) Shadwell accedes to the crown as Mac Flecknoe. (Mac means son of.)
.......The poem is set in London, referred to in the poem as Augusta. Augusta is the feminine form of the Latin Augustus, the name of one of ancient Rome's most powerful leaders, Augustus Caesar. As part of his mockery of Shadwell, Dryden chose the high-sounding Augusta as the name for the city
Shadwell is to rule as King of Nonsense.
Point of View
.......The speaker/narrator presents the poem in third-person point of view but allows the elderly King of Nonsense to tell why he has selected Shadwell to succeed him.
.......Flecknoe assumed the throne as King of Nonsense when he was young. In this respect, he was not unlike Augustus Caesar, who became emperor of Rome when he, too, was a young. And, like Caesar, Flecknoe rules for many years. Annotated Text of the PoemAll human things are subject to decay,
.......When the time comes for him to choose which of his sons is worthy to succeed him and “wage immortal war with wit” (line 12), Flecknoe decides that the son most like him should receive the honor. That son is Thomas Shadwell, who has been “mature in dullness from his tender years” (line 16) and is the only one of his
offspring who stands “confirm'd in full stupidity” (line 18).
.......So Shadwell inherits the throne as Mac Flecknoe (son of Flecknoe).
.......Shadwell is so witless (and, therefore, perfect for the throne) that he does no more thinking than a monarch oak shading a plain. There are others with similar virtues, such as Heywood and Shirley. However, other writers are no match for Shadwell—not even his father. True, Flecknoe was a renowned dunce, but he was merely a harbinger, a forerunner, to prepare the way for the ultimate dunce, his son. Nitwit writers who came before Shadwell occasionally displayed
the dimmest glimmer of intelligence. But Shadwell never wrote a line that made any sense.
.......When Mac Flecknoe's royal barge makes its way on the River Thames for the first time, people gather to shout his name and “the little fishes throng” (line
49) around his boat. His elderly father “wept for joy / In silent raptures of the hopeful boy” (lines 60-61). No one can argue against Shadwell as the ideal King of Nonsense, for all of his writings—in particular his plays—indicate “that for anointed dullness he was made” (line 63).
.......Shadwell takes the throne in a district of Augusta (London) where “brothel-houses rise” (line 7). Nearby is a nursery for children who will be trained as actors. The plays of Fletcher and Jonson (allusion to writers John Fletcher and Ben Jonson) are never staged in this place, but the dull and shoddy plays of Shadwell find a ready audience here. At
the beginning of his reign, Shadwell swears “That he till death true dullness would maintain (line 15) . . . [and] “Ne'er to have peace with wit, nor truce with sense” (line 117).
.......While holding a mug of ale in his left hand, he holds the
manuscript of his play Love's Kingdom in his right, declaring it “his sceptre and his rule of sway” (line 123). On his head is a wreath of poppies (the source of opium, an addictive drug which Shadwell used).
.......Then from his left hand fly twelve
owls, a happening that reminds observers of Romulus, legendary co-founder of ancient Rome. Twelve vultures heralded his reign.
.......The proud father of Shadwell hopes that his son's domain will one day encompass all the earth and that he will
produce new dull plays to delight the dimwitted. “The people cry'd amen,” the narrator says.
.......Shadwell's father then expresses the hope that his son “advance in new impudence, new ignorance” (line 146) and write virtuosic plays exhibiting no evidence
of intelligence. Moreover, he says, let other writers imitate his son. The only difference between Shadwell and them, he says, will be their names. Flecknoe advises his son to avoid straining to choose “false flowers of rhetoric” (line 165). Instead, he need only trust his natural instincts, and dullness will pour forth. For inspiration, Shadwell should imitate his father rather than writers of
wit, like Ben Jonson.
.......“Like mine,” his father says, “thy gentle numbers [lines of verse] feebly creep, / Thy Tragic Muse gives smiles, thy Comic sleep” (lines 197-198).
.......And though Shadwell may have passionate ideas in his head, Flecknoe says, they will die whenever he manifests them with his pen. Perhaps, he says, Shadwell should quit writing plays and devote himself to acrostics.
.......“There thou may'st wings display and altars raise, / And torture one poor word ten thousand ways” (lines 207-208).
.......Or perhaps he should write songs and sing them to the accompaniment of a lute.
.......While still speaking Flecknoe disappears through a trap door. A wind carries his royal robe upward, and it falls upon the shoulders of the new
King of Nonsense—Shadwell, Mac Flecknoe..............
And, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey:
This Flecknoe1found, who, like Augustus, young
Was call'd to empire,2and had govern'd long:
In prose and verse, was own'd, without dispute
Through all the realms of Non-sense, absolute.
This aged prince now flourishing in peace,
And blest with issue3of a large increase,3
Worn out with business, did at length debate
To settle the succession of the State:4................................10
And pond'ring which of all his sons was fit
To reign, and wage immortal war with wit;
Cry'd, 'tis resolv'd; for nature pleads that he
Should only rule, who most resembles me:
Shadwell5alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense................................20
Some beams of wit6on other souls may fall,
Strike through and make a lucid interval;
But Shadwell's genuine night7admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day:
Besides his goodly fabric8fills the
And seems design'd for thoughtless majesty:
Thoughtless as monarch oaks, that shade the plain,
And, spread in solemn state, supinely reign.
Heywood9and Shirley10were but types of
Thou last great prophet of tautology:11..................................30
Even I, a dunce of more renown than they,
Was sent before but to prepare thy way;
And coarsely clad in Norwich12drugget13came
To teach the nations in thy greater name.
35My warbling lute,14the lute I whilom15strung
When to King John of Portugal I sung,
Was but the prelude to that glorious day,
When thou on silver Thames did'st cut thy
With well tim'd oars before the royal barge,
40Swell'd with the pride of thy celestial charge;.......................40
And big with hymn, commander of an host,
The like was ne'er in Epsom blankets toss'd.16
Methinks I see the new Arion17sail,
The lute still trembling underneath thy nail.
At thy well sharpen'd thumb from shore to shore
The treble squeaks for fear, the basses roar:
Echoes from Pissing-Alley,18Shadwell call,
And Shadwell they resound from Aston Hall.
About thy boat the little fishes throng,
As at the morning toast,19that floats along.............................50
Sometimes as prince of thy harmonious band
Thou wield'st thy papers in thy threshing hand.20
St. André's21feet ne'er kept more equal time,
Not ev'n the feet22of thy own Psyche's23rhyme:
Though they in number as in sense excel;
So just, so like tautology they fell,
That, pale with envy, Singleton24forswore
and sword which he in triumph bore
And vow'd he ne'er would act Villerius25more.
the good old sire; and wept for joy...........................60
In silent raptures of the hopeful boy.
All arguments, but most his plays,
That for anointed dullness he was made.
Close to the walls which fair Augusta26bind,
(The fair Augusta much to fears inclin'd)27
An ancient fabric, rais'd t'inform the sight,
There stood of yore, and Barbican28it hight:29
A watch tower
once; but now, so fate ordains,
Of all the pile30an empty name remains.
From its old ruins
Scenes of lewd loves, and of polluted joys.
Where their vast courts, the
And, undisturb'd by watch, in silence sleep.
Near these a nursery31erects its head,
Where queens are form'd, and future heroes bred;
Where unfledg'd actors learn to laugh and cry,
Where infant punks their tender voices try,
And little Maximins32the gods defy.
Great Fletcher33never treads in buskins34here,
Nor greater Jonson35dares in socks36appear;..........................80
But gentle Simkin37just reception finds
Amidst this monument of vanish'd minds:
Pure clinches,38the suburbian muse affords;
And Panton39waging harmless war with
Here Flecknoe, as a place to fame well known,
Ambitiously design'd his Shadwell's throne.
For ancient Decker40prophesi'd long since,
That in this pile should reign a mighty prince,
Born for a scourge of wit, and flail of sense:
To whom true dullness should some Psyches owe,....................90
But worlds of Misers41from his pen should flow;
Humorists42and hypocrites it should produce,
Whole Raymond43families, and tribes of Bruce.44
Now Empress Fame
had publisht the renown,
Of Shadwell's coronation through the town.
Rous'd by report of fame, the nations meet,
From near Bun-Hill, and distant Watling-street.
No Persian carpets spread th'imperial way,
But scatter'd limbs45of mangled poets lay:
From dusty shops neglected authors come,.............................100
Martyrs of pies,46and reliques of the bum.47
Shirley, Ogleby48there lay,
But loads of Shadwell almost chok'd the way.
Bilk'd stationers49for yeoman50stood prepar'd,
And Herringman51was Captain of the Guard.
The hoary prince52in majesty appear'd,
High on a throne of his
own labours rear'd.
