Consider Mac Flecknoe as an Allegorical Satire

Also Read


      Mac Flecknoe is sub-titled as "A Satire upon the True-Blue-Protestant Poet T.S." But we do not have satire against Shadwell's political or religious affiliations in the poem. The satire is almost wholly confined to his literary pretensions. The satire is mostly conducted in an indirect manner. The very framework of the poem is allegorical. A fictitious situation is made to represent Shadwell's position and his character is projected and satirized within this framework.

      Allegory, of course, is a mode of writing which is a symbolic narrative or a figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another. The allegory in Mac Flecknoe has a satirical intention. Indeed, the satire is the dominant factor; the poem uses allegory as an effective means to achieve the satirical goal. The satire is not only personal, though most of it is motivated by personal grievance and rivalry. It is also directed towards poetasters, dullness and stupidity in general. The attack on Shadwell projects larger issues, just as universal truths are made to apply personally, too.

The Fictitious Framework

      The poem opens with a fictitious set-up. Flecknoe is the aged monarch of Dullness. He is contemplating on whom to choose from among his numerous progeny as a fit successor to his throne and realm of Nonsense. The situation embodies every aspect which Dryden could desire, to exploit in his satire of Shadwell. Who better could be found for the throne of Nonsense than Shadwell, who never deviates into sense? At the same time, the fictitious set-up enables Dryden to attack the low literary qualities of the day. Flecknoe's speech on his decision to choose Shadwell as his successor is fraught with ironical barbs. He is made to dwell on the supposed merits of his son - his superiority in dullness and stupidity; his pretensions to music and verse, his supreme incapacity to be intelligent. Fiecknoe triumphantly declares:

"Shadivell alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years;
Shadwell alone of all my sons is he
Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity."

      The 'hero' of the poem is a fool and dullard. Dryden's treatment makes Shadw'ell "give vitality to the principles of folly, enunciated by the aged monarch, at the same time that he receives meaning by exemplifying the essence of natural stupidity", as Leybury points out.

Allusions to Contemporary Writers

      Within the allegorical framework, Dryden attacks Shadwell's pretensions to literary fame. Constant references are made to his works and other dull and worthless writers of the day. If he calls Shadwell the prophet of tautology, he is ridiculing not only Shadwell's tendency to write mechanical verse and his dull poetizing, but he is attacking he very tendency which dominated the literary scene of the day. Shadwell is linked with bad writing. The connection is made through the allegorical speech of the aged monarch, Flecknoe, as he abdicates in favor of his more 'worthy' son. His advice to Shadwell is:

"Leave writing plays, and choose for thy command
Some peaceful province in Acrostic land.
There thou mayest wings display and alters raise,
And torture one poor word ten thousand ways"

Attack on Contemporary Literary Scene through Allegorical Description

      The place for the coronation is appropriately situated. It is a Nursery where boys and girls are trained as actors and actresses. But the plays which are performed there are not the great dramas of Ben Jonson and Fletcher. They are works of those "who can wage harmless war with words." Shadwell, as a born scourage of wit and flail of sense, will find a ready place there. The allegory is obtained in describing the site for the coronation. It is continued in the description of coronation itself. The regal way is covered, not with Persian carpets, but with the scattered pages torn from worthless books of second-rate authors - "scattered limbs of mangled poets." 'Thick fogs' envelop the prince's brow while "lambent dullness played around" his face. The nodding poppies overspreading the temples of the monarch-to-be, the omen of twelve owls, the anointment, the enthronement and the solemn oath, "Never to have peace with wit, nor truce with sense" all maintain the narrative situation of coronation and at the same time convey the allegorical meaning. It points to the eternal war of dunces against good sense and intelligence, and Shadwell is the supreme example of such a dunce.

Positive Standards Conveyed through Allegory

      If satire is to be healthy and useful, it has to convey positive truths even while castigating folly and shortcomings. Dryden’s criticism of poetasters and worthless literary works implies a positive standard as well. The series of contrasts drawn up between Shadwell and writers universally recognized as great, show us Shadwell's inherent stupidity. At the same time, the lines vindicate the greatness of the writers like Ben Jonson, Etherege and Fletcher. Flecknoe asks Shadwell:

"What share have 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's vein,
Or swept the dust in Psyche's humble strain?
Where sold he bargains, 'whip-stitch, kiss my arse',
Promised a play and dwindled to a farce?
When did his Muse from Fletcher scenes purloin
As thou whole Etherege dost transfuse to thine?

      General literary truths smoothly give way to tell of Shadwell's own ignorance of them. There is, implied in these lines, the great literary truths which should set a standard for literature, and which, unfortunately enough, had not been maintained by writers like Shadwell.

Continuous Strain of Allegory: The Ending

      The poem sustains the allegory to the end. The last action is in the vein of an allegory. The old monarch falls through a trapdoor in the midst of his speech, bestowing his mantle and double portion of his wit (or rather the lack of it) on his successor. The action gains extra force through the fact that Shadwell's own play, The Virtuoso supplies the idea. The allegory is unified all through the poem. At no place do Flecknoe and Shadwell lose their identity as King and Prince, and hence successor to the throne, respectively. Within the framework of the coronation of the prince, we have devastating satire against Shadwell in particular and the deteriorating literary conditions of the day in general.


      Mac Flecknoe, then, is an allegorical satire. The satire is veiled behind the allegorical framework, which, admittedly; is not too difficult to penetrate. The poem shows Dryden's skill at combining satirical intention with allegory. He can, as Ley bury observes, "connect an allegorical episode that gives his true meaning. With just and right degrees of veiling, he can sustain the little drama within the story... one and entire; the characters are the same throughout."

University Questions

Consider Mac Flecknoe as an allegorical satire.
Dryden can "sustain the little drama within a story" and bring about vivid satirical effect. Elucidate with reference to Mac Flecknoe.
Dryden has "woven his piece into a sort of imaginary story or scene, in which he introduces the person whom he ridicules as a principal actor" in Mac Flecknoe. Discuss.

Previous Post Next Post