Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Flecknoe" is a mock epic. Such a work uses the elevated
style of the classical epic poem such as
Iliad to satirize human follies. A mock epic pretends that a person,
a place, a thing, or an idea is extraordinary when—in
the author's view—it is actually insignificant
and trivial. For example, a mock epic about an inconsequential U.S. president
such as Millard Fillmore might compare him to such rulers as Pericles,
Julius Caesar, Saladin, Louis XIV, and George Washington.
writing "Mac Flecknoe," John Dryden imitated not only the characteristics
of Homer's epics but also those of later writers such as Virgil,
Flecknoe" first appeared in 1682 in an unedited, and probably unauthorized,
edition printed in London for D. Green. Jacob Tonson published an edited
and authorized copy of the poem in London in 1684 as part of a Dryden collection
entitled Miscellany Poems.
Dryden and Shadwell
Dryden wrote "Mac Flecknoe" to satirize another English writer, Thomas
Shadwell (1642-1692), author of eighteen plays and a small body of poetry.
Dryden and Shadwell had once treated each other amicably but became enemies
because of their differing views on the following:
Dryden was a Tory; Shadwell was a Whig.
Shadwell attacked Dryden in The Medal of John Bayes (1682) and in
a political work, Dryden retaliated with "Mac Flecknoe," a masterpiece
Shadwell offended Dryden when he satirized Catholic and Anglican priests
in a play entitled The Lancashire-Witches, and Tegue o Divelly the Irish-Priest
(1682). Dryden was considering becoming a Catholic at the time (and did
Dryden and Shadwell differed strongly on who was the better writer: Shakespeare
or Ben Jonson. Dryden took the part of Shakespeare; Shadwell idolized Jonson.
many of Shadwell's plays were popular in his time, critics generally regard
him today as a writer of small merit. Dryden, on the other hand, enjoys
a reputation as one of the greats of English literature.
Flecknoe (1600-1678) was an English dramatist and poet whose writing was
ridiculed by poet Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), as well as Dryden. In "Mac
Flecknoe," Dryden casts him in the fictional role of the King of Nonsense.
When the time comes for the aging king to select his successor, he chooses
Thomas Shadwell. (In the poem, Dryden casts Shadwell as the son of the
King of Nonsense.) Shadwell accedes to the crown as Mac Flecknoe. (Mac
means son of.)
poem is set in London, referred to in the poem as Augusta.
is the feminine form of the Latin Augustus, the name of one of ancient
Rome's most powerful leaders, Augustus Caesar. As part of his mockery of
Shadwell, Dryden chose the high-sounding Augusta as the name for the city
Shadwell is to rule as King of Nonsense.
speaker/narrator presents the poem in third-person point of view but allows
the elderly King of Nonsense to tell why he has selected Shadwell to succeed
assumed the throne as King of Nonsense when he was young. In this respect,
he was not unlike Augustus Caesar, who became emperor of Rome when he,
too, was a young. And, like Caesar, Flecknoe rules for many years.
the time comes for him to choose which of his sons is worthy to succeed
him and “wage immortal war with wit" (line 12), Flecknoe decides that the
son most like him should receive the honor. That son is Thomas Shadwell,
who has been “mature in dullness from his tender years" (line 16) and is
the only one of his offspring who stands “confirm'd in full stupidity"
Shadwell inherits the throne as Mac Flecknoe (son of Flecknoe).
is so witless (and, therefore, perfect for the throne) that he does no
more thinking than a monarch oak shading a plain. There are others with
similar virtues, such as Heywood and Shirley. However, other writers are
no match for Shadwell—not even his father. True, Flecknoe was a renowned
dunce, but he was merely a harbinger,
a forerunner, to prepare the way for the ultimate dunce, his son. Nitwit
writers who came before Shadwell occasionally displayed the dimmest glimmer
of intelligence. But Shadwell never wrote a line that made any sense.