At his right hand our young Ascanius53sat
Rome's other hope, and pillar of
His brows thick fogs, instead of glories, grace,.........................110
And lambent dullness play'd around his
As Hannibal54did to the altars come,
Sworn by his sire a mortal foe to
So Shadwell swore, nor should his vow be vain,
That he till death true dullness would maintain;
And in his father's right, and realm's defence,
Ne'er to have peace with wit, nor truce with sense.
The king himself the sacred unction made,
As king by office, and as priest55by trade:
In his sinister56hand, instead of ball,57....................................120
He plac'd a mighty mug of potent ale;
Love's Kingdom58to his right he did convey,
At once his sceptre and his rule of sway;
Whose righteous lore the prince had practis'd young,
And from whose loins recorded
His temples last with poppies60were o'er spread,
That nodding seem'd to consecrate his head:
Just at that point of time, if fame not lie,
On his left hand twelve reverend owls did fly.
So Romulus, 'tis sung, by Tiber's brook,...................................130
Presage of sway from twice six vultures
Th'admiring throng loud acclamations make,
And omens of his future empire take.
The sire then shook the honours of his head,
And from his brows damps of oblivion shed
Full on the filial dullness:62long he stood,
Repelling from his breast the raging god;
At length burst out in this prophetic mood:
Heavens bless my son, from Ireland let him reign
To far Barbadoes on the Western
Of his dominion may no end be known,
And greater than his father's be his throne.
Beyond love's kingdom63let him stretch his pen;
He paus'd, and all the people cry'd Amen.
Then thus, continu'd he, my son advance
Still in new impudence, new ignorance.
Success let other teach, learn thou from me
Pangs without birth, and fruitless industry.
Let Virtuosos64in five years be writ;
Yet not one thought accuse thy toil of wit..................................150
gentle George65in triumph tread the stage,
Make Dorimant betray, and Loveit rage;
Let Cully, Cockwood, Fopling,66charm the pit,
And in their folly show the writer's wit.
Yet still thy fools shall stand in thy defence,
And justify their author's want of sense.
Let 'em be all by thy own model
Of dullness, and desire no foreign aid:
That they to future ages may be known,
Not copies drawn, but issue of thy own......................................160
1Nay let thy men of wit too be the same,
All full of thee, and differing but in name;
But let no alien Sedley67interpose
To lard with wit thy hungry Epsom68prose.
And when false flowers of rhetoric thou would'st cull,
Trust Nature, do not labour to be dull;
But write thy best, and top; and in each line,
Sir Formal's oratory69will be thine.
Sir Formal, though unsought, attends thy quill,
And does thy Northern Dedications70fill.....................................170
Nor let false friends seduce thy mind to fame,
By arrogating Jonson's hostile name.71
Let Father Flecknoe fire thy mind with praise,
And Uncle Ogleby72thy envy raise.
Thou art my blood, where Jonson has no part;
What share have we in Nature or in Art?
Where did his wit on learning fix a brand,
And rail at arts he did not understand?
Where made he love in Prince Nicander's73vein,
Or swept the dust in Psyche's humble strain?.............................180
Where sold he bargains, whip-stitch, kiss my arse,74
Promis'd a play and dwindled to a farce?
When did his muse from Fletcher scenes purloin,
As thou whole Eth'ridge75dost transfuse to thine?
But so transfus'd as oil on waters flow,
His always floats above, thine sinks below.
This is thy province, this thy wondrous way,
New humours to invent for each
This is that boasted bias of thy mind,76
By which one way, to dullness, 'tis inclin'd,..................................190
Which makes thy writings lean on one side still,
And in all changes that way bends thy will.
Nor let thy mountain belly make pretence
Of likeness;77thine's a tympany78of sense.
A tun79of man in thy large bulk is writ,
But sure thou 'rt but a kilderkin80of wit.
Like mine thy gentle
Thy Tragic Muse gives smiles, thy Comic sleep.82
With whate'er gall thou sett'st thy self to write,
Thy inoffensive satires never bite..................................................200
In thy felonious heart, though venom lies,
It does but touch thy Irish pen, and dies.
Thy genius calls thee not to purchase
In keen iambics83, but mild anagram:
Leave writing plays, and choose for thy
Some peaceful province in acrostic land.
There thou may'st wings display and altars raise,84
And torture one poor word ten thousand ways.
