Critical Analysis of John Dryden's Mac Flecknoe

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Date of Publication and Question of Authorship

      Mac Flecknoe was published in 1682, but was written in 1678 itself. It was published anonymously; thus giving rise to the theory that Oldham and not Dryden was its author. But in 1692, Dryden acknowledged its authorship. Even if he had not, the style of the work and its peculiar satirical bent make it clear that Dryden alone could have written it. Oldham did not possess the genius to have written this mock-heroic poem.

Mac Flecknoe was published in 1682, but was written in 1678 itself. It was published anonymously; thus giving rise to the theory that Oldham and not Dryden was its author. But in 1692, Dryden acknowledged its authorship. Even if he had not, the style of the work and its peculiar satirical bent make it clear that Dryden alone could have written it. Oldham did not possess the genius to have written this mock-heroic poem.
Mac Flecknoe

Circumstances of Composition

      Mac Flecknoe is a highly entertaining satire on Thomas Shadwell. The historical background to Mac Flecknoe goes back to the publication of Absalom and Achitophel in which Dryden had attacked Shaftesbury as an enemy and traitor to the nation. Shaftesbury though arrested and sent to the Tower, was later acquitted of treasonous charges, and his supporters struck a medal in his honor. Dryden now wrote the satire, The Medal, against Shaftesbury. It provoked a reply; The Medal of John Bayes, by Thomas Shadwell. Dryden was not a man to meekly accept the insult and he published Mac Flecknoe as a retaliation. Dryden and Shadwell had once been on friendly terms though they had argued with each other on literary matters. It is not clear how personal animosity set in between them leading to literary attacks on one another. Whatever the circumstances, Dryden's retort to Shadwell is witty and comical. It is not only a satire on Shadwell but also ridicules all literary dunces.

Significance of the Title

      Mac Flecknoe means 'the son of Flecknoe'. The choice of the name is not very difficult to understand. Richard Flecknoe, Shadwell's literary father in the poem, was in real life a Catholic priest and a versifier. Andrew Marvell had satirized him, playfully in Flecknoe, an English Priest in Rome. The wits of the day generally regarded Flecknoe as an object of ridicule. By the time Dryden chose him to be the father of the Prince of Dullness, he had come to symbolize the would-be poet of poor ability. But in the context of Mac Flecknoe, the father's talents in dullness, though great, are not to be unique: the son is greater in the field of dullness than the father. Flecknoe, accordingly, is only the prophet-precursor of the true epitome of unrelieved ignorance and stupidity - Mac Flecknoe, his son.

"Mac Flecknoe": Pure Classical Design

      Dryden has given a classical design to Mac Flecknoe. The very title sets the comic tone. The argument consisting of statement, evidence and conclusion, establishes the essence of nonsense. The poem begins with a question of succession after which Flecknoe chooses Shadwell and gives a speech. Shadwell's qualities and the essence of nonsense are defined. Various references to his dull works and plagiarisms follow, to substantiate his aptness as heir-incumbent to the throne of Nonsense. The end is reached when Shadwell's lack of understanding and wit is established after a contrast with Ben Jonson. Then comes the description of the coronation site, the procession and the coronation itself. A second speech by Flecknoe follows. The speech ends abruptly with the heroes of The Virtuoso opening a trap-door beneath Flecknoe. The son takes on his father's mantle of dullness. Dryden achieves what he set out to achieve with finesse.

"Mac Flecknoe": Three aspects of its Structure

      Mac Flecknoe is marked by a clever intermingling of religion, kingship and art or literature. Shadwell, of course, is a clumsy "antitype" of the ideal in each of these fields. The imagery of coronation governs the whole poem which begins with a monarch being summoned and ends with a monarch exiting through a trap-door. Art or literature is the subject of the poem, for Dryden satirizes Shadwell as the type of bad writers. Religion supplies several images and controls the tone of the poem. Thus, there is a pattern and unity given to the work.

"Mac Flecknoe": Allegorical Satire

      Mac Flecknoe is an allegorical satire. Dryden has used a fictitious base to carry his satiric meaning. The dominant idea is the orderly and appropriate succession to the throne, indicating not only a continuation of the excellent dullness of the previous reign, but its increase - for Shadwell gets "double portion of his father's art." Flecknoe in abdicating his kingship, chooses Shadwell as successor from among his sons, for he alone "stands confirmed in full stupidity;" Flecknoe's speeches in praise of his son's talents reveal the hidden meaning of Dryden. The hero is a fool and he fittingly vows to wage eternal war on sense, wit and intelligence at his coronation. The end comes with the aged Flecknoe disappearing through a trap-door, after bestowing his mantle on Shadwell. The religious imagery which punctuates the poem, for instance, Flecknoe being compared to John the Baptist, arid his mantle being compared to Elijah's, lends it a rich allegorical overtone. Through the means of allegory, Dryden gains an effective satirical medium.

