Thomas Shadwell, a prolific writer of comic drama, was also an energetic theatrical critic and polemicist, and a writer of pastorals, operas, and adaptations. His poetic output is divided into four categories: prologues and largely satiric epilogues that are found included in the printed texts of his own or others’ drama; songs from his plays; satires and lampoons; and a translation of The Tenth Satyr of Juvenal (1687), to which is prefixed the translation of a short poem by Lucan. Shadwell was an active and fierce participant in the literary wars of his time and produced many pamphlets flaying the enemies of the Whig cause. The Horrid Sin of Man-Catching, the Second Part (1681) is dedicated to the Whig leader, the earl of Shaftesbury. Some Reflections upon the Pretended Parallel in the Play Called “The Duke of Guise” (1683) provoked a savage attack from Thomas Otway in his play The Atheist: Or, The Second Part of the Soldier’s Fortune (pr. 1683). A few of Shadwell’s letters have survived, but the chief interest of his nondramatic work lies in the theatrical polemics found in the prose dedications to his plays. The ideas Shadwell presented in these dedications constitute a theory of dramatic method. His prologues are used as pleas for a reintroduction of Jonsonian classical values into dramatic structure as an alternative to prevailing Restoration comic misrule.
Thomas Shadwell owes his immortality in large part to ridicule. John Dryden, his former friend, reserved some of his fiercest satiric lines for Shadwell. Dryden wrote in his mock paean of praise to fools, MacFlecknoe (1682): “Sh— alone, of all my sons, is he/ Who stands confirm’d in full stupidity./ The rest to some faint meaning make pretense,/ But Sh— never deviates into sense.” It is a tribute of sorts to Shadwell that he generated such brilliant and lasting malice. In far less memorable lines, another contemporary poet and dramatist, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, in his “Allusion to the Tenth Satyr . . . of Horace” (1675), indicates some other elements in Shadwell’s achievements: “Of all our Modern Wits, none seems to me/ Once to have toucht upon true Comedy,/ But hasty Shadwell, and slow Wycherley./ Shadwell’s unfinish’d works do yet impart/ Great proofs of Nature, none of Art.”
Shadwell’s plays were performed on the London stage well into the eighteenth century. He has not been regarded as a great dramatist but as one of interest in theatrical history. Contemporaries saw him as a force to be reckoned with, as an advocate of once fashionable Jonsonian classicism. Sir Walter Scott, writing on Restoration drama long after Dryden and Shadwell and their quarrels had turned to dust, felt compelled to defend Shadwell. Scott pointed out that Shadwell’s strengths lie in his comedies, which,...
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Alssid, Michael W. Thomas Shadwell. New York: Twayne, 1967. This volume, part of Twayne’s English Authors series, gives a straightforward account of Shadwell’s life and drama, attempting some critical evaluation. A useful introduction. Supplemented by a bibliography and an index.
Armistead, J. M., and Werner Bies. Four Restoration Playwrights: A Reference Guide to Thomas Shadwell, Aphra Behn, Nathaniel Lee, and Thomas Otway. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Part of the Reference Guides to Literature series, this volume carries basic information on dates, plays, and editions, and includes a bibliography. It is invaluable for research papers.
Bruce, Donald. Topics of Restoration Comedy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974. This survey of Restoration comedy concentrates on it as a “debating” comedy, with a moral pupose in this debate. Bruce refers to Shadwell’s plays extensively and examines seven of his plays within the context of the moral topics enumerated. Notes, bibliography, chronology, and index.
Burns, Edward. Restoration Comedy: Crises of Desire and Identity. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Chapter 4 deals with Shadwell as a professional dramatist, as one of a group of dramatists whose plays are still underrated. Burns praises these writers for their energy and ferocity, opposing them to the suavity of the gentlemen playwrights. Chronology, notes, short bibliography, and index.
Hume, Robert D. The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century. 1976. Reprint. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1990. Hume tries to correct earlier stereotypes of Restoration drama by examining a large number of plays and paying special attention to their chronological sequencing. Contains many references to Shadwell and a full analysis of his The Squire of Alsatia. Two indexes.
Kunz, Don Richard. The Drama of Thomas Shadwell. Salzburg, Austria: University of Salzburg Press, 1972. This volume looks at the life and works of Thomas Shadwell, particularly his plays and the techniques used therein.
Loftis, John, Richard Southern, Marion Jones, and A. H. Scouten. The Revels History of Drama in English, Volume V: 1660-1750. London: Methuen, 1976. Contains a section on Shadwell in connection with the comedy of humors and includes other useful references to his plays throughout the volume. Complemented by a bibliography and an index.
Wheatley, Christopher J. Without God or Reason: The Plays of Thomas Shadwell and Secular Ethics in the Restoration. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1993. Wheatley examines ethics during the Restoration, focusing on Shadwell’s plays. Bibliography and index.