Or if thou would'st thy diff'rent talents suit,
Set thy own songs, and sing them to thy lute................................210
He said, but his last words were scarcely heard,
For Bruce and Longvil85had a trap prepar'd,
And down they sent the yet declaiming bard.
Sinking he left his drugget robe behind,
Born upwards by a subterranean wind.
The mantle fell to the young prophet's
With double portion of his father's art.
1.....Flecknoe: Richard Flecknoe. (See Background, above.) Tone
2.....like . . . empire: Allusion to Augustus Caesar (63 BC-AD 14), born Gaius
Octavius and adopted by Julius Caesar. He became one of three rulers of Rome in 43 BC and emperor of Rome in 27 BC, ruling until his death.
3.....issue: children; heirs.
4.....succession of the state: The person who would succeed as king.
5.....Shadwell: Thomas Shadwell. (See Background, above.)
6.....wit: Intelligence; creativity; writing ability.
7.....night: Lack of brilliance; stupidity.
8.....goodly fabric: Fat body.
9.....Heywood: John Heywood (1497-1575), English author of interludes, which
were humorous, witty, or moralistic dialogues recited on a stage before or after a play or during an intermission. Heywood was a pioneer in turning the abstractions of morality plays into real characters, as in The Mery Play betwene Johan Johan the Husbande, Tyb the Wyfe, and Syr Johan the Preest, printed in 1533.
10...Shirley: James Shirley (1596-1666), a minor English playwright.
11...tautology: Redundancy, needless
12...Norwich: Seat of Norfolk County in eastern England.
13...drugget: Woolen or partly woolen fabric
used to make clothing.
14...lute: Stringed instrument.
15...whilom: Formerly; at one time; at an earlier time.
16...in . . . toss'd: A phrase that appears in a 1676 Shadwell play entitled The Virtuoso.
17...Arion: Legendary poet and musician of ancient Greece. While on a sea voyage, he learned that sailors on the ship planned to rob and kill him. Resigned to his fate, he sang a song to the accompaniment of his lyre, then jumped overboard. But a dolphin enthralled with
his music saved him and carried him to Corinth, Greece.
18...Pissing-Alley: In Dryden's time, any of several London streets where people urinated.
19...toast: Food waste thrown into the river.
20...'threshing hand: Hand used to beat out the
rhythms of verse in the same way that one would beat (thresh) grain from husks.
21...St. André: French choreographer.
22...feet: In versification, a metric measure such as an iamb or a trochee.
23...Psyche: Opera libretto (1675) written by Shadwell. The story is based on the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche, which is as follows. Psyche is a young woman so beautiful that the goddess of love, Venus, becomes
jealous. She sends her son, Cupid, to earth to use one of his arrows to make her fall in love with a horribly ugly man. Cupid, invisible to human eyes, enters her chamber while she is sleeping. When she awakens, he accidentally pricks his skin instead of hers, causing him to fall in love with her. He then houses her in a palace as his wife but sleeps with her only in the darkness of night. He
tells her she must never light a candle, for he does not wish to reveal his identity right away. Later, her sisters give her bad advice. After telling her that her mystery man is really a serpent, they advise her to light a lamp while he is sleeping, then kill him with a knife. After lighting the lamp, she sees Cupid for the first time and accidentally scratches herself with one of his arrows.
Falling madly in love with him, she kisses him. Angry that she has disobeyed his instructions, he leaves her. While searching for him, she encounters Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and fertility. The great deity tells Psyche that she has no chance of finding Cupid unless she petitions Venus, the goddess who sent him to Psyche in the first place. When Psyche enters a temple dedicated to Venus,
the goddess gives her a series of seemingly impossible tasks to perform. But with the help of those who pity her—including a river god—she achieves success. Meanwhile, Cupid can no longer endure separation from his beloved and asks Jupiter for help. The king of the gods then persuades her to stop her scheming against Psyche. He also dispatches Mercury to earth to bring Psyche to the abode of the
gods. There, Jupiter gives her the food of the gods, making her immortal, and pronounces Cupid and her eternally tied by the bonds of marriage.
24...Singleton: Court musician and
25...Villerius: Character in The Siege of Rhodes, a tragicomic opera by William Davenant (1606-1668).
26...Augusta: Fictional name for London. The word august (uh GUST) means to inspire reverence and awe. Dryden uses the name here to support the poem as a mock epic.
27...to fears inclin'd: London was fearful because Catholics were accused (falsely) of plotting to murder the King of England.