"Mac Flecknoe": Personal Satire against Shadwell

      Allegorical devices are used to lend added point to the satire which is mainly directed towards Thomas Shadwell. Shadwell is attacked for being a literary dunce - indeed, the perfection of stupidity. He is represented as a dull poetaster who lacks wit, sense and intelligence. Others might allow a dim ray of intelligence into the darkness of nonsense, but not so Shadwell. "His rising fogs prevail upon the day."

      Shadwell is a "grand failure" in music as well as poetry and drama. He is great in tautology, aragrams and acrostics. His tragedies evoke laughter, his comedies are soporific and his satires are tame and flat affairs devoid of any sting. He shares with Ben Jonson his corpulence alone; he is most unlike that illustrious Elizabethan in sense and wit. He is thus fit to rule over the realm of Nonsense. Shadwell is thus castigated in no uncertain terms and held up to ridicule with more than a shade of unfairness. Shadwell, in fact, was not as bad a writer as Dryden makes him out to be. In truth, we cannot deny that personal motives underlie the satire in Mac Flecknoe.

"Mac Flecknoe": Not Merely a Personal Lampoon, but also General Satire against Bad Art

      While it is true that personal animosity probably led Dryden to castigate Shadwell so mercilessly in Mac Flecknoe, we also note that he satirizes only the literary qualities of his rival. The sub-title of the poem says: "A Satire upon the True-Blue Protestant Poet" It misleads one into thinking that Shadwell's religious opinions may be attacked. But the poem, however, deals exclusively with Shadwell as a master of dull writing. It does not make any reference to Shadwell's personal life or morals. Thus, though personal motives are not to be completely overruled, the poem is also to be seen in a wider context rather than as a vindictive personal lampoon. It certainly involves personal satire, but through the personal element, Dryden moves to the general sphere. This movement from particular to general and vice versa gives to the poem a quality of universal significance.

      The general theme of the satire is bad writing and low literary taste and standards. It is evoked through the particular satire against Shadwell. Shadwell is the representative of all poetasters, who lack genius and skill and are fit only for acrostics and the realm of Nonsense. The general aspect of the satire is closely intermingled with the personal element. The site of Shadwell's coronation is described not merely to ridicule Shadwell particularly, but also in order to expose the literary standards and the debased values of the society of those times. Dryden thus managed to kill two birds with one stone in Mac Flecknoe. He retaliated so successfully against a literary rival on personal grounds that now we remember Shadwell merely as the Prince of Fools in Mac Flecknoe. But at the same time, Dryden also satirized contemporary deterioration of literary taste. Through Shadwell, Dryden attacks all the would-be poets who lacked real talent.

Mock-Heroic Form

      The most entertaining aspect of Mac Flecknoe is its mock-heroic technique. The satire, both in its personal and general nature, gets added poignancy through the mock-heroic technique followed by Dryden. Indeed, its mock-heroic framing, which suggested Pope's Dunciad, has largely contributed to the poem's popularity so long after its topical allusions have been lost and forgotten. In the mock-heroic form, as the name suggests, we have epic solemnity in manner but a contrasting triviality of theme. Mac Flecknoe deals with a coronation - by itself a grand and solemn matter, but then there it is the coronation of the monarch of Dullness. The mock-heroic tone is obvious.

      All epic conventions are parodied for comic and satiric effect. Part of tlie mock-heroic technique is Dryden's consummate skill in using noble terms for his victim in order to deflate him. Comparison with legendary heroes and Biblical personages and incidents serve to reduce the victim to the lowest level. Sahdwell is elevated to the state of Arion and Elisha but only to come crashing down to own a trembling lute and a mantle of dullness. The mock-heroic method is employed to suggest the heavey, gross figure of Shadwell cutting his way down the "silver Thames" to alight among brothel houses and a Nursery where young actors are trained. What a stupendous welcome awaits the stately hero! Stacks of dusty books and pages of forgotten authors, pave the way. Ruined booksellers and stationers line the way forming a guard of honour. The marks of royalty in the realm of Nonsense are a "mighty mug of potent ale" and Flceknoe's "Love's Kingdom."