Mac Flecknoe's royal barge makes its way on the River Thames for the first
time, people gather to shout his name and “the little fishes throng" (line
49) around his boat. His elderly father “wept for joy / In silent raptures
of the hopeful boy" (lines 60-61). No one can argue against Shadwell as
the ideal King of Nonsense, for all of his writings—in particular his plays—indicate
“that for anointed dullness he was made" (line 63).
takes the throne in a district of Augusta (London) where “brothel-houses
rise" (line 7). Nearby is a nursery for children who will be trained as
actors. The plays of Fletcher and Jonson (allusion to writers John Fletcher
and Ben Jonson) are never staged in this place, but the dull and shoddy
plays of Shadwell find a ready audience here. At the beginning of his reign,
Shadwell swears “That he till death true dullness would maintain (line
15) . . . [and] “Ne'er to have peace with wit, nor truce with sense"
holding a mug of ale in his left hand, he holds the manuscript of his play
Kingdom in his right, declaring it “his sceptre and his rule of sway"
(line 123). On his head is a wreath of poppies (the source of opium, an
addictive drug which Shadwell used).
from his left hand fly twelve owls, a happening that reminds observers
of Romulus, legendary co-founder of ancient Rome. Twelve vultures heralded
proud father of Shadwell hopes that his son's domain will one day encompass
all the earth and that he will produce new dull plays to delight the dimwitted.
“The people cry'd amen," the narrator says.
father then expresses the hope that his son “advance in new impudence,
new ignorance" (line 146) and write virtuosic plays exhibiting no evidence
of intelligence. Moreover, he says, let other writers imitate his son.
The only difference between Shadwell and them, he says, will be their names.
Flecknoe advises his son to avoid straining to choose “false flowers of
rhetoric" (line 165). Instead, he need only trust his natural instincts,
and dullness will pour forth. For inspiration, Shadwell should imitate
his father rather than writers of wit, like Ben Jonson.
mine," his father says, “thy gentle numbers [lines of verse] feebly creep,
/ Thy Tragic Muse gives smiles, thy Comic sleep" (lines 197-198).
though Shadwell may have passionate ideas in his head, Flecknoe says, they
will die whenever he manifests them with his pen. Perhaps, he says, Shadwell
should quit writing plays and devote himself to acrostics.
thou may'st wings display and altars raise, / And torture one poor word
ten thousand ways" (lines 207-208).
perhaps he should write songs and sing them to the accompaniment of a lute.
still speaking Flecknoe disappears through a trap door. A wind carries
his royal robe upward, and it falls upon the shoulders of the new King
of Nonsense—Shadwell, Mac Flecknoe..............
Text of the Poem
All human things are subject
And, when Fate summons,
monarchs must obey:
found, who, like Augustus, young
to empire,2 and
had govern'd long:
In prose and verse, was
own'd, without dispute
Through all the realms of
This aged prince now flourishing
And blest with issue3
a large increase,3
Worn out with business,
did at length debate
To settle the succession
of the State:4................................10
And pond'ring which of all
his sons was fit
To reign, and wage immortal
war with wit;
Cry'd, 'tis resolv'd; for
nature pleads that he
Should only rule, who most
alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from
his tender years.
Shadwell alone, of all my
sons, is he
Who stands confirm'd in
The rest to some faint meaning
But Shadwell never deviates
Some beams of wit6
on other souls may fall,
Strike through and make
a lucid interval;
But Shadwell's genuine night7
admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail
upon the day:
Besides his goodly fabric8
fills the eye,
And seems design'd for thoughtless
Thoughtless as monarch oaks,
that shade the plain,
And, spread in solemn state,
were but types of thee,
Thou last great prophet
Even I, a dunce of more
renown than they,
Was sent before but to prepare
And coarsely clad in Norwich12drugget13
To teach the nations in
thy greater name.
35My warbling lute,14
the lute I whilom15
When to King John of Portugal
Was but the prelude to that
When thou on silver Thames
did'st cut thy way,
With well tim'd oars before
the royal barge,
40Swell'd with the pride
of thy celestial charge;.......................40
And big with hymn, commander
of an host,
The like was ne'er in
Epsom blankets toss'd.16
Methinks I see the new
The lute still trembling
underneath thy nail.
