Once upon a time (the late seventeenth century), in place far, far away (England), there lived two poets: one named John Dryden, the other, Thomas Shadwell. They were both quite successful and well respected. One thing led to another, however, and they soon found themselves embroiled in some serious beef. One day, the writer by the name of John Dryden decided to up the ante.
The result was "Mac Flecknoe," John Dryden's literary takedown of Thomas Shadwell, an imaginative and hilarious satire extraordinaire. Whether it's epically ironic, or ironically epic (you'll have to read on and tell us which one you think), the poem pretty much carved out its own genre: the mock-epic, or mock-heroic.
Dryden completely skewers Shadwell, exposing him for what he was: a bad writer with bad taste, who would do anything for the cheap laugh. Though it really doesn't even seem fair to make fun of a guy who looks like this. Okay, maybe that's an unfair assessment of Shadwell. He was pretty well-known in his day, an important, albeit minor, figure in the English Restoration literary scene. But unfortunately for him, he's best remembered today for playing the hapless starring role in "Mac Flecknoe," where he gets shredded faster than a Kleenex at Edward Scissorhand's house.
How does Dryden achieve this razor-sharp, devastating effect, you might wonder? "Mac Flecknoe" is an incredibly rich, expertly crafted work of satire, layered in so much irony, sarcasm, and wit that you forget at times he's even joking. Written in Dryden's patented mock-epic style, the poem takes after its heroic, grandiose big brothers, classical and modern epics—like The Iliad and Paradise Lost—except for the minor detail that the whole thing is a massive joke.
See, "Mac Flecknoe" is a uniquely epic piece of writing that's less Homer, and more Homer Simpson—except maybe a bit smarter. Dryden mocks his victim, Shadwell, by depicting him as the lamest epic hero of all time: the terminally dull, hopelessly witless poet-king of the "realms of Non-sense" (6). Throughout the poem, Dryden shows no mercy to his victim, finding new and clever ways to use wit and irony, while pretty much inventing his own genre in the process. Today, "Mac Flecknoe" is hilarious as ever; we can still feel that 330-year-old burn just as sharply. Now that's what we call epic.
South Park. Stephen Colbert. The Onion. Though it probably seems like we're playing the loosest pop culture word association game of all time, these things actually have something significant in common. That something is satire. Satire is a tried and true tool for making people laugh and think at the same time. It's one of the most important forms of comedy in our culture today, lending itself to excellent and effective social and political commentary. So where does "Mac Flecknoe" fit into the mix? Well, in short, John Dryden basically invented the modern satire as we know it.
When we think about the origins of modern satire, names like Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Voltaire come to mind. These later writers, however, draw directly from the tremendous wit, hysterical hyperbole, and epic irony of "Mac Flecknoe." They echo Dryden's own mock-epic, or mock-heroic style, utilizing an extravagantly inflated tone to parody their subjects. Fans of the Colbert Report will notice a similar technique.
Still, "Mac Flecknoe" is no cakewalk. It is really long, really complicated, and contains more random references than an episode of Family Guy. Like any satire, it's a commentary on the social landscape of the day. Much of this cultural context is difficult to decipher even if you have your PhD in late seventeenth-century English Restoration Literature. But, like any truly great satire, it stands the test of time, remaining relevant even after many of the specific references lose their relevance.
That's because, ultimately—whether or not you know a lick about the late seventeenth-century London poetry scene— "Mac Flecknoe" is still hilarious, a shrewd commentary on an ever-relevant theme: terrible artists creating terrible art. Through his inventive use of satire, Dryden shows that he's not just a poet, but also a comedian, a critic, and a dissident. Today, the fine folks over at South Park, The Onion, and the Colbert Report have Dryden to thank for this tradition.
Also, thanks to "Mac Flecknoe," we have ridiculous stuff like this.Thank you, John Dryden—from the bottom of our satire-loving hearts.
PoFo on Dryden
The Poetry Foundation offers up a great bio and link to Dryden's work.
Bartleby's Got It
Interested in… oh, anything Dryden ever wrote? This is the website for you.
John Dryden: The Man, The Myth, The Translator
John Dryden was also a well-respected translator, who took on Virgil's The Aeneid. We suppose that's why he makes a pretty obscure reference to the Roman epic here in "Mac Flecknoe" in line 108. Take a look at his translation here.
"The Age of Dryden"
Check out this brief YouTube lesson on John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and the Restoration Period of English history.
Ever wonder what John Dryden might have looked like reading his own poetry? Well, wonder no further. We do admit, this one does kind of gives us the willies.
This reading features some stand-in photos for poor Shaddy.
A Poetic Duel
This is the audio version of the great Dryden-Shadwell smackdown. You get to hear them go back and forth at each other through their poetry. The closer, "Mac Flecknoe," tells you who's left standing.
Nice locks, JD.
The Glare of Dryden
Seriously, would you want to be on the receiving end of this guy's bad mood?
"John Dryden: The Politics of Style"
This article explores Dryden's conservative appeal.
Delphi Complete Works of John Dryden
Get all of Dryden's work in one handy, compact package: this book.
Here's Dryden's take on The Aeneid.