Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Form and Function
Mac Flecknoe, a mock-heroic poem, uses elevated forms to enhance its satirical critique of inferior poets and dramatists. The mock-heroic heaps ridicule on its foolish targets by employing exalted language and a style of writing associated with heroic epics such as the Iliad.
Heroic Couplets: The poem is written in heroic couplets, which consist of two rhymed lines of iambic pentameter. This form, commonly used in epic and heroic poetry, conveys a tone of grandeur and high seriousness that provides a comic contrast to the poem's debased subject matter.
Iambic Pentameter: Iambic pentameter is a metrical pattern in which each line consists of five pairs of syllables in a da-DUM, da-DUM pattern that stresses the second syllable. This regular rhythm creates a sense of balance and order. Dryden's remarkable ability to use iambic pentameter reveals his skill as a poet and contrasts with Thomas Shadwell's dullness.
Tone: The tone of Mac Flecknoe is sharp, satirical, and mocking. Dryden is unrestrained in his depiction of Shadwell as an oaf without redeeming value:
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Strike through and make a lucid interval;
But Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray
By modern literary standards, Dryden's words may seem cruel. Still, a better context is how some politicians use belittling nicknames in modern politics to discredit rivals. By striking out so boldly at a rival, Dryden is showing he can write a lively, witty, and entertaining poem, a sharp contrast to the bland and timid work he claims Shadwell produces.
Literary devices showcase Dryden's skill and confidence as a writer. They include:
Hyperbole: Dryden uses exaggeration to comic effect to magnify Shadwell's limitations. Shadwell is offered no mercy: he is a man of "full stupidity" who can "torture one poor word ten thousand ways."
Imagery: Images of decay permeate the poem, revealing the debased state of literature. Augusta, for example, is a place of "old ruins" where "brothel-houses" rise in the rubble.
Symbolism: The drunken, drug-addled Shadwell symbolizes the degraded state of literature and society in Dryden's time, while the city of Augusta symbolizes the low level to which London's literary scene has sunk.
Narrative technique: The poem tells the story of Flecknoe's decision to give his crown to Shadwell and then describes the subsequent coronation of the new king. The unnamed narrator acts as a clueless reporter, giving a deadpan description of what occurs while using classical allusions in a misplaced attempt to add dignity to the scene. Sadly, what the narrator tries to dignify is a hopelessly debased world. The narrator also quotes Flecknoe's long speeches at length, offering a window into the warped mindset of the kingdom. The juxtaposition of the narrator's deadpan reportage and Flecknoe's bombastic and witless utterances establish the ironic tone of the piece.
Alliteration: In contrast to the limitations of the narrator and Flecknoe, Dryden displays his talent with the use of such literary devices as alliteration, writing, for example, that Flecknoe hopes to "wage immortal war with wit."
Allusions: The poem can be difficult to understand because of the allusions (references) to other literature and historical figures who may no longer be familiar to a modern reader.
Classical and Biblical Allusions in Mac Flecknoe
Augustus: Augustus was the first Roman emperor and founder of the Roman Empire. Dryden comically compares the degraded Flecknoe to Augustus, as both came to their thrones young, had long reigns, and were "absolute" rulers. Other than those coincidences, the two...
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Arion: Arion was an extraordinarily talented lute player and inventor of the dithyramb, a hymn to the god Dionysus. According to myth, Arion's skill at the lute saved his life when greedy sailors wanted to kill him and take the prize money he had won in a musical contest in Sicily. Dolphins gathered around the ship as he played his lute, and when Arion threw himself into the sea to be drowned, a dolphin saved him. He was later placed among the stars in the heaven by Apollo. Flecknoe shows his warped view of Shadwell's talents when he compares Shadwell to Arion, saying:
Methinks I see the new Arion sail,
The lute still trembling underneath thy nail.
Maximin: Maximin was the first common solider to become a Roman emperor. His rule began fifty years of civil war in the Roman empire. The narrator likens the birth of illegitimate children in the brothels of Augusta to the humble birth of Maximin.
Ascanius: Ascanius is the son of the Trojan War hero Aeneas. In the Aeneid Ascanius is depicted as an. awkward teenager who grows into a heroic warrior. Mac Flecknoe's narrator describes Shadwell sitting on a "throne" of his unsold literary works with Ascanius, "Rome's other hope, and pillar of the state" on his right. This deadpan description is ironic as there is no real comparison between the honorable Ascanius and the oaf Shadwell. Putting Shadwell in the company of the great only amplifies his weaknesses.
Hannibal: Hannibal, a general from Carthage who fought the Romans in the Second Punic War, is considered a military genius and one the greatest commanders who ever lived. The narrator, again deadpan, comically likens Shadwell's debased coronation vow to defend literary stupidity and dullness to Hannibal's brave and daring oaths to remain an enemy of Rome.
Romulus: Romulus was the first king of Rome. Twelve vultures gave him advice about where to found Rome. Mac Flecknoe's narrator comically compares this to twelve owls, symbols of wisdom, flying away from Shadwell.
John the Baptist: Flecknoe compares himself to John the Baptist preparing a way to Christ when he says of Shadwell:
Even I, a dunce of more renown than they,
Was sent before but to prepare thy way
Shadwell is the polar opposite of Christ, making the comparison ironic. Further, Flecknoe doesn't have to tell us he's a dunce: he reveals his witlessness by making such a comment.