Last Updated June 20, 2023.
Mac Flecknoe, written by John Dryden in 1678, is a satirical mock-epic poem that critiques Dryden's literary rival, Thomas Shadwell. This famous work showcases Dryden's mastery of satire and poetic craftsmanship as he presents a fictional poetic coronation that savagely lampoons Shadwell's literary abilities. Through its witty, scathing, and ironic verses, the poem not only launches a personal attack on Shadwell but provides a commentary on the importance of poetic skill.
Through comedy, Dryden's poem reveals a concern about the state of literature in his period, the Restoration of the English monarchy. After a time of civil war and republican rule, the return of the monarchy ushered in a welcome repeal of the restrictions on theater and the arts instituted under the Puritan regime of Thomas Cromwell. However, Dryden suggests that the literary quality of previous eras will not return if unworthy poets continue to be celebrated.
The poem's opening introduces us to Flecknoe, an aged monarch ruling over the kingdom of Non-sense. He decides it is time to pass the crown to his son, Thomas Shadwell, who is chosen for his extreme creative dullness and lack of intelligence. Other contenders retreat, realizing they cannot compete with Shadwell in the race for worst poet. Shadwell's title of "mac," or son, of the witless Flecknoe, emphasizes that he represents the low point of talent in the realm.
The poem then describes Augusta, the capital city of the realm Flecknoe rules. In this decaying place, brothels rise among ruined towers. Good poets and playwrights dare not enter here: it is a debased land populated by the witless.
The narrator introduces the Empress Fame, who proclaims the news that Shadwell will be crowned the king of Non-sense. Many people attend this unpleasant spectacle. Shadwell proceeds to his coronation on the limbs of "mangled poets" and is joined by a throng of unknown and inferior writers. They watch as Shadwell vows to uphold the extreme dullness and fogginess of the kingdom and is given a mug of ale, rather than the traditional orb of state, to help him in his task.
His father then offers a blessing, prophesying that Shadwell will be a powerful inspiration to other poets to produce even more debased and boring writing than his own. Flecknoe calls on his son to use his father as a role model and the inferior writer Ogleby but bans his imitating such talented figures as Jonson and Fletcher.
As the poem nears its finale, Flecknoe bequeaths to the new king a philosophy of poetry that elevates the insipid and banal, calling on his son to write tragedies that make people smile and comedies that put people to sleep. He advises his son to use debased literary forms that are "inoffensive" and "mild," such as anagrams. Shadwell is also asked to "torture" "one poor word ten thousand ways." The poem ends as the dim-witted new ruler is bequeathed a double dose of his father's lack of talent while Flecknoe sinks into the earth.