Mac Flecknoe: Line by Line - Summary & Analysis

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      Lines 1-6. Flecknoe, who like Augustus Csesar, was called to govern the kingdom of Nonsense at an early age and who had done his duties so well that he was regarded by all as the sole emperor of his kingdom (of Nonsense), found in his old age that everything was liable to decay and that even kings have to obey when fate calls upon him.

      Lines 7-18. This old king, now reigning a peace and blessed with a large number of sons and daughters, being worn out with continuous labor, at last thought to select a successor to himself.

Lines 1-6. Flecknoe, who like Augustus Csesar, was called to govern the kingdom of Nonsense at an early age and who had done his duties so well that he was regarded by all as the sole emperor of his kingdom (of Nonsense), found in his old age that everything was liable to decay and that even kings have to obey when fate calls upon him.
Mac Flecknoe

      And thinking about a fit successor from among his sons who would continually wage an unceasing war with wit (i.e" who would be continually possessed with nonsense), he at length decided that Shadwell alone of his sons resembled him in every respect and so was the fittest successor to his kingdom. He alone, of all his sons, was completely possessed with foolishness, even from a very early age.

      Lines 19-24. Other children of Flecknoe do sometimes pretend to have some sense but Shadwell never passes into sense. Other men may sometimes be blessed with a chance ray of wit, but Shadwell's pure and solid foolishness admits not even a single moment of sense. No light of wisdom ever penetrates the darkness of his mind.

      Lines 25-28. Over and above this, his enormous size fascinates the eyes of the beholders and seems to be intended by nature to make him fit for reigning over the dullards. He resembles a gigantic oak, first by his huge size and secondly, by his indolence and stupidity.

      Lines 29-34. Flecknoe means that Heywood and Shirley were less expert in the use of superfluous words and phrases than Shadwell. They had only prepared the way for him. Even Flecknoe himself, who was more famous than Shirley and Heywood, had come only to proclaim to the world that a greater dunce was soon to make his appearance.

      Lines 35-44. My play upon my lute to the King of Portugal which was appreciated and rewarded, served only to announce that day of triumph when you made your way across the sparkling waters of the Thames in front of the royal barge. The oarsmen kept time to your music with the strokes of their oars, proud of your position as the leader of the band of musicians playing heavenly music full of songs of praise for the king. Such a scene was never depicted even in any of your nonsensical plays - like Epsom wells. You sailed like the famous Greek musician Arion and the lute seemed to tremble on account of your violent and clumsy playing.

      Lines 45-50. When you moved your thumb, sharpened by constantly playing on striking instruments, clumsy music echoed from both banks of the river.

       A large number of fishes gathered round your boat as they do when pieces of dry bread are thrown into the water.

      Lines 51-59. Sometimes in your capacity of a bandmaster, you move your arm violently as though it were a flail, holding a roll of papers which serves the purpose of a baton or a rod. The mechanical regularity with which you wield the papers in your hand was never surpassed even by the regular steps of an accomplished French dancing master like St. Andre; nay, the verses of your own opera, Psyche, though excellent alike in sound and sense, do not flow with more perfect regularity. So mechanically exact was the motion of the papers in your hand, and so very like the repetition of words and phrases occurring in your verses that Singleton was beside himself with envy; nay, so great was his mortification that he swore that he would never afterward play his favorite part of Villerius, who appears on the stage with a sword in one hand and a lute in the other.

      Lines 60-63. Here the old man stopped and wept for the intense joy he felt at the thought of possessing so promising or gifted a son. Above all, his plays show that he was marked out by nature to reign over the Empire of dullness.

      Lines 64-74. Near the walls of Augusta (the people of which are so much subject to panic) there stands an old building called the Barbican which once served as a watch-tower; but such is the decree of fate that though the place is still called the Barbican, yet there is no trace of the tower left now. From its ruins, houses of ill fame had risen. In these brothels, scenes of vulgar sexuality were enacted, and lustful pleasure was experienced. Aging prostitutes, ruled in these places and slept peacefully, undisturbed by night watchmen.

      Lines. 75-78. Near the brothels there stands a school for the training of actors or actresses; there boys and girls are trained to play the parts of heroes and queens respectively; they are taught to laugh and cry as the occasion requires. Girls are taught to sing and boys are taught to play parts like that of Maximins who challenged the gods in Dryden's play, Tyrannic Love.

