Scholars have been unable to trace the exact causes of the quarrel between Dryden and Shadwell, but Dryden certainly disliked Shadwell’s reliance upon low farce and what he considered Shadwell’s rather too-simplistic rendering of playwright Ben Jonson’s comedy of humors. In any event, the poem is not to be remembered as a mere lampoon against Tom Shadwell.
At the least, Dryden’s satire debunks the crafting of cheap, imitative dramas, filled with clenches and clichés, with commonplaces and the usual tricks and trapdoors of everyday farce. (Many characters and scenes from Shadwell’s plays are alluded to or parodied in this poem.) Similarly, Dryden’s poem mimics a seventeenth century “sessions” poem, in which a convocation is held to crown a new poet laureate.
Beyond these imitations, Mac Flecknoe branches out wittily to inculpate much of English society in the period—a society in quest of quick and easy jests and entertainments, a society representative of the newly emerging urban mass culture interested in light, popular art. Such an art debases the past; it excludes major authors (such as John Fletcher and Ben Jonson) and their traditions, or cheapens and prostitutes them. Such a world displays, Dryden demonstrates, neither nature nor art, but it does curry favor with a new tide of egotism and self-indulgence. The characters in the poem seem to be preeminently self-indulgent, destroying older traditions and...
(The entire section is 423 words.)