At thy well sharpen'd thumb
from shore to shore
The treble squeaks for fear,
the basses roar:
Echoes from Pissing-Alley,18
And Shadwell they resound
from Aston Hall.
About thy boat the little
As at the morning toast,19
that floats along.............................50
Sometimes as prince of thy
Thou wield'st thy papers
in thy threshing hand.20
feet ne'er kept more equal time,
Not ev'n the feet22
of thy own Psyche's23
Though they in number as
in sense excel;
So just, so like tautology
That, pale with envy, Singleton24
The lute and sword which
he in triumph bore
And vow'd he ne'er would
Here stopt the good old
sire; and wept for joy...........................60
In silent raptures of the
All arguments, but most
his plays, persuade,
That for anointed dullness
he was made.
Close to the walls which
(The fair Augusta much to
An ancient fabric, rais'd
t'inform the sight,
There stood of yore, and
A watch tower once; but
now, so fate ordains,
Of all the pile30
an empty name remains.
From its old ruins brothel-houses
Scenes of lewd loves, and
of polluted joys.
Where their vast courts,
the mother-strumpets keep,
And, undisturb'd by watch,
in silence sleep.
Near these a nursery31
erects its head,
Where queens are form'd,
and future heroes bred;
Where unfledg'd actors learn
to laugh and cry,
Where infant punks their
tender voices try,
And little Maximins32
the gods defy.
never treads in buskins34
Nor greater Jonson35
dares in socks36
But gentle Simkin37
just reception finds
Amidst this monument of
the suburbian muse affords;
waging harmless war with words.
Here Flecknoe, as a place
to fame well known,
Ambitiously design'd his
For ancient Decker40
prophesi'd long since,
That in this pile should
reign a mighty prince,
Born for a scourge of wit,
and flail of sense:
To whom true dullness should
some Psyches owe,....................90
But worlds of Misers41
from his pen should flow;
and hypocrites it should produce,
families, and tribes of Bruce.44
Now Empress Fame had publisht
Of Shadwell's coronation
through the town.
Rous'd by report of fame,
the nations meet,
From near Bun-Hill, and
No Persian carpets spread
But scatter'd limbs45
of mangled poets lay:
From dusty shops neglected
Martyrs of pies,46
and reliques of the bum.47
Much Heywood, Shirley, Ogleby48
But loads of Shadwell almost
chok'd the way.
was Captain of the Guard.
prince52 in majesty
High on a throne of his
own labours rear'd.
At his right hand our young
Rome's other hope, and pillar
of the state.
His brows thick fogs, instead
of glories, grace,.........................110
And lambent dullness play'd
around his face.
did to the altars come,
Sworn by his sire a mortal
foe to Rome;
So Shadwell swore, nor should
his vow be vain,
That he till death true
dullness would maintain;
And in his father's right,
and realm's defence,
Ne'er to have peace with
wit, nor truce with sense.
The king himself the sacred
As king by office, and as
In his sinister56
hand, instead of ball,57....................................120
He plac'd a mighty mug of
to his right he did convey,
At once his sceptre and
his rule of sway;
Whose righteous lore the
prince had practis'd young,
whose loins recorded Psyche sprung,59
His temples last with poppies60
were o'er spread,
That nodding seem'd to consecrate
Just at that point of time,
if fame not lie,
On his left
hand twelve reverend owls did fly.
'tis sung, by Tiber's brook,...................................130
of sway from twice six vultures took.61
Th'admiring throng loud
And omens of his future
The sire then shook the
honours of his head,
his brows damps of oblivion shed
the filial dullness:62
long he stood,
Repelling from his breast
the raging god;
At length burst out in this
Heavens bless my son, from
Ireland let him reign
To far Barbadoes on the
Of his dominion may no end
And greater than his father's
be his throne.
him stretch his pen;
He paus'd, and all the people
Then thus, continu'd he,
my son advance
Still in new impudence,
Success let other teach,
learn thou from me
Pangs without birth, and
in five years be writ;
Yet not one thought accuse
thy toil of wit..................................150
George65 in triumph
tread the stage,
betray, and Loveit rage;
Cully, Cockwood, Fopling,66
charm the pit,
And in their folly show
the writer's wit.