28...Barbican: Defensive wall on Aldersgate Street in London.
29...hight: A that means was called.
30...pile: Building or group of buildings.
31...nursery: Allusion to a school for children training to be actors.
32...Maximin: Hero of Dryden's tragedy, Tyrannic
33...Fletcher: John Fletcher (1579-1625), renowned playwright in the early seventeenth century.
34...buskins: High boots worn by actors in ancient Greek and Roman tragedies. In Dryden's poem, buskins symbolizes stage tragedies.
35...Jonson: Ben Jonson (1572-1637), important playwright of the early seventeenth
36...socks: Low-cut shoes worn by actors in ancient Greek and Roman comedies. In Dryden's poem, socks symbolizes stage comedies.
37...Simkin: Clown or simpleton.
38...clinches: Puns; ambiguities.
39...Panton: Thomas Panton, a well-known punster.
40...Decker: Thomas Dekker (1572-1632), English playwright and prose pamphleteer.
41...Miser: The Miser, a 1672 stag comedy by Shadwell.
42...Humorists: The Humorists, a 1671 stage comedy by Shadwell.
43...Raymond: Character in The Humorists. (See No. 42).
44...Bruce: Character in Shadwell's The Virtuoso
45...limbs: Books and parts of books (covers, pages).
46...pies: Bakers used book pages under pie
crusts (as we would use paper towels or napkins).
47...reliques . . . bum: Book pages used as toilet paper. Bum refers to the buttocks.
48...Ogleby: John Ogilby (1600-1675), British printer, translator, and mediocre poet.
49...Bilk'd stationers: Book dealers unable to sell the works of Shadwell.
50...yeoman: Law officer.
51...Herringman: Henry Herringman (1628–1704), London publisher and bookseller. He
published works by both Dryden and Shadwell.
52...hoary prince: The elderly king, Flecknoe.
53...Ascanius: Son of
Aeneas, the hero of Virgil's Aeneid. After his father died, Ascanius inherited his father's kingdom. Dryden refers to Shadwell as Ascanius to make
the point that Shadwell, like Ascanius, will succeed his
54...Hannibal: Carthaginian general famous for waging war against Rome with elephants. When he was a boy, he was taught to hate Rome.
55...priest: The real-life Flecknoe was said to be a priest.
57...ball: When a king of England was crowned, he received an orb (along with a scepter) as a symbol of his power.
58...Love's Kingdom: A 1664 play by Richard Flecknoe.
59...Psyche: Shadwell fathered (wrote) Psyche. (See No. 23.)
60...poppies: Poppies contain seeds from which opium,
an addictive drug, is made. Shadwell was said to be addicted to opium.
61...On his left . . . vultures took: According to ancient Roman myth, twelve vultures appeared to Romulus, the legendary
co-founder of ancient Rome, to sanction his selection for the site of the city. Dryden mocks Shadwell by writing that his owls can be compared to the vultures of Romulus.
62...from . . . dullness: The old king (Flecknoe) passed on to his son (Shadwell, or
Mac Flecknoe) his dullness.
63...love's kingdom: See No. 58.
Virtuoso, a 1676 play by Shadwell.
65...gentle George: George Etherege (1635-1691), English writer of stage comedies.
66...Dorimant . . . Fopling: Dorimant, Loveit, Cully, Cockwood, and Fopling were all characters in plays of George Etherege. (See No. 65.)
67...Sedley: Sir Charles Sedley (1639-1701),
English playwright. He wrote the prologue for Shadwell's 1673 play Epsom Wells.
68...Epsom: Epsom Wells, a play Shadwell staged in 1672.
69...Sir Formal's oratory: Pompous oratory of Sir Formal Trifle, a character in Shadwell's The Virtuoso.
70...Northern Dedications: Shadwell dedicated some of his plays to the Duke
of Newcastle. Newcastle (in full, Newcastle upon Tyne) is in northern England near the North Sea.
71...Nor . . . name: Don't let false friends make you think that you are carrying on in the tradition of Ben Jonson. (Shadwell thought that he was another
Jonson, but Jonson was by far the superior writer.
72...Uncle Ogleby: See No. 48.
73...Prince Nicander: Character in Shadwell's Psyche.
74...Where . . . arse: Where did he [Jonson] write such phrases as whip-stitch and kiss my arse? These phrases are spoken by Sir Samuel Hearty in
Shadwell's The Virtuoso.
