John Dryden’s poem Mac Flecknoe is widely considered one of the most successful satires in the history of English poetry, and there seems little reason to dispute this view of the work. Dryden manages to satirize Thomas Shadwell without generating much inadvertent sympathy for the object of his satire. He does so in a number of different ways, including the following:
- The first fourteen lines of the poem do not even mention Shadwell, focusing instead on Flecknoe.
- When Shadwell is finally introduced, his name is not explicitly given, nor is his name ever explicitly cited, although the nickname “Sh------” would have made it reasonably clear to most informed readers which target Dryden had in mind. Still, Dryden could have been more explicit if he had wanted to, perhaps by rhyming words such as “hell” with the last syllable of Shadwell’s name.
- Satires of this sort were common in the literature of the time, and half the fun of reading and writing them involved the poet’s display of cleverness and wit. An excessively harsh attack might indeed have made Shadwell seem a sympathetic figure, but Dryden avoids such excess. He alludes, for instance, to Shadwell’s weight (193), but he doesn’t spend line after line mocking Shadwell’s physical appearance. Likewise, he alludes to Shadwell’s addiction to opium (126), but he doesn’t make this personal defect a major focus of his satire. For the most part, then, Dryden avoids dwelling for too long on any highly or specifically personal traits of Shadwell. Basically, he implies that Shadwell is stupid and that his writings are dull. Such charges were the common currency of much seventeenth-century satire, so that Dryden’s poem does not seem especially brutal.
- As the editors of the eighth edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature point out in their introduction to this poem,
Whereas [Samuel] Butler [another satirist of the day] had debased and degraded his victims using burlesque, caricature, and the grotesque, Dryden exposed Shadwell to ridicule by using the devices of mock epic . . . . (2: 2111)
If Dryden had in fact used “burlesque, caricature, and the grotesque” to mock Shadwell, we might feel more sympathy for Shadwell than we do. Instead, Dryden writes in the more moderate, urbane, civilized style of satire associated with the Roman poet Horace rather than with the biting, sharp, angry sort of satire associated with the Roman poet Juvenal. For this reason and for all the others already mentioned, few readers have felt especially sympathetic toward Shadwell after reading Dryden’s poem.