Mac Flecknoe: as A Satirical Comedy

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      Dryden was first and foremost a satirist. However, it has been remarked that Mac Flecknoe is, not merely a satire, but a comedy as well. His Mac Flecknoe is, undoubtedly, a remarkable Satirical Comedy the only one which he wrote primarily out of personal motives. Before we go into the issue, it would do well to understand what is generally meant by comedy and satire. Comedy, generally speaking, is any literary work which amuses or arouses laughter. It includes pure fun, sympathetic humor, and indulgent laughter without any ulterior motive. Satire, on the other hand, aims at the ridicule of a person, institution, or custom or thing, with the purported motive of correction. Both satire and comedy aim at laughter. But while one aims at laughter out of ridiculing a certain human frailty or person, the other is concerned solely with arousing laughter and pure fun. Satire often becomes vituperative, cruel and abusive; comedy, by its very nature, cannot. One cannot, however, say that the two are mutually separable entities never to be mingled. Often, satire has an element of comedy; many a time comedy involves satirical laughter, especially the comedy of wit.

"Mac Flecknoe": Satirical Elements

      Mac Flecknoe is first and foremost a satire, and a personal one at that written by Dryden to attack his rival, Shadwell. At every step in the poem, we have Shadwell sinking lower and lower in position even as Dryden employs more and more elevated terms in his praise. Shadwell is depicted as king but he is king of the realm of Nonsense. He is a great playwright, but of dull plays, which send people off to sleep. Portentous omens occur at his coronation, but they are in the nature of twelve owls flying over his head. His guard of honor consists of ruined publishers. The satirical note is unmistakable. Shadwell is a bad writer, and Dryden leaves no stone unturned to pour ridicule over his head.

      The mock-heroic technique enlivens and enhances the satiric effect. Satire involves irony, and what can be more cleverly ironic than the mock-heroic idiom! Compared to the dignified heroes of ancient myths and epics, Shadwell's stature is even further shortened - he is rendered into a pigmy by the comparison with giants. He is Ascanius, Romulus, Hannibal, and Arion by turns, but the context make the whole effect ridiculous. Shadwell is exposed for what he is - the king of dullness, supreme in the sphere of nonsense.

      Mock-heroic technique alone does not constitute the satire in Mac Flecknoe. Shadwell is also the target of direct satire. Flecknoe's last speech makes use of direct accusations against Shadwell. Shadwell is charged with plagiarism and indecency. Dryden seems to prefer in such passages the "direct Juvenal to the indirect Horace." Qualities are given their exact names, even though these are praised in an ironic tone. "Dullness", "nonsense", "tautology", etc. are used to signify the great qualities of Shadwell. Indeed, Dryden did not even choose to give his victim a spurious name. Flecknoe's advice to his son is not only powerful satire, it is also direct:

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

      Shadwell could produce an effect of dullness without laboring to do so, we are told. He is accused of producing his works slowly; of writing in an artificial style and of stealing passages from great dramatists like Etherege.

      Satiric elements, then, abound in Mac Elecknoe. Indeed, it is basically a satire on Shadwell, and through him, an attack on the low quality of contemporary literature. It is a general satire against bad literature, too. The ruins of Barbican have produced brothel houses, where vulgar sexuality was depicted in dramas of the day. Prostitutes reigned over the place. Dull minded audiences applauded witless plays. The tendency was to play upon words, evoke laughter through puns and acrostics. Dryden is here attacking the general tendencies of literature in his day.

Comic Tone in Satire

      Satire though it is, Mac Flecknoe has been called Dryden's 'gayest' poem, and rightly so. The satire, though personal in motive, never degenerates into abusive and vituperative language. There is a great deal of humor and even pure fun in it which warrants a critic's contention that Mac Flecknoe "is not only a satire; it is also a comedy."

      The very design of the poem is comic - the aged monarch of the realm of Nonsense contemplating on a worthy successor and choosing Shadwell, for,

.... "alone of all my sons is he
Who stands confirmed in full stupidity."

      It is funny to imagine Flecknoe wondering which of his sons would fit the position well, for it involved a continuous battle against sense and intelligence. Shadwell, Flecknoe concludes, would be the best candidate, because he was one who would "never deviate into sense." Furthermore, his "goodly fabric", i.e., his huge bulk, fills the eye. He seems to be designed for thoughtless majesty. He is compared to the spreading oak, which reigns in a "supine" manner. Shadwell is surely made for "anointed dullness."

