Mac Flecknoe: Summary and analysis

by John Dryden

Before going to the summary let’s highlight few basic points to make your understanding better like; characters, themes, genre intention, style etc. of the writer.

What is Mac Flecknoe refers to?

Mac stands for ‘son’, whereas Flecknoe stands for the ‘king’ (Richard Flecknoe), therefore it refers as the “son of the king” i.e. Mac Flecknoe.

Theme of the Poem

Theme of the poem is based on ‘cunning and cleverness’. John Dryden has uses wit and irony tremendously to make this poem a comic satire.

Flecknoe” would fall flat as merely an unconvincing critique without Dryden’s wry wit and tremendous sense of comedic irony.

A question which has been asked since the poem has published, below I am highlighting the question to make you understand better.

Why John Dryden wrote Mac Flecnnoe/what was his intention to write Mac Flecknoe?

John Dryden and Thomas Shadwell both were contemporary writers, they comment on each other’s work and wrote many poems to degrade not only their literary works but each other’s personality as well. Dryden intended to write this because he wanted to satirize and criticize the work of Thomas Shadwell, who was also a poet, but regarded as worst poet in English literary world.

About the Poem

Mac Flecknoe is a poem written around 1678s by John Dryden and published anonymously, and without John Dryden’s authority in 1682. The poem is a direct attack on Thomas Shadwell’s literary work, who was one of his contemporary fellow poet. The poem is about a selection of an heir of dullness by the king Richard Flecknoe.

Dryden wrote this poem in a comic way, neither he shows anger nor sympathy but leaves laughter in readers. He treated Shadwell with contempt of humor in the poem. He has used heroic couplet and classical design in comic tone. Mac Flecknoe poem is a mock- heroic and an interesting satire by Dryden.

The poem has written in 217 lines, being the most popular poem of Dryden’s career. It added a strength to his position as a successful poet in his lifetime. The poem as satirical, leaves a great effect in English literature. Dryden’s famous poetic pattern heroic couplet can be seen throughout the poem.

Mac Flecknoe as a satirical poem has both personal and literary attack. Dryden exploits the weak point of Thomas Shadwell in a comic manner.

John Dryden has presented Thomas Shadwell as a dull poetaster, a corpulent and a plagiarist. Dryden has made fun of Shadwell’s literary work.

The poem begins with the very famous tagline which is also a subject, i.e. “A Satire upon the True- Blue Protestant poet T.S”. here ‘T.S’ refers to Thomas Shadwell. The very first line of the poem describes Flecknoe, who is an emperor Augustus who has power in the realms of non-sense. Dryden praises Richard Flecknoe who was regarded as a bad poet, in the field of English drama and a poetry world.

There is a Catholic prince name Richard Flecknoe, who rules on kingdom of dullness (nonsense) for a very long time and now it’s time for him to step down. So, one day he thought that he has to select a successor to manage his kingdom. Therefore, he selects Thomas Shadwell as his successor, the one who has been highlighted as Mac Flecknoe in the poem.

Mac Flecknoe is none other than Thomas Shadwell. In the poem, Dryden has presented Richard Flecknoe as a literary father of Thomas Shadwell in the poem. Therefore, when he chooses Shadwell as his successor, Dryden thinks that he is the best option for this job.

According to Dryden, Shadwell has never written any good poetry nor achieve any chivalric, he has always done stupidity. According to Dryden, Shadwell is an unproductive and slow writer.

Therefore, Dryden showcases Thomas Shadwell in negative character and being a worst poet.

Literary Terms

John Dryden was basically known for his use of heroic style, so in this he has shown his consistency and applied his poetic style. Also, Dryden abbreviates the complete name Shadwell as “SH…”, and he has used perfect rhythm of iambic pentameter which completed with two syllables. His style heroic couplet had its own position in English literary world. The important point is that in Flecknoe is its substance that defines the humor of Dryden’s attack on Shadwell.


The poem opens with the introduction of Mac Flecknoe being compared to the Emperor Augustus, who himself has realm of power of being a nonsense ruler. Dryden praises Richard Flecknoe for his ignorance in poetic world. In this condition, he decides that he is ruling for many years and now its time to for him to rest and look out for a new heir. While looking for successor, who can be his imitator to his bad poetry. So, he selects Shadwell who is also a bad poet in poetry world.

In further lines, Flecknoe the explains that Shadwell has to be his heir because he is very weak in his poetic expression. Dryden goes on mocking Shadwell by widening the idea of succession. Flecknoe recommends Shadwell to imitate bad dramatist of Elizabethan age Heywood and Shirley. Dryden names these two dramatists as “prophet of tautology” that means perfect imitators.

Shadwell being the worst poet, deserves the position of dullness, the poet emphasizes. Flecknoe supports Shadwell from some particular reasons, for him Shadwell is comparable to ancient Greek musician in Greek mythology whose name was Arion. It was told that in a ship, some sailors threatened Arion to play Iyre. He jumped into the sea where dolphins carried him safely to the shore. Here, “the god old sire, and wept for joy, in silent raptures of the hopeful boy”. Dryden describes that Flecknoe has ever entered the “nursery”, a London theaterfor boys and girls to study drama. Here, John Dryden give a reference of Simpkin, who represented bad poetry and noted as the member of nursery.

In the poem, the poet mentions one name i.e. Decker, in fact he was not a famous dramatist as he was under the influence of James-I. To continue mocking Shadwell, Dryden mentions several of Shadwell’s adaptation of Molier’s (a French Writer) L’ Avare as psyche and the miser. At the same time when Flecknoe had chosen as his successor, this information spread out fast and preparation for the coronation was made. Mockingly the poet describes that, instead of carpets there are piles of the limbs of mangled poets.

In the further line, the poet explains that Flecknoe as a king has crowned Shadwell as his heir. The king holds a copy of Love’s kingdom, a weak tragic- comedy of Flecknoe had ever written. The play is as weak as Shadwell’s poetry, he asks Shadwell to inherit his “dullness” and people support him by saying “Amen’.

Continuously, mocking Shadwell, Dryden compare him to ignorance and fruitless industry. The phrase fruitless industry is an irony for Shadwell indicating that he is unproductive writer. Flecknoe advises Shadwell to let the dullness comes to him naturally. The quotation above is a bitter attack to Flecknoe. As an obedient “son” Shadwell agrees to everything said by Flecknoe. The king Flecknoe forbids Shadwell to associate himself with their former great poet, Ben Jonson. Following Ben Jonson’s footstep will make Shadwell a great dramatist. Through this Dryden wants to attack. 

In the next line, ‘Father’ Flecknoe as mentioned in the poem refers to Flecknoe either a priest or a king of Shadwell. The blood relationship between Shadwell and the king is only fictious. According to Dryden, it will be naturally better for Shadwell to just follow Flecknoe who is weak in art than imitating Jonson’s art of greatness.

Therefore, the poem is a satire on the idea of both, the succession of the state and the succession of literary state between Richard Flecknoe and Shadwell.

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