Last Updated on September 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339
The goddess Dulness is the central character of the poem. Her powers are immense, and she inexorably increases her control over the denizens of Britain. Her avowed objective is to turn all humans into imbeciles. She is not devoid of mercy; however, her kindness, too, is nothing short of a curse, for she turns the subject of her mercy insensible. In the world of Pope's time, Dulness corresponds to a corrupt political class, lascivious tabloid reporting, and a dull public that is increasingly losing the ability to ask the right questions.
Lewis Theobald was an editor whose fame rests largely upon his achievement of putting the standardized text of Shakespeare’s works into the public domain. In the poem, Pope presents Theobald as the first incarnation of Dulness. Theobald's edition of Shakespeare was in reaction to Pope's review of the Bard's works, which were found to contain many errors. Displeased with Theobald's attacks on his work, Pope chooses to present him in a less-than-savory light in The Dunciad.
Colley Cibber was an actor in Pope's time. He also dabbled in poetry. However, his contemporaries accused him of blatantly plagiarizing the works of other poets and dramatists, such as Shakespeare. As such, he appears as the Head Dunce in The Dunciad. Pope’s attacks on Cibber continued for a quarter of a century: he memorably credited Cibber with less human genius than God gave an ape. Cibber was selected as poet laureate of England, while much more deserving poets, Pope included, were ignored for political reasons.
Jacob Tonson was a publisher of renown. He is remembered for having obtained a copyright on Shakespeare's plays. He is portrayed as one of the dunces in Pope's poem because of the role he presumably plays in the lowering of sensibilities all around. Pope feels that people like Tonson, who are in a position to influence the reading habits and tastes of the populace, are abdicating their responsibilities by publishing drivel. Pope refers to Tonson as "left-legged Jacob" and "genial Jacob."