75...Eth'ridge: See Note 65.
76...new . . . mind: Shadwell
writes the following in the epilogue of his play, The Humorists: "A humor is a bias of the mind."
77...nor . . . likeness: Don't compare your large belly to Jonson's.
79...tun: lark cask for beer, ale, or wine.
80...kilderkin: Cask; unit of measure equal to 18 imperial gallons.
81...gentle numbers: Verses; lines of verse.
82...Tragic . . . sleep: The tragic scenes make people laugh; the scenes that are supposed to be funny put them to sleep.
83...iambics: In versification, an iamb is a metric foot
consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. For a complete discussion of meter in poetry and verse, click here.
84...thou . . . display: In some plays in the Dryden-Shadwell era, authors
arranged short and long lines of verse to resemble the shape of objects such as wings or altars.
85...Bruce and Longvil: Characters in Shadwell's The Virtuoso. They arrange for Sir Formal Trifle (see No. 69) to fall through a trap door
while he is giving a speech.
.......The tone of the poem is mischievous and mocking.
.......Dryden's purpose in writing "Mac Flecknoe" was to expose Shadwell as a mediocre writer—and to get even for Shadwell's offenses against him. Dryden lampoons Shadwell mercilessly, although he avoids sarcasm and harangue. Instead, Dryden uses the genius of his wit, razor sharp, to expose Shadwell's writing as
humdrum and uninspired. Early in the poem, Dryden uses hyperbole to stress the dimness of Shadwell's imagination and creativity.
Shadwell never deviates into sense. Shadwell enjoyed a goodly measure of popularity in his day, not infrequently attracting crowds to performances of his works. However, over time, his popularity dwindled. Today, his works receive small attention. Time, that winnower of would-be Shakespeares, has blown away Shadwell and left Dryden in full flower.
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Strike through and make a lucid
But Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day (lines 20-24)
.......The poem is written entirely in couplets (two successive rhyming lines). The first two lines set the pattern.
All human things are subject to decay, Internal Rhyme
And, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey:
.......Dryden also included occasional internal rhyme in the poem, as in the following lines.
As at the morning toast, that floats along (line 50) Meter
The lute and sword which he in triumph bore (line 58)
All arguments, but most his plays, persuade (line 62)
A watch tower once; but now, so fate ordains (line 68)
Of all the pile an empty name remains (line 69)
.......The meter of the poem is iambic pentameter, as the first line demonstrates.
....1.................2...................3..............4.............5 Figures of Speech
All HU..|..man THINGS..|..are SUB..|..ject TO..|..de CAY,.............................
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
Worn out with business, did at length debate (line 9) Anaphora
To settle the succession of the State: (line 10)
To reign, and wage immortal war
with wit (line 12)
And coarsely clad in Norwich drugget came (line 32)
Shadwell alone my perfect image bears, Hyperbole
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity. (lines 15-18)
So just, so like tautology they fell (line 56)
Where queens are form'd, and future heroes bred;
Where unfledg'd actors learn to laugh and cry,
Where infant punks [prostitutes] their tender voices try (lines 75-77)
And torture one poor word ten thousand ways (line 208)Irony
From time to time in the poem, Shadwell receives the acclamation of crowds for his matchless stupidity.Metaphor
But Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray, Personification
His rising fogs prevail upon the day (lines 23-24)
Comparison of Shadwell's
intelligence to night and to fog
Comparison of creativity to a ray of light
Beyond love's kingdom let him stretch his pen (line 143)
Comparison of Shadwell's writing to a pen
And when false flowers of rhetoric thou would'st cull (line 165)
Comparison of imagery or figures of speech to flowers
Now Empress Fame had publisht the renown (line 94) Simile
Comparison of fame to an empress
Thoughtless as monarch oaks, that shade the plain (line 27) Study Questions and Writing Topics
Comparison of Shadwell's thinking ability to that of monarch oaks
- Dryden was a Tory, and Shadwell was a Whig. What was the main difference between these two political parties?
- Shadwell succeeded Dryden as poet laureate of England. Did Shadwell deserve this honor, or did he receive it because of political connections?
- Write an essay comparing and contrasting the writing abilities of Dryden and Shadwell. To prepare yourself, conduct library and Internet research.
- Write a poem of ten lines or more in iambic pentameter (the meter of "Mac Flecknoe"). Use rhyming couplets, as Dryden did.