John Dryden

Mac Flecknoe

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Mac Flecknoe Summary

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“Mac Flecknoe,” also known as “Mac Flecknoe; or, A satyr upon the True-Blew-Protestant Poet,” was written by John Dryden around 1678 and published in 1682. The poem is an excellent example of mock-heroic satire, which Dryden is famous for; its satirical stance is an attack on Thomas Shadwell, a popular poet during Dryden’s time who had also been his disciple at one point. The two often fought about drama and poetry, and this poem was written by Dryden to mock his fellow poet. As the story goes, Dryden had written a number of earlier works, but his piece “The Medal” was answered satirically by Shadwell’s “Medal of John Baynes.” Dryden retaliated with “Mac Flecknoe.” The popular satire, comprising 218 lines of rhyming couplets, contains many references to Dryden’s contemporaries.

According to many scholars, the poets’ animosity stemmed from many things, including their difference in opinion regarding Ben Jonson’s worth, their differences in subject matter (Dryden appreciated the comedy of wit and banter, while Shadwell preferred humorous comedy), the purpose of comedy, rhymed plays, and the topic of plagiarism. They also differed in their politics, Dryden being a Whig (a political party that rejected absolute monarchy) and Shadwell staunchly defending the Stuart monarchy.

The satire begins with the figure of Richard Flecknoe, an earlier poet disliked by Dryden and previously satirized by poet Andrew Marvell. In Dryden’s poem, Flecknoe is the poet-ruler of a kingdom called Nonsense. One day, he decides to abdicate his throne to a worthy successor. Of all his sons, he chooses Shadwell because he most resembles the dullness for which Flecknoe (considered a fool by the kingdom) is known. Some of Shadwell’s merits, which are actually faults, include his use of repetition, and his love for dull poets like James Shirley. Flecknoe notes that his son is even duller than him, and takes aim at his attempt at being a musician. For all of these “qualities,” Flecknoe decides that his son Shadwell is the best choice for “anointed dullness.”

After choosing Shadwell to succeed him, Flecknoe determines that he will rule from “Nursery,” which is a London theater to help students study drama. The satire mentions that poets like Jonson, considered great, cannot and would not study at Nursery, but poets who rally against wit and common sense do perfectly well there. When news about Shadwell’s succession spreads around the kingdom, instead of competent and beloved poets coming to praise the succession, dull and dreary poets, like John Ogleby, come out of their obscurity to proclaim Shadwell as successor.

Shadwell arrives in the city of August (London) and sits on a throne with Flecknoe, their dullness matching. Twelve owls fly over the spot where they sit, and when Flecknoe crowns his son, he prophesizes over him. Flecknoe tells his son to do what he is good at: encouraging dullness and ignorance. Comically (for the reader), Flecknoe also tells his son that he does not have to work hard at encouraging dullness—he can just let it come naturally. His prophecy indicates that Shadwell will follow in the steps of bad poets like Ogleby instead of great poets like Jonson. As such, Shadwell will write horrible plays, weak poetry, and useless satires. Before Flecknoe can finish his prophecy, however, he falls through a trapdoor and his mantle falls upon his son, Shadwell, the new King of Nonsense.