Mac Flecknoe by John Dryden: Summary

Mac Flecknoe is the finest short satirical poem in which Dryden has treated Thomas Sahdwell with humorous contempt. Mac Flecknoe is both a personal and literary satire. Dryden presents Shadwell as a dull poetaster, a corpulent man and a plagiarist. Dryden’s uses the heroic couplet for satirical purposes.

John Dryden (1631-1700)

Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel was followed by his other piece The Medal, which was answered by Thomas Shadwell in Medal of John Bayes, a coarse satire on Dryden. He decided to avenge himself on Shadwell and Dryden fully revenged himself by the publication of Mac Flecknoe in 1682.

Mac Flecknoe is the first substantial mock-heroic poem and Thomas Shadwell is the hero of this epic. The poem illustrates the qualities of Dryden's satire- the fund of truth at the bottom, the skillful adjustment of the satire so as to make faults of the merits which are allowed, the magnificent force and variety of the verse, and the constant maintenance of a kind of superior contempt never degenerating into mere railing or losing its superiority in petty spite.

The poem opens with Richard Flecknoe's decision to abdicate the throne and to find a worthy successor. Flecknoe's name has already become a synonym for a fool. The name of his kingdom is Nonsense. Flecknoe's choice falls upon Shadwell. Among his sons, Shadwell is the fittest for he resembles him most in dullness. He never deviates into sense. Flecknoe, with parental pride, dwells on his son's achievements. Shadwell has a 'goodly fabric that fills the eye' He is the master of repetition; he is a faithful follower of bad poets like Heywood and Shirley. Even Flecknoe, 'a dunce of more renown than they' is inferior to his son. He, therefore, concludes that his son, Shadwell is the worst possible poet and thus deserves the crown of dullness. Flecknoe continues his eulogy of Shadwell's merits by referring to his pretensions as a musician. All arguments, Flecknoe points out, lead to the conclusion that for "anointed dullness" Shadwell is made.

Dryden then describes the place chosen by Flecknoe for Shadwell's throne. Quite appropriately Flecknoe selects "Nursery": an actual London theatre for boys and girls to study drama for this purpose. Great poets like Fletcher and Jonson cannot enter there. Here Dekker had once prophesied that a mighty prince who would declare an eternal war against wit and sense should rule, producing dull classics like Psyche, The Miser and The Humorists.

Once Flecknoe has chosen Shadwell as his successor, the news gets a wide publicity. Instead of carpets, there are the remains of neglected poets; bad poets like Ogleby come out from their dusty shops. Flecknoe sits on a throne with Shadwell, and "lambent dullness plyed around his (Shadwell's) face." Poppies overspread Shadwell's temples. At the time of consecration twelve owls fly over the spot. Shadwell, then vows to uphold the dullness so successfully maintained by his father.

Flecknoe crowns Shadwell and bursts into prophecy. He praises his son and successor who would rule from Ireland to Barbadoes. He advises him to advance ignorance and to promote dullness. He even suggests that Shadwell need not work very hard in this attempt; rather, let dullness come naturally to him. He counsels him not to imitate Ben Jonson, but to emulate his father and Ogleby. He prophesies that Shadwell would write weak verse, bad plays and ineffective satires. Let Shadwell set his own songs to music and sing them. Before Flecknoe's speech ends, he is sent crashing through a trap door, while his mantle falls on Shadwell.

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Sharma, K.N. "Mac Flecknoe by John Dryden: Summary." BachelorandMaster, 11 Nov. 2013,