Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423

Scholars have been unable to trace the exact causes of the quarrel between Dryden and Shadwell, but Dryden certainly disliked Shadwell’s reliance upon low farce and what he considered Shadwell’s rather too-simplistic rendering of playwright Ben Jonson’s comedy of humors. In any event, the poem is not to be remembered as a mere lampoon against Tom Shadwell.

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At the least, Dryden’s satire debunks the crafting of cheap, imitative dramas, filled with clenches and clichés, with commonplaces and the usual tricks and trapdoors of everyday farce. (Many characters and scenes from Shadwell’s plays are alluded to or parodied in this poem.) Similarly, Dryden’s poem mimics a seventeenth century “sessions” poem, in which a convocation is held to crown a new poet laureate.

Beyond these imitations, Mac Flecknoe branches out wittily to inculpate much of English society in the period—a society in quest of quick and easy jests and entertainments, a society representative of the newly emerging urban mass culture interested in light, popular art. Such an art debases the past; it excludes major authors (such as John Fletcher and Ben Jonson) and their traditions, or cheapens and prostitutes them. Such a world displays, Dryden demonstrates, neither nature nor art, but it does curry favor with a new tide of egotism and self-indulgence. The characters in the poem seem to be preeminently self-indulgent, destroying older traditions and replacing them with tawdry “issue” of their own making. This has been, to be sure, a frequent complaint about modern urbanized civilizations in general since the early seventeenth century. In Dryden’s poem, major literary traditions are degraded or dismissed, replaced by nugatory amusements and games, such as the trifling making of acrostics and anagrams.

What Dryden is in a sense decrying—as does much satire—is the steady deterioration of venerable and customary values. It is noteworthy that the once-stately parapets, walls, and watchtowers of the fictive metropolis Augusta in the poem have become ruins, their neighborhoods now chockful of fledgling actors and common strumpets. Any glories from the immemorial past have all but vanished. Further, even this poem itself can no longer partake of the grand heroic and epical mode; the best that can be mustered in the now-fallen world of Dryden’s satire is a defective and broken piece of poetry, a mock-epic. The result is certainly amusing, but it is saddening, too, when one recollects all the culture of the days of yore that has been bent and broken until it has crumbled and fallen away.

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Characters