Yet still thy fools shall
stand in thy defence,
And justify their author's
want of sense.
Let 'em be all by thy own
Of dullness, and desire
no foreign aid:
That they to future ages
may be known,
Not copies drawn, but issue
of thy own......................................160
1Nay let thy men of wit
too be the same,
All full of thee, and differing
but in name;
But let no alien Sedley67
To lard with wit thy hungry
And when false flowers of
rhetoric thou would'st cull,
Trust Nature, do not labour
to be dull;
But write thy best, and
top; and in each line,
will be thine.
Sir Formal, though unsought,
attends thy quill,
And does thy Northern
let false friends seduce thy mind to fame,
Jonson's hostile name.71
Let Father Flecknoe fire
thy mind with praise,
Ogleby72 thy envy
Thou art my blood, where
Jonson has no part;
What share have we in Nature
or in Art?
Where did his wit on learning
fix a brand,
And rail at arts he did
Where made he love in Prince
Or swept the dust in Psyche's
sold he bargains, whip-stitch, kiss my arse,74
Promis'd a play and dwindled
to a farce?
When did his muse from Fletcher
As thou whole Eth'ridge75
dost transfuse to thine?
But so transfus'd as oil
on waters flow,
His always floats above,
thine sinks below.
This is thy province, this
thy wondrous way,
humours to invent for each new play:
is that boasted bias of thy mind,76
By which one way, to dullness,
Which makes thy writings
lean on one side still,
And in all changes that
way bends thy will.
let thy mountain belly make pretence
thine's a tympany78
of man in thy large bulk is writ,
But sure thou 'rt but a
Like mine thy gentle
Muse gives smiles, thy Comic sleep.82
With whate'er gall thou
sett'st thy self to write,
Thy inoffensive satires
In thy felonious heart,
though venom lies,
It does but touch thy Irish
pen, and dies.
Thy genius calls thee not
to purchase fame
In keen iambics83,
but mild anagram:
Leave writing plays, and
choose for thy command
Some peaceful province in
may'st wings display and altars raise,84
And torture one poor word
ten thousand ways.
Or if thou would'st thy
diff'rent talents suit,
Set thy own songs, and sing
them to thy lute................................210
He said, but his last words
were scarcely heard,
had a trap prepar'd,
And down they sent the yet
Sinking he left his drugget
Born upwards by a subterranean
The mantle fell to the young
With double portion of his
Richard Flecknoe. (See Background, above.)
. . . empire: Allusion to Augustus Caesar (63 BC-AD 14), born Gaius
Octavius and adopted by Julius Caesar. He became one of three rulers of
Rome in 43 BC and emperor of Rome in 27 BC, ruling until his death.
of the state: The person who would succeed as king.
Thomas Shadwell. (See Background, above.)
Intelligence; creativity; writing ability.
Lack of brilliance; stupidity.
fabric: Fat body.
John Heywood (1497-1575), English author of interludes, which were humorous,
witty, or moralistic dialogues recited on a stage before or after a play
or during an intermission. Heywood was a pioneer in turning the abstractions
of morality plays into real characters, as in The Mery Play betwene
Johan Johan the Husbande, Tyb the Wyfe, and Syr Johan the Preest, printed
James Shirley (1596-1666), a minor English playwright.
Redundancy, needless repetition.
Seat of Norfolk County in eastern England.
Woolen or partly woolen fabric used to make clothing.
Formerly; at one time; at an earlier time.
. . . toss'd: A phrase that appears in a 1676 Shadwell play entitled
Legendary poet and musician of ancient Greece. While on a sea voyage, he
learned that sailors on the ship planned to rob and kill him. Resigned
to his fate, he sang a song to the accompaniment of his lyre, then jumped
overboard. But a dolphin enthralled with his music saved him and carried
him to Corinth, Greece.
In Dryden's time, any of several London streets where people urinated.
Food waste thrown into the river.
hand: Hand used to beat out the rhythms
of verse in the same way that one would beat (thresh) grain from husks.
