Satiric Perspective in John Dryden’s "Mac Flecknoe"

In the poem "Mac Flecknoe," John Dryden’s contempt for his literary contemporaries practically drips from every word. However, the effect of this arouses neither anger nor sympathy in the reader, but laughter. How can such serious intentions produce such a seemingly inappropriate response? The answer is through satire. Satire employs wit and humor as a device of ridicule by transforming the meanings of words. Specifically, a sudden imbalance in diction triggers a sense of confusion as the reader struggles to place familiar words within an unusual context. What was once respectable becomes disreputable; what was once praised becomes condemned. As the new meanings of the words become clear, the realization of the mockery produces laughter.

However, satire is much more than a means of slandering under the guise of humor. Indeed, few would appreciate the humor in defamation executed for its own sake. Rather, satire is amusing because the new meanings of words expose a formerly unnoticed, insightful truth about the old. For example, "Mac Flecknoe" undeniably ridicules, in particular, the literary ability and accomplishments of the restoration playwright, Thomas Shadwell. However, it also ridicules the underlying literary values that qualify Shadwell’s ability as a source of praise. Specifically, by intermingling the registers of royalty and religion with the low diction of stupidity and tautology, John Dryden’s satiric perspective both makes us laugh and reveals the absurdity of the literary values of his society.

The imbalance in diction between registers of royalty and stupidity and its multiple satiric effects can be shown through an analysis of Dryden’s introduction of Shadwell through his "father" Flecknoe, and his description of Shadwell’s future kingdom. The poem begins by describing the succession of a monarchy in a tone akin to an epic masterpiece. However, instead of the praise and admiration we would expect of an Odysseus-like hero, "the aged prince" Flecknoe proclaims that his successor "should only rule, who most resembles me: / Sh---- alone my perfect image bears, / Mature in dullness from his tender years. / Sh---- alone, of all my sons, is he, / Who stands confirmed in full stupidity" (lines 14 – 18). In these lines the combination of the words "perfect" and "mature" with "dullness" and "stupidity" effectively transforms the values of the former, and this is what creates the humorous effect. The reader expects the hero who succeeds to a crown to be endowed with qualities of perfection and maturity, especially in the context of an epic poem. However, within the context of this poem, dullness and stupidity take on the register of royalty: they are now the admirable traits of a King. The sudden imbalance in diction of these words surprises the reader, and, aware of their original meanings, the absurd new definitions produce laughter.

Although the example above showed how the imbalance of diction associated with the register of royalty causes a humorous effect, Dryden’s satire of royalty throughout the poem also communicates a broader commentary on the literary values of his society. This is especially shown in the description of Shadwell’s future Kingdom. According to Dryden, prostitution and bad writing characterize Shadwell’s realm. Here, "amidst this monument of vanished minds," Flecknoe "ambitiously designed his Sh----’s throne. / For ancient Dekker prophesied long since, / That in this pile should reign a mighty prince" (lines 82, 86 – 88). The satiric perspective which transformed the values of the words "perfection" and "dullness" above can also be applied to the words "ambitiously," "mighty," and "pile" in this description. Indeed, it seems absurd for a mighty prince to aspire to rule a kingdom of brothels, and the image of such a situation is humorous. However, the deeper satiric meaning becomes clear once it is recognized that Shadwell’s realm is, in reality, a section of London known as Grub Street. In this enclosed section of London, freelance writers make a living selling everything from epitaphs to parliamentary speeches. Through the mockery of Shadwell’s kingdom as this part of London, Dryden ridicules the literary values of a society that make a place such as Grub Street possible. The effect of this on the reader is to rethink the validity of those values, as seen in the light of the satiric humor.

The register of royalty is not the only theme exploited by Dryden throughout "Mac Flecknoe" for the sake of humor and the reformation of the values of his contemporary literary audiences. Indeed, just as literary audiences of the restoration had the necessary knowledge of Grub Street that is needed to appreciate the ridicule of it, they would have also found the religious references equally witty. Perhaps the best example of the satiric reversal of values concerning the religious register appears in the description of Shadwell’s coronation ceremony: "From dusty shops neglected authors come, / Martyrs of pies, and relics of the bum" (lines 100-1). Although the incongruency between the words "martyrs" and "pies" and between the words "relics" and "bum" is obvious, the transformation of values in this is case is not to be taken literally. Rather, the word "martyr" refers to the unsold books that were used to wrap pies and the word "relics" refers to those same unsold books that were used as toilet paper. Given this understanding, the line, "Martyrs of pies, relics of the bum," is a combination of the highest register, the divine, and the lowest register, human refuse. Thus, in the context of the satire, the humor is derived from the imagery of the unsold books and "neglected authors," which paved the way for Prince Shadwell’s approach to the throne and were reduced to the contemptible state of pie wrappings and toilet paper.

Although the idea of human waste as a red carpet for a King seems preposterous, it becomes more so when considering the King to be a Messiah. In addition to satirizing the societal values that produced Grub Street, Dryden denounces the values of literary audiences by equating them with followers of the prophet of tautology. Through the voice of Flecknoe, Dryden compares two playwrights of the early seventeenth century, Thomas Heywood and James Shirley, to the figures of Moses and Isaac in that they have prepared the way for the coming of Shadwell: "Heywood and Shirley were but types of thee, / Thou last great prophet of tautology" (29 – 30). In this line Dryden elevates the status of Shadwell by an increase in the diction of a prince to that of a prophet. However, just as in the context of the satire Shadwell is succeeding to the throne of dullness, so does he take command of the backwards, circular philosophy of tautology as a prophet. In conjunction with Shadwell’s elevation in status, his supporters are satirically transformed from followers of a king of dullness to followers of a prophet of nonsensical reasoning. In this way, Dryden broadens the scope of ridicule to include those that, in reality, support Shadwell’s literary achievements. Of course, the purpose of this ridicule is to prompt the reader to reevaluate the soundness of praising a playwright that is not only compared to the prince of dullness, but the prophet of nonsense.

It has been shown through an analysis of the ways in which the registers of religion and royalty combine with the registers of tautology and stupidity, that satire operates by employing humor and wit in order to communicate a deeper meaning. In the poem "Mac Flecknoe," the element of surprise and a complete transformation of the values of words is what produces humor. The admirable traits of a hero become equated with folly and dullness. Readers of "Mac Flecknoe" find their worlds linguistically turned upside down; princes are turned into dunces and prophets are turned into idiots. Through an unexpected, extreme imbalance in diction, words take on a new meaning of absurdity, creating an inappropriate tone and a morally mutated context of idiocracy.

However, it is this very characteristic of transformation and reversal that makes satire so effective in its humor and its message. Through satire, Dryden’s contempt for his literary contemporaries is persuasive rather than foreboding for the reader. Rather than view Dryden as full of malice toward Thomas Shadwell, the reader is prompted to view his or her own literary values from a different, clarifying perspective. The result is that they come to realize the absurdity of their values, and with seriousness that could only be produced through tone and perspective of humor. Indeed, it is also this same aspect of satire that has caused "Mac Flecknoe" to receive such admiration, even some three hundred years after the poem’s publish. Whereas any writer can slander, to successfully produce a satire requires the skill of a true poet, such as Dryden.


Works Cited

Dryden, John. "Mac Flecknoe." The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch. Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1999. 2103 – 2108.