John Dryden was the first acknowledged master of poetic satire in English. Of his three major satires, Mac Flecknoe, consisting of 217 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, was the first to be composed. The poem is a mock-epic attack against Thomas Shadwell (1640[?]-1692), a rival playwright. It stands as an example of many similar works that grew out of dramatic rivalry. The satire of the poem has been the subject of intensive scholarly and critical study because many puzzles and ambiguities concerning it remain unresolved. Neither the date of composition nor the occasion of Dryden’s writing the work is known with assurance, and some of the poem’s numerous topical allusions are unidentified.
Mac Flecknoe was published anonymously in 1682, but from contemporary references it is known that it circulated in manuscript before its unauthorized publication. Dryden made no written acknowledgment of his authorship of the work until after Shadwell’s death in 1692, but to contemporaries the authorship was no secret. Scholarly evidence suggests that it was written between 1676, the date of the latest Shadwell drama cited in the text, and 1678, the most probable year for Richard Flecknoe’s death.
Dryden’s reasons for attacking Shadwell at the time also remain obscure. Undeniably, the two dramatists disagreed on literary and political questions. In the political controversies of the time, Dryden sided with the Tory supporters of the king, whereas Shadwell allied himself with the Whigs. In prefaces to his plays, Shadwell portrayed himself as a follower of Ben Jonson, whose comedies of humor feature characters influenced by humors, or quirks of personality, that motivate their actions. Dryden preferred the comedies of wit and intrigue that were the dominant forms during the Restoration. Yet Dryden could hardly have perceived Shadwell as a threat to himself. Several clumsy poetic lampoons on Dryden have been attributed to Shadwell, but none appears to have preceded Mac Flecknoe. Scholars have attempted to discover passages in Shadwell’s published works that may have given offense to Dryden, and some of the scholars’ suggestions may be considered plausible but not clearly established occasions for Dryden’s satire.
The poem employs the mock-epic or mock-heroic mode of satire, making low nonsense and dullness ridiculous by juxtaposing them with solemn, important matters such as imperial Rome or the question of monarchical succession. Placing literary dunces within the exalted context of a coronation ceremony and dignifying the event with comparisons to...
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