Written in about 1678, “Mac Flecknoe” is the outcome of a series of disagreements between Thomas Shadwell and Dryden. Their quarrel blossomed from the following disagreements: “1) their different estimates of the genius of Ben Jonson, 2) the preference of Dryden for comedy of wit and repartee and of Shadwell, the chief disciple of Jonson, for humors comedy, 3) a sharp disagreement over the true purpose of comedy, 4) contention over the value of rhymed plays, and 5) plagiarism.”(Wikpedia)
Flecknoe comprehends that it is time for his departure as he has for long reigned over the realms of dullness beginning his tenure like Augustus at an early age. The first two lines are an ostentatious platitude on the transience of Life; how Fate eventually wins over the former. The only common aspect between Flecknoe and Augustus was that both of them began to rule young; the insignificance of Flecknoe is contrasted against the huge stature of Augustus, in keeping with the mock-heroic tradition. Flecknoe was indubitably the undisputed King of Dullness in the realms of prose and verse. He has produced a large number of dunces and now seriously contemplates over a successor. Flecknoe pitches on Shadwell owing to a persistent dullness right from his literary infancy. There is a Biblical allusion as to how God created man in his own image. Again following the mock-heroic tradition the grandeur of God is contrasted against the conformed stupidity of Shadwell.
The other dunces have occasionally showed flashes of genius while Shadwell has consistently exemplified his expertise in the field of dullness. While others may create something intelligible once in a while, Shadwell never deviates from his record-his graph has been steady and consistent for dullness.
Subsequently, the poet goes on to gibe at the corpulence of Thomas Shadwell with not too much of sarcasm. Dryden mocks at Shadwell’s idiocy. The man blocks the whole of vision with his huge structure. The imposing structure comes across as a huge oak that is monotonous and insensate. Just as the oak blocks the rays of the sun, Shadwell permits no enlightment of minds.
As per Dryden, Shirley and Heywood were insignificant and loquacious. They utilized words extensively without communicating any real sense. Nevertheless, Shadwell overshadowed them in their talent for verbosity. He thereby has earned himself the much coveted title of “the prophet of Tautology”. Flecknoe is ecstatic at the fact though he is greater in absurdity than Shirley and Heywood, Shadwell has outdone them all. Verging on blasphemy, Mac Flecknoe likens himself to St.John the Baptist who arrived before Jesus to pave the way for the Saviour. Likewise, the advent of Flecknoe is merely a prelude to the heralding of the ultimate epitome of Dullness, Shadwell.
Dryden also satirizes Shadwell’s poetic and musical pretensions. A cacophony (dissonance) is superior to Shadwell’s noise,says the speaker. Shadwell penned the play called Epsom Wells, but the line “Such a fellow as he deserves to be tossed in a blanket” occurs in Shadwell’s Virtuoso.
Arion was the renowned magician of Cornith. Once as he returned from a musical extravaganza, sailors robbed him of his belongings and cast him into the sea. The melodious music that he played on his lute allured the dolphins and they steered him back to safety. Shadwell could only reproduce squeaks and roars. The thick-skinned people came to laud the so-called musician. The scum(sedimentary waste) came to cheer him just as tiny fishes rushed in for fragments of food thrown to them.
With affected encomium, Dryden contests that Shadwell had a better timing than the St.Andre, the French master. His troop participated in Shadwell’s’ opera,”The Psyche”. Dryden asserts that the troop’s performance was out of rhythm owing to the unnecessary feet in Shadwell’s lines. Shadwell’s conducting of the choir was totally out of tune. Dryden showers praises on Shadwell for the extra-feet included in his poem.
In an ironic tone, Dryden claims that “The Psyche” was such a masterpiece in tautology that Singleton, the actor grew green with envy. He always enacted the role of Villerus in the lute and the sword scenes of Davenant’s play”The Siege of Rhodes”. He was now convinced that the play was worthless in comparison to Shadwell’s psyche. It was futile to be an actor any longer. Thus he disparages in the guise of praise (and employs a satiric tone in the process).