André: French choreographer.
In versification, a metric measure such as an iamb
or a trochee.
Opera libretto (1675) written by Shadwell. The story is based on the ancient
myth of Cupid and Psyche, which is as follows. Psyche is a young
woman so beautiful that the goddess of love, Venus, becomes jealous. She
sends her son, Cupid, to earth to use one of his arrows to make her fall
in love with a horribly ugly man. Cupid, invisible to human eyes, enters
her chamber while she is sleeping. When she awakens, he accidentally pricks
his skin instead of hers, causing him to fall in love with her. He then
houses her in a palace as his wife but sleeps with her only in the darkness
of night. He tells her she must never light a candle, for he does not wish
to reveal his identity right away. Later, her sisters give her bad advice.
After telling her that her mystery man is really a serpent, they advise
her to light a lamp while he is sleeping, then kill him with a knife. After
lighting the lamp, she sees Cupid for the first time and accidentally scratches
herself with one of his arrows. Falling madly in love with him, she kisses
him. Angry that she has disobeyed his instructions, he leaves her. While
searching for him, she encounters Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and
fertility. The great deity tells Psyche that she has no chance of finding
Cupid unless she petitions Venus, the goddess who sent him to Psyche in
the first place. When Psyche enters a temple dedicated to Venus, the goddess
gives her a series of seemingly impossible tasks to perform. But with the
help of those who pity her—including a river god—she achieves success.
Meanwhile, Cupid can no longer endure separation from his beloved and asks
Jupiter for help. The king of the gods then persuades her to stop her scheming
against Psyche. He also dispatches Mercury to earth to bring Psyche to
the abode of the gods. There, Jupiter gives her the food of the gods, making
her immortal, and pronounces Cupid and her eternally tied by the bonds
Court musician and singer.
Character in The Siege of Rhodes, a tragicomic opera by William
Fictional name for London. The word august (uh GUST) means to
inspire reverence and awe. Dryden uses the name here to support the
poem as a mock epic.
fears inclin'd: London was fearful because Catholics were accused (falsely)
of plotting to murder the King of England.
Defensive wall on Aldersgate Street in London.
A that means was called.
Building or group of buildings.
Allusion to a school for children training to be actors.
Hero of Dryden's tragedy, Tyrannic Love.
John Fletcher (1579-1625), renowned playwright in the early seventeenth
High boots worn by actors in ancient Greek and Roman tragedies. In Dryden's
poem, buskins symbolizes stage tragedies.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637), important playwright of the early seventeenth century.
Low-cut shoes worn by actors in ancient Greek and Roman comedies. In Dryden's
poem, socks symbolizes stage comedies.
Clown or simpleton.
Thomas Panton, a well-known punster.
Thomas Dekker (1572-1632), English playwright and prose pamphleteer.
Miser, a 1672 stag comedy by Shadwell.
Humorists, a 1671 stage comedy by Shadwell.
Character in The Humorists. (See No. 42).
Character in Shadwell's The Virtuoso (1676).
Books and parts of books (covers, pages).
Bakers used book pages under pie crusts (as we would use paper towels or
. . . bum: Book pages used as toilet paper. Bum refers to the
John Ogilby (1600-1675), British printer, translator, and mediocre poet.
stationers: Book dealers unable to sell the works of Shadwell.
Henry Herringman (1628–1704), London publisher and bookseller. He published
works by both Dryden and Shadwell.
prince: The elderly king, Flecknoe.
Son of Aeneas, the hero of Virgil's Aeneid.
After his father died, Ascanius inherited his father's kingdom. Dryden
refers to Shadwell as Ascanius to make
the point that Shadwell,
like Ascanius, will succeed his father.
Carthaginian general famous for waging war against Rome with elephants.
When he was a boy, he was taught to hate Rome.
The real-life Flecknoe was said to be a priest.
When a king of England was crowned, he received an orb (along with a scepter)
as a symbol of his power.
Kingdom: A 1664 play by Richard Flecknoe.
Shadwell fathered (wrote) Psyche. (See No. 23.)
