Thomas Shadwell: Character Analysis in Mac Flecknoe

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      Mac Flecknoe is primarily a personal satire. All satire, one must admit at the outset, inevitably involve some exaggeration and emphasis on the faults of the opponents or targets of the author. It has been pointed out by J.C. Collins and George Thornbury that the satire at the expense of Shadwell in Mac Flecknoe is rather uncalled for and hence, unjustified. Dryden has attacked Shadwell's literary ability, and through him, the petty poetasters and rhymesters in general. Mac Flecknoe presents a most unflattering picture of Shadwell. Dryden has well succeeded in his aim of destroying Shadwell by raising him to the position of hero, even as he presents a stringent attack on literary stupidity as a whole. Besides Shadwell, we have a few other poets mentioned, but we cannot call them full-fledged portraits. However, unjust or not, the satirical portraits are given an overtone of sheer comedy, and an imaginative blend of fact and fiction.

Picture of Flecknoe

      The first satirical portrait, painted in detail next to Shadwell's, is that of Flecknoe. He is represented as the reigning monarch of Dullness and Nonsense and as father of Shadwell. In reality, Flecknoe was a Catholic priest who wrote some verses and drama. Dryden entertained no personal enmity towards Flecknoe. But he is made the father of the Prince of Dullness, because Flecknoe had become a general symbol of bad versifiers and an object of ridicule. He thus represents all incompetent poets.

      Flecknoe's name is now so obscure that we speak of him only as a character in Dryden's poem. He was, indeed, a poet of less than mediocre talent - one of those poets who "purchase fame by writing ill", and achieve "the low sublime." The portraiture of Flecknoe as the monarch of dullness and nonsense is, therefore, apt and justified. But Flecknoe is not the main target of ridicule in Dryden's poem. It is Mac Flecknoe, or the son of Flecknoe, who is the hero of the poem. Flecknoe has merely been sent to "prepare the way" for a great prince of dullness. He was sent "to teach the nations in thy greater name", i.e., in Shadwell's name.

Shadwell: The Main Satirical Portrait

      The hero and prime ridicule is Shadwell. Mac Flecknoe was the outcome of personal literary rivalry and political hostility between Dryden and Shadwell. Shadwell's literary efforts were not completely worthless. He showed some wit and comic series in his prose comedies. His comedies have some genuinely amusing scenes. He claimed to be a follower of Ben Jonson, and based his characters on the "humors." Shadwell, however, did not confine himself to prose comedies; he endeavored to write verse as well. At verse, he was decidedly poor - a writer of "doggerel rhymes", in truth. He readily lent himself to satire, for he was sensual and dissolute, given to opium and wine and the affectation of being a second Ben Jonson.

      Dryden's satire against Shadwell is supremely annihilating. He succeeds in destroying Shadwell, or rather, reducing him to an undeniably small personage. And he does it through good-humoured "Olympian" laughter. Indeed, so effective has Dryden's effort been, that we remember only the Shadwell of Mac Flecknoe, and consider that picture to be true. Epic comparisons, elevated words and phrases and associations of grandeur as used by Dryden, render Shadwell utterly ridiculous. We are given a detailed account of Shadwell's merits in Flecknoe's speeches. The praise of obvious faults leads to a comic effect, and the victim is devastated by the ridicule. Shadwell is "mature in dullness from his tender years." He never "deviates into sense." His

"genuine night admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day."

      Shadwell has been born for "anointed dullness, and his huge bulk designed for "thoughtless majesty." He is a past master of tautology. His plays are stupid and his characters witless. His tragedies provoked smiles, while his comedies sent people to sleep. As for his satires, they had neither bite nor could they give offense. Shadwell is "a mighty prince born for a scourge of wit and flail of sense." He is also a plagiarist. He is, in other words, a fit successor to the throne of Nonsense and Dullness. He looked like Ben Jonson in his corpulence, but there the resemblance ended, for Shadwell had no wit.

      Shadwell, of course, was not as dull or stupid as he is made out by Dryden. Though not a great poet, his dramatic works do not deserve the ridicule which Dryden directs at them. Nor were his satires so flat, for if they had been so, Dryden would not have been forced to answer them. To that extent, the portraiture is unjust. Dryden carefully avoids merits which, in fact, were there. But then, that is what satire is all about. One cannot avoid Some unfairness, or some injustice, in satirical portraits.

      Much of the injustice sinks into the air of comedy and humor which envelops the portraiture. The greater part of rancor is submerged by Dryden in the humor of conception. The reader enjoys the fun without thinking much of its application to an individual. Pure amusement effectively overcomes one's realization of what it meant to the target of Dryden's satire. Indeed, as James Sutherland remarks: "If Shadwell had been a purely imaginary character, we should have looked upon him as a great comic creation, for the Shadwell of Mac Flecknoe really is .... a creature of the comic imagination." Shadwell almost seems an excuse for the poem.

Reference to Heywood, Shirley and Ogleby

      Heywood and Shirley are represented by Dryden as types of the Prince of Dullness. Pages torn from the books of these authors are strewn over the path to the throne of Dullness. Dryden’s snide references to Heywood and Shirley are not quite justified. They were fairly good and important Elizabethan dramatists. Heywood was regarded as "a sort of prose Shakespeare." But when Dryden wrote, these dramatists were considered outmoded.

      Dryden's allusion to Ogleby as Shadwell's colleague in dullness, is well justified. He was a bad poet technically, and otherwise incompetent.

Reference to Dekker

      Dryden refers to Dekker as one who prophesied that a prince would rule at the disreputable place, the Nursery - a prince who would make continuous war against sense and wit. Though there is no direct ridicule involved, it is implied that Dekker was dull. But Dekker was not dull or stupid. The only reason why Dryden seems to be attacking him is that Dekker was involved in a controversy with Ben Jonson, whom Dryden admired.


      Personal motives having prompted Mac Flecknoe, it is not possible to expect just and impartial portraiture of those whom Dryden wished to satirize. No such lofty purpose as "the true amendment of vices by correction" predominates in Mac Flecknoe. Dryden systematically and effectively directs his satire at a single target - Shadwell, and "in spite of his activity, his energy, his veritable talent, Shadwell never recovered his position, and never will recover it," as Edmund Gosse observes. As for the injustice of the portraits, surely after "two hundred years, we need not trouble to pity the victim, but may allow ourselves to taste the exquisite intellectual pleasure which is offered by Dryden's wit and sparkling malignity." The injustice fades away into the sheer comedy of the portraiture.

University Questions

Write a brief note on the character of Thomas Shadwell as portrayed in Mac Flecknoe and comment on the justice of the portraiture.
Write a short note on the satirical portraits of Mac Flecknoe and discuss their aptness.
"Much of the satire in Mac Flecknoe is unjust." Discuss the portraiture of Shadwell in the context of this remark.
"As a personal attack on a rival dramatist, Mac Flecknoe is simply a lampoon; and a very unfair one at that," Discuss Shadwell's characterization in the light of the above comment.

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