      Shadwell is ridiculed humorously, never in an abusive and malicious way. His music calls the little fishes to hear, whereas Arion's efforts attracted the dolphins. The scene of the coronation is most amusingly described. We are able to laugh even if we forget the intended satire. The way is spread with scattered pages from the books of second-rate authors instead of rich Persian carpets. The guard of honor is composed of ruined publishers. Shadwell arrives with his head enveloped in fog, and "a lambent dullness plays around his face." Foggy ignorance has replaced the customary princely grace and dignity. Dark dullness sits on his brows instead of divine radiance. All this is great fun. What is important and noteworthy; is that the reader is able to appreciate the fun without necessarily knowing the satirical context.

Comedy and Satire Intermingled

      All through the poem, we find an intermingling of satire and comedy. The comic overtones give a humorous tinge to the satire. Even the most satirical passages have the aura of comedy about them.

"Success let others teach, learn thou from me,
Pangs without birth, fruitless industry."

      The devastating lines, are comic as well as satirical. Shadw'ell's mind is as slow-moving and dull as his fat body indicates:

"A tun of man in thy large bulk is writ,
But sure thou art but a kilderkin of wit."

      Poor Shadwell's tragic Muse smiles and his comic Muse sends people to sleep. As for his satire, it is neither offensive, nor does it bite.

      Comedy takes an upper hand in the last episode of Mac Flecknoe. The disappearance of old Elecknoe through a trap-door is great fun. Flecknoe has not completed his speech, where his abrupt exit occurs. A billow of wired from the heart of the earth lifts up his mantle as he vanishes out of sight into the earth. The mantle

..... fell to the young prophet's part
With double portion of his father's art.

      The laughter here need not be satirical at all. We have to laugh because the whole affair is described so amusingly. Dryden is obviously enjoying himself and the reader enjoys with him. These lines, like the opening lines of the poem "bubble with laughter." Mac Flecknoe is "variegated by parodied echoes of other poets all the while that the low is exalted, and fantastic absurdities rocketed to dazzling heights", as Bonamy Dobree remarks. It is a gloriously comic mock-heroic.

Shadwell and Falstaff

      The comic creativeness of Dryden is worth noting. But all the time, it is directed towards satire, and not mere fun. It has been remarked by one critic that Shadwell belongs to the company of Falstaff. This would be carrying things a bit far. Shadwell remains more a butt of ridicule, and therefore, satirical, while Falstaff is a great comic figure. We laugh at a comic figure, but we mostly laugh with him as well. In the case of a satirical figure, we are always laughing at him, and the laughter is almost invariably accompanied by a feeling of contempt and scorn. Shadwell is the victim of our laughing ridicule and contempt. We do not laugh with him. Shadwell resembles Flagstaff in bulk, but not in wit. That fat companion of Shakespeare's Henry IV was not only fat, but had an acute wit even while being the cause of wit in others, as he himself claims. Shadwell, on the other hand, is the nullity of all wit. He is the representative of dullness and sterility - in the poem he does not utter a single word. It would not do, therefore, to conclude that Shadwell is of the same order as Falstaff.


      Mac Flecknoe is basically a satire. Comic overtones make the satire humorous. It is the gayest poem that Dryden ever wrote. It will not be far wrong to call it a delightful lampoon, for its satirical intent, cannot be forgotten. Comedy intermingles at places with the satire and results in pure bubbling laughter at times. Dryden's attitude seems quite Olympian in that, his verse moves with tremendous grace and unlaboured strides, as if the "writer was looking at his victim rather with a kind of good-humored scorn than with any elaborate triumph", as George Saintsbury observes.

      The poem is based on a joke - a literary joke, that Shadwell was a fit subject to be described in heroic style - and it lives in literary history for the single and excellent reason that it is funny; says Ian Jack. It is a withering gaiety that marks the poem. A poem about a dull poet, paradoxically enough, turns out to be gay and energetic. The comic tone is further sustained by the fact that Dryden never stoops to invective and vituperation or malicious remarks, though personal malice did provoke him to write the poem in the first place. The poem is basically a satire, but hilarious comedy is also intermingled with it.

University Questions

"Mac Flecknoe is not only a satire, it is also a comedy.” Discuss.
Mac Flecknoe is a delightful lampoon and the ironic politeness of its style is remarkable. Elucidate.
Or '
"Shadwell takes his place as a member of the same company as Sir John Falstaff himself." Comment on this statement with reference to Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe.
"Appreciation of the devastating satire of Mac Flecknoe should not be allowed to blind us to its sheer comedy." Discuss.
"Mac Flecknoe" is a comic rather than a satirical portrait. Do you agree?

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