      The whole speech of Flecknoe with its prophetic tone and high-flown appreciation of Shadwell's works and talents, evokes laughter because of its mock-heroic technique. The praise is for supreme dullness and the prophecy is that Shadwell is the supreme master of that realm. The mock-heroic technique involving deceptive politeness, deflating images, ludicrous setting, caricature and sarcasm makes the poem delightful and witty, even while giving it a devastating satiric power. Mac flecknoe has thus been termed Dryden's greatnest mock-heroic fantasy.

Use of Heroic Couplet

      Allied with he form of mock-heroic is Dyden's use of the heroic couplet in Mac Flecknoe. The verse-form is pre-eminently suited to the satiric as well as the mock-heroic design. It lends itself to the device of inflating the victim in one line only to the followed by his use of the heroic couplet in a flexible and appropriate manner. He made it a perfect medium for pouring out his "magnificent abuse." It helps in being politely offensive and in polished rudeness. It "adds authority to the condemnation."

"Mac Flecknoe": Sustained Comic Tone

      Mac Flecknoe has been called "sheer comedy" by some critics. Though one may not agree with the view, one readily notes the sustained comic tone in the poem. Various comic devices such as irony, parody, inversion, comic hyperbole, brilliant humor and wit mark Mac Flecknoe. The characterization of Shadwell has been compared with Shakespeare's Falstaff. Even though one may feel it to be an exaggerated praise, one enjoys the portraiture of Shadwell all the same. Shadwell's portrait is comically well done in so much as it can be appreciated for its own sake, independent of its political or topical implications.

      The poem is based on a joke, that Shadwell was fit to be described in heroic style. Its eternal popularity lies in the fact that "it is funy." A small man is not in himself a ridiculous object; he becomes ridiculous when he is dressed up in a suit of armor designed for a hero. This is the mock-heroic basis of the poem. Several lines in the poem "bubble with pure laughter" where Dryden is clearly enjoying himself thoroughly:

'Let father Flecknoe fire thy mind with praise
And uncle Ogleby thy envy raise'

"Mac Flecknoe": Its Appeal for Modern Readers

      To the modern reader, Mac Flecknoe seems to have plenty of obscure allusions. The plays and characters of Shadwell, the characters from George Etherege's plays, various parodies of actual lines from Shadwell and other lesser-known writers, make the poem slightly difficult for the modern reader. The allusions to contemporary London and its localities are also obscure now. Still the reader is willing to read the poem and, what is more, enjoy it.

      The modern and, in fact, the universal appeal of Mac Flecknoe lies in its mock-heroic style and the sheer fun of the burlesque ceremonies and the farcical situations. It is amazing that a trivilality can be expanded to such comic lengths. Nor is the modern reader unappreciative of the polished satirical thrusts of Dryden and the portrait of Shadwell. It is the comic mode of the poem which has ensured its sustained interest. One agrees with T.S. Eliot that "the most fun... the most sustained display of surprise of wit from line to line, is Mac Flecknoe." Dryden's method is something near parody; he applies vocabulary, image and ceremony which arouse epic associations of grandeur; to make an enemy ridiculous. But, as Eliot says, though the effect may be disastrous for the enemy, it is not the humor which merely belittles. Indeed the total effect is a "transformation of the ridiculous into poetry."


      Mac Flecknoe was certainly motivated by personal enmity. Dryden enlarged its scope to include satire on contemporary literary taste and bad poets in general. However, if it were merely topical, its appeal would have vanished long ago. If it appeals to us now, it is because of the delectable use made of the the mock-heroic technique with the accompanying comic overtones, and the remarkable pen-picture of Shadwell, which may be untrue to actuality but is a great comic effort. The poem was "for Dryden in 1678, a magnificent tour de forced; but it was the beginning for him also of a new style of writing, a new command of the couplet... It was an enchanting thing Dryden had invented in the verse of Mac Flecknoe and in various forms, it dominated English poetry... until the middle of the eighteenth century."

      Dryden has with consummate skill brought together disparate literary experiences - the classical epic style of Virgil and Homer on the one hand, and the subject of crude Restoration life and letters, on the other. He provides a forceful as well as comical illustration of the relationship between the actual works which form the great English tradition and the low, ugly, comic actuality of seventeenth-century England.


Write a short essay on the salient features of Mac Flecknoe. Illustrate your essay from the text.
Write a critical appreciation of Mac Flecknoe.
"The piece of Dryden which is most fun, which is the most sustained display of surprise after surprise of wit from line to line, is Mac Flecknoe." Discuss.
"The severity of the satire (Mac Flecknoe) and the excellence of its versification give it a distinguished rank in this species of composition." Discuss.

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