      Lines 79-84. None of the tragedies of the great Fletcher nor the comedies of Ben Jonson, who was a still greater dramatist, are ever rehearsed here; the idiots who frequent the society of these young actors and actresses can only appreciate such wretched stuff as contains characters like that of the Cobbler Simkin. "The third-rate poets who inhabit the suburbs of London contribute puns for their entertainment, like Panton, the well-known punster, who is innocent of all wit except for far-fetched play upon words which is particularly admired amongst them."

      Lines 85-93. Flecknoe was led by his ambition to choose this place as the seat of Shadwell's throne. It being a well-known place. For, Dekker the famous Elizabethan dramatist had foretold long ago that a powerful prince, designed by Nature to be a bitter enemy of wit and a punisher of all men of sense, would have the seat of his government at that place. He would produce some plays like Psyche, fitted to charm the souls of the truly dull people, and create many dull pieces like The Miser and many dull characters as representing 'humours' though they are really hypocrites, e.g., Raymond and Bruce.

      Lines 94-105. By this time Rumour had spread the news of Shadwell's crowning ceremony. Stirred by this news large crowds of dull people gathered together from Bunhill to Watling street. The path over which the emperor of the Dunces was to pass was not covered with Persian (i.e. costly) carpets but with leaves torn out from the worthless poets, Heywood, Shirley and Ogleby and it was almost blocked by the large mass of Shadwell’s own production. Publishers who had been deceived and ruined by writers were standing the guard of honor. The Captain of Guards was Herringman, Shadwell’s publisher.

      Lines 106-117. Old Flecknoe appeared in royal state; he was seated on a lofty throne formed by piling up a large mass of his own books. At his right hand sat young Ascanius (Shadwell, the second hope of dull and stupid poets and a great supporter of the Empire of dunces). A misty darkness covered his forehead instead of the bright halo that surrounds the heads of saints and prophets; and there was a settled expression of stupidity over-spreading his face. As Hannibal was made by his father Hamilcar to take a solemn oath that he would be a mortal enemy to Rome, so Shadwell swore and his vow will not remain a supreme dunce all his life; he swore that he would maintain his father's sovereign right (as foremost of the dunces) and defend the empire of dulness by fighting against wit, and writing absolute nonsense to the last.

      Lines 118-119. The king himself performed the holy ceremony of anointing his successor by virtue of his position as king and of his profession as a priest.

      Lines 120-127. Flecknoe placed a huge cup of strong ale, instead of the ball of sovereignty, in the left hand of Shadwell; he placed Love's Kingdom in his right hand at once to serve as his royal staff and also as the model he was to follow in exercising his royal authority i.e. to act as a dunce during his reign. Shadwell had followed the just teaching of this play from his early years and from this he had received his inspiration to produce Psyche. Lastly; his head was encircled by poppies which, as they waved in the breeze, seemed to lend a sanctity or holiness to Shadwell's head.

      Lines 128-134. Just at this time, if the current report be not false, twelve venerable owls flew on his left hand. Similarly; it is told of Romulus by the poets that on one occasion, as he stood on the bank of the Tiber, he saw twelve vultures flying close to him; this he regarded as an omen or augury announcing his future sovereignty. The crowd expressed its joy by loud shouts, accepting the event (flying of owls) as the prediction of Shadwell's coming sovereignty.

      Lines 135-138. Old Flecknoe then shook the mass of white hair that gave him a claim to reverence and allowed the drops (sweat) of oblivion to fall from his own forehead on the face of his stupid son. He stood for a long time struggling with the fury of inspiration which overpowered him for a time, leaving him no power of speech; at last he poured forth the following words of prophecy about the future greatness of Shadwell.

      Lines 139-144. "May God bless Shadwell, my son. Let his kingdom extend from Ireland to far Barbadoes. May his empire be a boundless one and his sovereignty more glorious than that of his father i.e. may his productions surpass even Flecknoe's absurdity Let Shadwell surpass Flecknoe’s literary efforts in point of dullness." Flecknoe here stopped and the whole audience solemnly expressed their assent in his prayer.

