The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

Mac Flecknoe is a satiric poem of 217 lines, written in heroic couplets (pairs of rhyming lines of iambic pentameter). The poem has been commonly adjudged the best short satiric poem in the English language. In it, John Dryden seeks to lampoon Thomas Shadwell, a well-known playwright and indifferent poet, by placing him in an incredible and wholly invented fictional world. He is portrayed as “Mac” (or the son of) Flecknoe—Richard Flecknoe having been an even less accomplished poet than Shadwell. Both of them, the poem implies, are of Irish (and hence of outlandish, remote, and barbarian) stock.

The poem unfolds in a mock-heroic scene; all the machinery of the epic is utilized to exalt the “form” of the poem—high diction, lengthy similes, heroic and kingly actions, archaic vocabulary and spelling—while the content is debased, low, and farcical.

In the fictional setting, Flecknoe is presented as being the exalted king of the realm of Nonsense, which extends all up and down the empty Atlantic Ocean; he dwells in the pompous city of Augusta (in fact, synonymous with London). At the outset, the king determines to relinquish his crown and to choose at once the dullest of his children to assume the throne. In a trice, he determines upon “Sh—,” a corpulent and stupid oaf whose writings are wonderfully bad enough to render him properly deserving of this regal selection. Crowds of third-rate poets and hack authors throng to his ceremonial inauguration. There, the father, like an ancient priest, becomes dazed, inspired, and oracular, proceeding to give a vast seventy-one-line speech, prophesying that his son’s reign will be as distended as his body is oversized and predicting, under his aegis and tutelage, the virtual triumph of inept and monstrous art throughout the land of Nonsense.

The fond father is never permitted to complete this mantic oration, for a trapdoor mechanism drops open, and the still-declaiming father, the would-be seer, drops down into a pit and disappears, leaving only his mantle as garment and emblem to the aspirant and expectant son. Thus the poem jolts and jostles to a sudden disruptive halt by the introduction of an underground deus ex machina. The new king has never received a proper coronation and is appropriately left speechless by this ill omen that abruptly silences the sanctimonious forecasting of his future successes in the land of high witlessness and ineptitude.

Forms and Devices

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

Mock-epic and mock-heroic strategies in Mac Flecknoe abound everywhere. Nowhere are the satire’s subjects Richard Flecknoe and Thomas Shadwell overtly im-pugned or assaulted. Instead, they are enveloped and eventually suffocated by the poem’s intentionally overblown language and imagery. They are virtually hymned to death in a witty “praise of folly.” As in panegyric poems on great figures and famous men, Mac Flecknoe does nothing throughout but exalt and applaud its protagonists for the mature and magnificent qualities of their ignorance and artistic incompetence. No one, it is piously intoned, can compare in nullity with them.

Indeed, these pathetic human creatures are praised and puffed up like blowfish: The town Augusta suggests Augustus and the Augustan Age in Rome, a period of high culture and monumental achievement, and the solemn preparations for the appearance of Mac Flecknoe echo William Shakespeare’s presentation of Cleopatra. The two rulers, father and son, are at various times compared to Augustus, to Arion, to Romulus, to Ascanius, to Hannibal, to Elijah, to John the Baptist, and by implication to Christ Himself. This absurd hyperbole is counteracted by an opposing system of analogies that compare the king and his son to little, insignificant people: to earlier minor poets and playwrights such as Thomas Heywood, James Shirley, Thomas Dekker, and John Ogilby; to a dim-witted character named Simkin; and to an...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Flecknoe, the monarch of dullness, senses the approaching end of his long reign and begins to reflect on an appropriate successor. He plans to crown a new monarch before death overcomes him, and in order to secure a proper succession, he is willing, even eager, to abdicate. Fortunately, candidates are plentiful; among his numerous poetic sons, many are suitably dull and stupid. With little hesitation, however, Flecknoe concludes that Shadwell most resembles himself in dullness and is therefore the ideal choice. Even Shadwell’s portly, rotund appearance is an element favorable to his selection. In a speech musing on the selection, Flecknoe praises Shadwell for his nonsensical, obscure, tautological verses. Depicting Shadwell as potentially a greater monarch, he portrays his own reign as merely a precursor to a more gloriously dull age. Flecknoe remembers Shadwell’s previous participation in low forms of entertainment, such as lute playing, public spectacles, and dances. Flecknoe concludes, however, that Shadwell’s dramas best qualify him as the chosen monarch of dunces.

The site selected for the coronation is the Barbican, an area surrounding a ruined Roman watchtower located in the northern part of London. The Barbican is associated with inferior forms of entertainment. A run-down portion of the city, it has become the site of brothels and of the Nursery, a school for young actors. Instead of practicing roles created by John Fletcher and Ben Jonson, the young actors at the Nursery are schooled in punning and coarse humor like that found in the comedies of Shadwell. In order to fulfill the prophecy of Thomas Dekker, a minor Elizabethan dramatist, that a mighty prince will reign in the area,...

(The entire section is 699 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*River Thames

*River Thames (tehmz). River running through London where the fictional poet, Mac Flecknoe, first catches sight of Shadwell, his true heir in literary ineptitude. Flecknoe beholds the ample form of Shadwell rowing a small boat in the river that reflects his relative unimportance in the currents of literary history.


Augusta. Alternative name for London that stresses its connection to the cultural flowering of ancient Augustan Rome. A part of the inflated description of Shadwell’s surroundings that contrasts sharply with their vulgar reality.


*Barbican. Ancient watchtower, near the Roman wall surrounding the old City of London, that has deteriorated into nonexistence by the seventeenth century. Only the name remains to describe a neighborhood full of brothels and frequented by fledgling actors and prostitutes. Ironically, the vigilance and security symbolized by the tall fortification has lapsed into a world of lowlife. Flecknoe chooses this site for the coronation of his successor, Shadwell.


*Ireland. Island in the British Isles that fell under English rule several decades before Dryden wrote Mac Flecknoe. Dryden cites it as one of two places over which Shadwell might reign. Both Ireland and Barbados had reputations for savagery, which make them appropriate for Shadwell’s lack of civilized talent.


*Barbados. Island in the West Indies whose seventeenth century sugar industry was based on slave labor. The poet adds that Irish lawbreakers might be “barbadoe’d”—transported to the New World to serve as slave labor. Shadwell, the poem implies, has transgressed against the rules of writing and churns out his hack work like one condemned to a fate of drudgery.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Dryden, John. Poems 1681-1684. Edited by H. T. Swendenberg and Vinton A. Dearing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. The standard edition of Dryden. Traces the background and origin of the poem, identifies allusions, references, and ambiguities with thoroughness and accuracy.

Jack, Ian. Augustan Satire: Intention and Idiom in English Poetry, 1660-1750. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1952. Devotes a chapter to Mac Flecknoe, analyzing the satire as a mock epic. Emphasizes the personal elements in the attack on Shadwell.

Miner, Earl. Dryden’s Poetry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967. Explores theatrical elements in the poem and its fundamental metaphors. Identifies the monarchical, religious, and aesthetic metaphors as central to the meaning and poetic effect.

Swedenberg, H. T., Jr., ed. Essential Articles for the Study of John Dryden. London: Frank Cass, 1966. Includes three articles on Mac Flecknoe. Two explore dating and authorship; one traces Dryden’s debt to Abraham Cowley’s Davideis.

Winn, James Anderson. John Dryden and His World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. In his critical biography of Dryden, Winn provides an extended account of Dryden’s controversy with Shadwell. Includes a brief analysis of the satire.