Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Decay and Debasement
A central theme of Mac Flecknoe is the decline of literary standards. Dryden uses the poem to criticize the debasement of creativity, wit, and intelligence in late seventeenth-century literature. The elevation of an unworthy buffoon like Shadwell to the top of the literary kingdom of Non-sense represents the degradation of contemporary artistic standards. The Irish word "mac" for son at a time when the Irish were considered inferior adds to the theme of English literary degradation.
Underscoring the debasement is the narrator's description of "fair Augusta," the fictional city based on London in which Shadwell is crowned. The watch tower, a sign of an order that once stood firm, is now in ruins and has been replaced by "brothel-houses." Such a decayed city breeds debased art and people.
Dryden also reinforces this debasement by comparing Shadwell to heroic figures from Greek and Roman literature, such as Hannibal and Ascanius. This satiric contrast illustrates how far the modern world has fallen from the ideals of the past.
Inversion of Aesthetic Values
The poem illustrates the inversion of literary values in late seventeenth-century England, along with decay and debasement. Recognizing and trying to combat decaying literary standards would be one thing. Still, in Flecknoe's upside-down kingdom, degraded writing styles are praised as the highest forms of art.
Crowds flock to celebrate this perversion of true artistic worth, showing that people who should know better have been deceived about what constitutes literary quality. A parallel to the inversion in Dryden's poem in today's world would be the Addams Family franchise, in which the creepy Addams family members comically—and in a clueless way—uphold moral and aesthetic values that are the opposite of societal norms.
Hard Work and Talent Versus Indolence and Fruitless Toil
Mac Flecknoe stresses the laziness of "party animal" Shadwell, a fat, indolent, lute-playing poet comfortable with the brothels that have sprung up amid the kingdom's ruins. "Trust nature do not labor …" Flecknoe advises Shadwell. This is precisely the kind of advice Dryden holds in contempt, as evidenced in the poem's highly-polished and elegant heroic couplets, which while seemingly effortless, are the product of hard work.
On the other hand, Shadwell also symbolizes the fruitless efforts of a person without intelligence or talent, for Flecknoe advises:
Let Virtuosos [one of Shadwell's plays] in five years [a long time
to produce one play] be writ
Yet not one thought accuse thy toil of wit.
Great art, the poem suggests, demands the discipline, intelligence, and hard work seen in the Greco-Roman world but in Dryden's time largely lost. Great art takes effort and talent and can't simply be produced while drinking mugs of ale or by a dullard putting in years of toil.
Mac Flecknoe reflects the literary rivalry and ambitions of the Restoration period. Dryden was competing for patronage and book sales against those he considered lesser talents. The poem was a way for him to assert his work as superior to that of rivals such as Shadwell.
Dryden takes shots not only at Shadwell but at such direct competitors as John Ogleby, whose translations of Virgil siphoned readers from Dryden's own translations of the same writer. By skewering his rivals while parading his own talent, Dryden was burnishing his reputation and his path to patronage and prosperity. In this rough and tumble literary world, Dryden knew he needed to speak up so his talents wouldn't be lost among the mediocre.
While primarily a work of literary satire, Mac Flecknoe carries political undertones. Dryden, a...
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Tory, supported the Catholic-leaning monarch Charles II. At the same time, Shadwell was a member of the Whig party, associated with the middle classes. Dryden's poem upholds conservative and traditional values. Correctly recognizing literary merit is tied to robust leadership and nationhood, as represented by Ancient Rome, unlike the moral and physical decay symbolized in Shadwell's Augusta/London.
Legacy and Succession
The theme of inheritance and succession is integral to the poem, which has the comic coronation of an unfit king as its main action. Dryden constructs a fictional lineage from the foolish Flecknoe to his even more undeserving son, Shadwell, highlighting the cautionary theme that fools pass on a legacy of foolishness. Who rules matters, an issue relevant in an England that had been roiled by political turmoil.