Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1066

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 religious prophets and allusions to the Roman Empire at its zenith serve to deflate the satiric victims by drawing attention to the differences between the exalted and the lowly. The satire achieves a devastating attack on Shadwell and other poets through an ironic inversion of values. It also establishes by implication a reliable set of critical guidelines for poets.

While achieving these ends of satire, it also creates a rich and complex tone of poetic vigor, largely through allusion, wit, irony, and humor. While it might be expected that the theme of a declining monarch seeking to abdicate and naming a successor would lend itself to a somber tone, the poem belies the expectation. As a character, Flecknoe conveys a tone of gaiety and exuberance through his speeches, which make up more than half the poem’s length.

Undeniably the satire is in some measure a lampoon, a personal attack on Shadwell. It goes beyond exposing literary ineptness, clearly present in Shadwell’s works, to attack his personal appearance and habits, and there is no reason to assume that Dryden had reform of his victim in mind. Shadwell’s obesity is cited as an indication of thoughtlessness, and his known habit of taking opium becomes an allusion in the coronation scene. Even his frequent acknowledgments of literary debts to Ben Jonson and to such contemporaries as Sir Charles Sedley are presented as evidence of plagiarism. Other personal details, such as Shadwell’s skill at playing the lute and his family association with Ireland, are introduced for the sake of ridicule. Unlike the tone of invective commonly found in the satires of Juvenal, Dryden seeks a fine raillery through the exposure of excesses, in the manner of Horatian satire. Shadwell’s excesses are assailed as comical, not criminal.

Beyond vexing and discrediting a rival dramatist, however, the satire upholds canons of neoclassic criticism. One perceives Dryden’s sense of a hierarchy of values in the overall plan of the work. To the neoclassic critic, Augustan Rome, source of numerous allusions, represented the apex of literary art. From a neoclassic perspective, modern poets did best by schooling themselves in Roman literature, being guided by the critical maxims of Horace. Through these means modern vernacular literature might equal that of Rome, but few believed it possible for moderns to surpass the literary achievement of Rome. In addition, neoclassic criticism assumed a hierarchy in literary genres, with drama near the top and such contrived lyric forms as acrostics and pattern poems near the bottom.

The emphasis on hierarchies, apparent in the framework of the satire, remains somewhat in the background, however. A more pervasive literary technique for establishing neoclassic canons is the use of polarities or dichotomies, opposed terms, with one embraced, the other rejected. The all-important neoclassic standards of “nature” and “art” serve to condemn Shadwell’s unnatural railing at arts he does not understand and his producing works that never rise to the level of art. “Wit” is the antithesis of “dullness,” “sense” of “nonsense.” The ideals, with their opposites, are frequently repeated to enforce the neoclassic insistence on lucid reasoning and felicitous expression in literature.

In genres, drama and satire are juxtaposed to songs and acrostics. In verse forms, the iambic pentameter line, the English meter nearest epic verse in Latin, is superior to meters of ordinary lyrics. In the contrasts between kingdoms, the Roman Aeneas and Ascanius, his chosen successor, draw attention to the triviality of Flecknoe and Shadwell. The kingdom of letters has its giants and pygmies as well. Among the literary figures of an earlier age, Ben Jonson and John Fletcher are contrasted to Thomas Dekker, James Shirley, and Thomas Heywood. Among Dryden’s English contemporaries, George Etheredge and Sir Charles Sedley represent dramatic achievement beyond the ken of Shadwell and Flecknoe. As in other critical works of Dryden, one perceives not only the emphasis on neoclassicism but also numerous references to English authors. These references reflect a nascent sense of English literary history.

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