Last Updated September 6, 2023.
The character Flecknoe is based on Richard Flecknoe, a mediocre seventeenth-century poet and playwright. In the poem, the fictional elderly Flecknoe, who rules the kingdom of Non-sense, decides to pass his realm on to his "son," Thomas Shadwell, the poet he considers his most worthy successor.
Flecknoe plays an essential and comic role in this satire by repeatedly and exaggeratedly praising Shadwell for representing all that is the most debased in English literature. Flecknoe states, for instance:
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense.
Shadwell, the "Mac" ("son" in Gaelic) of the poem's title, arises as the fitting heir to the throne of the inferior writer Flecknoe. Like Flecknoe, Shadwell is based on a historical character, Thomas Shadwell, a rival of Dryden's. The poem's Shadwell is crowned king of Non-sense and becomes the central target of Dryden's satire, lampooned for his boring verse and witless plays.
Shadwell himself never speaks, but we learn from his "father," Flecknoe, the full depth of Shadwell's limitations. Flecknoe describes Shadwell as obese and indolent. He is given a mug of "potent ale" upon being crowned. At the same time, poppies, indicative of being opium drugged and sleepy, are draped on his temples.
He is also a lute player, suggesting he is more of a partier than a serious artist. Lazy and with a fogged brain, Shadwell needs to gain the sharpness of mind and self-discipline needed to create great art. When he does rouse himself to work, he spends an excessive amount of time producing inferior products.
The poem shifts back and forth between Flecknoe's speeches and a nameless narrator who describes the events surrounding the transfer of power in the kingdom of Non-sense. The deadpan, verbatim reporting of this narrator, along with his inadvertently comic attempts to place the coronation of a witless king into the context of Classical heroic narrative, helps create the poem's comic tone.
Ogleby is one of the throngs of less-than-talented writers who come to see Shadwell's coronation. Ogleby is based on John Ogleby, a Scottish cartographer and translator who, like Dryden, translated Virgil. Ogleby's translations were not considered the highest quality, and Dryden is here looking at a rival. In the poem, Ogleby's talents are so lacking that Flecknoe holds him up as a role model and "Uncle" whom Shadwell should envy and try to emulate.
Heywood is a mediocre writer who also attends Shadwell's coronation. Based on the playwright and poet Thomas Heywood, he represents the lackluster quality of those who admire Shadwell.
Shirley is based on Elizabethan playwright James Shirley, a lesser talent who attends the coronation.
In contrast to Heywood, Shirley, and Ogleby, the playwright Ben Jonson is dismissed by Flecknoe as having "no part" in the bloodlines of dullness that are so prominent in Shadwell. In life, Dryden was irritated at Shadwell for comparing himself to Jonson.
Like Jonson, John Fletcher represents the kind of good writer who would not find a home among the fools in the kingdom of Non-sense. Readers learn that "great Fletcher never treads in buskins here."
Ancient Dekker is based on the playwright Thomas Dekker, who prophesied that Shadwell would become king of Non-sense.