      Lines 145-146. Flecknoe continued: "Go on progressing towards fresh ignorance and nonsense. Leave the teaching of success to others. You learn how to produce nothing through much labor. It will take you five years to write a single play like the Virtuoso and yet there will not be one thought in it for which you may be called witty (i.e., all Shadwell's plays are dull). The characters of Etherege are justly popular on the stage, and the fools he represents are cleverly drawn so as to exhibit the wit of the author in the follies of the characters. But the characters in Shadwell's dramas (which Flecknoe admires) are fools because of their author's (Shadwell's) own dullness (and not because they are purposely drawn as fools).

      Lines 157-164. "Let all by our characters be supremely dull like yourself and not borrowed from other writers, so that the future generations may know them as not drawn in imitation of actual persons but wholly the offspring of your own creative power. Let the characters in your plays, which are meant to be witty, be as stupid as those whom you represent as fools and truly representative of your stupidity. Let no authors like Sedley whose genius is foreign to yours (who is as witty as you are dull) assist you with his wit in the composition of such a wretched prosaic piece as your Epsom Wells.

      Lines 165-170. "When you borrow bad rhetorical ornaments from other writers, you always rely on your own supreme dullness and do not take pains to be dull (you are sure to write stupidly without any effort). Simply give full play to your genius; you are sure to write in the high-flown style of Sir Formal even when you intend not to do so as is shown by the dedications you have addressed to the Duke of Newcastle (in the north of England.)

      Lines 171-176. "Do not allow yoruself to follow the mischievous advice of those false friends who urge you to seek fame by imitating Ben Jonson whose genius is foreign to yours. On the contrary; you should feel stimulated by my (Flecknoe's) praise to further efforts (to grow more and more tedious and dull) and you should seek to emulate uncle Ogleby (an inferior poet). You are a true son of mine and as I have not a single spark of Jonson's genius in me, neither have you anything in common with him, either in natural parts or acquired knowledge and skill.

      Lines 177-186. "Jonson never used his wit to cast stigma on men of letters (as Shadwell did when he attacked Dryden). Jonson never made his characters woo or court a lady in the absurd fashion of Prince Nicander (a character in Shadwell's Psyche) nor did he introduce a heroine performing, like Shadwell Psyche, such a homely duty as that of sweeping the dust. Nor was Ben Jonson a shameless plagiarist like yourself for he never borrowed any scenes from his contemporaries (such as Fletcher) as you transfer the good things of Etherege wholesale to the scenes of your own plays. But though you borrow shamelessly from Etherege, you do it so clumsily that the stolen phrases, etc., can always be distinguished from your own composition like oil floating at the top in the vessel of water.

      Lines 187-192. "It is in inventing new humor for each play that your wonderful genius especially exhibits itself; that is your forte or strong point You yourself as a literary man, illustrate a particular bias or humor which inclines you to dullness in all that you write.

      Lines 193-196. "Do not claim that you are like Ben Jonson simply because your body is extremely fat - yours is a case of intellectual dropsy, an abnormal or diseased swelling; The huge size of your person would seem to mark you out as a big man indeed, i.e., a man of great capability but there can be no doubt that in point of wit your capacity is very small.

      Lines 197-210. Your verses, resemble mine in being tame (dull) and feeble (wanting in energy); and your tragedies raise smiles while your comedies are so dull and wanting in wit and humor as to induce sleep. Though, written in a spirit of bitter malice, your satires are harmless and fail to sting (because they are wanting in wit and point). Though your heart is extremely venomous and is full of villainous thoughts, your literary power is so feeble that what you write can never injure those whom you satirize. Instead of persevering as a dramatist, you should take up the harmless exercise of composing acrostics and the like. In that department of literature you may exhibit poems with lines of different lengths resembling the shape of wings or an altar; or indulge in anagrams and puns distorting the form or meaning of one word in innumerable ways; or if you wish to find full play for your versatile or many-sided genius you may set your own songs to music and sing them while playing on your own lute." (Dryden implies that it would be difficult indeed to set to music the wretched songs composed by Shadwell).

      Lines 211-217. As Flecknoe was making his speech and before it came to an end, Bruce and Longville opened a trap-door through which he at once disappeared. As he went down he left behind him his cloak or coarse woolen stuff which was wafted upward by a wind from the bowels of the earth. The mantle lighted on the shoulders of the young prophet, Shadwell, who was gifted with twice the measure of inspiration possessed by his predecessor - i.e., was destined to exhibit greater stupidity than Flecknoe.

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