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Mac Flecknoe Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Mac Flecknoe: Or, A Satyre upon the True-Blew-Protestant Poet, T. S.,employs the mock epic form to assail bad poets and poetry, represented by its victim, the dramatist Thomas Shadwell. Dryden establishes true literary norms through attacking inferior ones. The date of composition and occasion for the satire are uncertain, but it is generally thought that composition followed the death of Richard Flecknoe (c. 1678), an obscure poetaster. After the brief introduction, the satire introduces Flecknoe as a speaker deliberating his choice of a successor to the throne of Nonsense. Through the use of the convention of a mock coronation, Dryden gives the poem a narrative structure, a reflection of his view that satire is rightly a form of heroic (epic) poetry.

The introduction is a masterful passage combining irony and mock solemnity, contrasting the seriousness of succession with a throne epitomizing dullness. Sober aphorisms and allusions to Augustan Rome are deflated by allusions to the realm of Nonsense. Flecknoe selects Shadwell as the most fitting of all of his sons to occupy the throne of Nonsense and uphold dullness. Dryden incorporates numerous references to Shadwell’s life and allusions to his dramas, with Flecknoe concluding: “All arguments, but most his plays persuade,/ That for anointed dullness he was made.” Flecknoe chooses as the coronation site a run-down section of London near the Barbican, associated with inferior poets. The poem then describes the coronation, complete with procession, satiric description of Shadwell, the paraphernalia of office, and cheers of the assembled throng of hack writers and booksellers. Flecknoe urges his successor to find new ways to be dull, but to avoid boastful comparisons of himself with Ben Jonson and John Fletcher. Suggesting that Shadwell has been unsuccessful in all major literary genres, Flecknoe exhorts him to confine his talents to acrostics, pattern poems, and songs that can be sung to the lute. At the conclusion, as Flecknoe falls through a trap door, his mantle is borne aloft to settle on Shadwell.

The satire enables Dryden to develop at length one of his most congenial concepts, that of regal succession, though it gives an ironic twist to a theme that is usually serious. Monarchical allusions such as those to Augustan Rome, a distant ideal, serve to enhance the withering satire. Shadwell is ironically endowed with the name of a Roman successor, and Flecknoe is compared to...

(The entire section is 590 words.)