Dryden then goes on to describe Mac Flecknoe’s coronation. As he mentions the ‘nursery’, he refers to a theatre in Golden Home in 1664 to train children for the stage. Good plays were never performed here. It was ludicrous to find little boys and girls playing out the parts of kings and queens. The nursery comes across as a tribute to wretched playwrights. The language employed is also deplorable. It verges merely on puns and verbosity. As the whole of London prepared themselves to welcome the coronation of Shadwell Instead of the red carpet, worthless works were strewn on the pathway in order to honour him.
Dryden parodies the scene in Book V of the Aeneid where Aeneas declared to his followers that in the event of his death his son Ascanius would succeed him .Dryden goes on to describe Shadwell that clouds of dark ignorance formed a halo around his head. The brows were thick with fogs of idiocy. Shadwell pledges that he will venture industriously to promote and support insipidness. Like Hannibal vowed to remain an enemy of Rome, he declared to be the arch rival of good sense. Just as Homilcar forced his son to take the oath, Flecknoe asks his son to swear.
Kings often hold a ball and scepter as the emblem of sovereignity. Here, Shadwell is provided with a mug of ale, and a copy of Flecknoe’s deplorable play “Love’s Kingdom”. Dryden mocks at Shadwell’s alcoholic tendencies ,and his sexual expoilts. Flecknoe, the celibate and his illegitimate son can only verge on degrading comments and abortive issues like the ale. In his other hand, instead of the scepter, he is equipped with “love’s kingdom” that connotes the female genitalia. The birth of psyche reinforces this aspect. As Shadwell’s artistic endeavors are termed as abortive’, he is deemed to have all the features of a woman. It functions as a response to Shadwell’s taunt: “An old gelt mastiff has more mirth than thou.”
Flecknoe adorns Shadwell with a sheath of poppies hinting at Shadwell’s addictive tendencies to opium. It also hints at the sleep-inducing merit of his monotonous works.
Going back to his mock-heroic traditions, he asserts that Rome was named by Remus and Romulus. As a dispute ensued between them, they appealed to the Omens. As Romulus saw twelve vultures, where Remus only six, Romulus attained the distinction of naming the city. The speaker here brings twelve owls, the birds of Zeus ,a symbol of ill-omen instead of vultures.
The next lines reveal Flecknoe blessing his son. Let success allow others to produce better works. Shadwell will follow Flecknoe and produce more and more literary abortions. They are feminine in character, and are sterile .Only that they have feminine instinctive feelings. As potent ale issues forth urine, Virtuoso and Psyche are revealed to be tedious volumes of excrete.
Intelligent playwrights often introduce fools in their plays to exemplify the author’s genius. Nevertheless, Shadwell’s characters illustrate the author’s stupidity. They are the best evidences of Shadwell’s stupidity. The only distinguishing factor between him and them are their names.
Shadwell was often charged with plagiarism. Particularly, he borrowed from the plays of Sedley. This adulterates his unalloyed stupidity that Flecknoe regards superior to all. Shadwell,therefore, must not rely on others, but solely depend on his spontaneous idiocy that sets him apart. Shadwell and Ben Jonson had nothing in common but rotundity. Jonson never rose to absurd heights. Shadwell should not imitate Ben Jonson as his works were artistically sound. Flecknoe affirms that Shadwell is truly his own child. It appears as though one dunce advocates another.
Nevertheless, the stolen passages stand out conspicuously bringing out the considerable differences between both the writings. Shadwell should be proud for his dry, verbose, sleep-inducing verses. While his tragedies provoked laughter, his comedies were soporific. He always produces the opposite effect rather than the intended one. However, in spite of himself, though the speaker endeavours to be satirical in approach, it turns out to be harmless and shallow. Shadwell was the superior writer of comedies as compared to Dryden in reality.
If Shadwell really wanted to attain fame he should contest in the field of low-level and stupid idioms. Flecknoe advises Shadwell not to pen plays, but engage in shallow humour, pseudo-wit and dull expressions.
The poet uses another mock-heroic feature. In the Bible (II Kings, ch:2;11-17) Elijah leaves his mantle to Elisha as he ascends towards his heaven. Thereby Elisha was endowed with the gift of prophesy. Similarly, Flecknoe conferred his mantle of dullness upon Shadwell as he descended to hell. The term “prophet’s part” probably means “father’s part”. Nevertheless, the poem ends with an offensive ‘fart’ as the concluding note.