Poppies contain seeds from which opium, an addictive drug, is made. Shadwell
was said to be addicted to opium.
his left . . . vultures took: According
to ancient Roman myth, twelve vultures appeared to Romulus, the legendary
co-founder of ancient Rome, to sanction his selection for the site of the
city. Dryden mocks Shadwell by writing that his owls can be compared to
the vultures of Romulus.
. . . dullness: The old king (Flecknoe) passed on to his son (Shadwell,
or Mac Flecknoe) his dullness.
kingdom: See No. 58.
Virtuoso, a 1676 play by Shadwell.
George: George Etherege (1635-1691), English writer of stage comedies.
. . . Fopling: Dorimant, Loveit, Cully, Cockwood, and Fopling were
all characters in plays of George Etherege. (See No. 65.)
Sir Charles Sedley (1639-1701), English playwright. He wrote the prologue
for Shadwell's 1673 play Epsom Wells.
Wells, a play Shadwell staged in 1672.
Formal's oratory: Pompous oratory of Sir Formal Trifle, a character
in Shadwell's The Virtuoso.
Dedications: Shadwell dedicated some of his plays to the Duke of Newcastle.
Newcastle (in full, Newcastle upon Tyne) is in northern England near the
. . . name: Don't let false friends make you think that you are carrying
on in the tradition of Ben Jonson. (Shadwell thought that he was another
Jonson, but Jonson was by far the superior writer.
Ogleby: See No. 48.
Nicander: Character in Shadwell's Psyche.
. . . arse: Where did he [Jonson] write such phrases as whip-stitch
and kiss my arse? These phrases are spoken by Sir Samuel Hearty
in Shadwell's The Virtuoso.
See Note 65.
. . . mind: Shadwell writes the following in the epilogue of his play,
The Humorists: "A humor is a bias of the mind."
. . . likeness: Don't compare your large belly to Jonson's.
lark cask for beer, ale, or wine.
Cask; unit of measure equal to 18 imperial gallons.
numbers: Verses; lines of verse.
. . . sleep: The tragic scenes make people laugh; the scenes that are
supposed to be funny put them to sleep.
In versification, an iamb is a metric foot consisting of an unstressed
syllable followed by a stressed syllable. For a complete discussion of
meter in poetry and verse, click here.
. . . display: In some plays in the Dryden-Shadwell era, authors
arranged short and long lines of verse to resemble the shape of objects
such as wings or altars.
and Longvil: Characters in Shadwell's The Virtuoso. They arrange
for Sir Formal Trifle (see No. 69) to fall through a trap door while he
is giving a speech.
tone of the poem is mischievous and mocking.
purpose in writing "Mac Flecknoe" was to expose Shadwell as a mediocre
writer—and to get even for Shadwell's offenses against him. Dryden lampoons
Shadwell mercilessly, although he avoids sarcasm and harangue. Instead,
Dryden uses the genius of his wit, razor sharp, to expose Shadwell's writing
as humdrum and uninspired. Early in the poem, Dryden uses hyperbole to
stress the dimness of Shadwell's imagination and creativity.
Shadwell never deviates
Shadwell enjoyed a goodly measure
of popularity in his day, not infrequently attracting crowds to performances
of his works. However, over time, his popularity dwindled. Today, his works
receive small attention. Time, that winnower of would-be Shakespeares,
has blown away Shadwell and left Dryden in full flower.
Some beams of wit on other
souls may fall,
Strike through and make
a lucid interval;
But Shadwell's genuine night
admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail
upon the day (lines 20-24)
poem is written entirely in couplets (two successive rhyming lines). The
first two lines set the pattern.
All human things
are subject to decay,
And, when Fate summons,
monarchs must obey:
also included occasional internal rhyme in the poem, as in the following
As at the morning
toast, that floats
along (line 50)
The lute and sword
which he in triumph bore (line 58)
All arguments, but most
his plays, persuade
A watch tower
once; but now, so fate ordains (line
Of all the pile an empty
meter of the poem is iambic pentameter,
as the first line demonstrates.