Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity. (15-18)
Dryden makes it clear how he feels about Shadwell from the beginning of the poem. We can tell that Dryden's sole purpose here is to belittle his rival, using his own wit to poke fun at Shadwell's lack thereof.
Thoughtless as monarch oaks, that shade the plain,
And, spread in solemn state, supinely reign.
Heywood and Shirley were but types of thee,
Thou last great prophet of tautology: (27-30)
"Mac Flecknoe" is littered with references to the seventeenth-century English literature scene, as Dryden name drops writer after writer over the course of the poem. Some of these writers he views favorably. Other writers? Eh, not so much. But even the worst of the worst, Dryden argues, like Heywood and Shirley, are still better than Shadwell.
Like mine thy gentle numbers feebly creep,
Thy Tragic Muse gives smiles, thy Comic sleep.
With whate'er gall thou sett'st thy self to write,
Thy inoffensive satires never bite. (197-200)
Dryden bashes Shadwell's writing ability throughout "Mac Flecknoe," discrediting his work as ineffective, cheap, and supremely bland. Here Dryden pokes fun at Shadwell's satires, which is particularly effective considering that "Mac Flecknoe" itself is an extremely successful, totally offensive and biting satire.
Great Fletcher never treads in buskins here,
Nor greater Jonson dares in socks appear;
But gentle Simkin just reception finds
Amidst this monument of vanish'd minds: (79-82)
Dryden mentions the names of several well-respected poets in "Mac Flecknoe." He then proceeds to make it abundantly clear that Shadwell's own name does not belong among those luminaries. Shadwell in no way deserves the same respect and recognition, Dryden says.
Now Empress Fame had publisht the renown,
Of Shadwell's coronation through the town.
Rous'd by report of fame, the nations meet,
From near Bun-Hill, and distant Watling-street. (94-97)
Dryden jokes that Shadwell's fame stretches all the way from "Bun-Hill" to "distant Watling street"—in reality, two London locations that are very close to one another. Perhaps Shadwell suffers from an undeserved and inflated sense of self-importance, Dryden suggests.
Heavens bless my son, from Ireland let him reign
To far Barbadoes on the Western main;
Of his dominion may no end be known,
And greater than his father's be his throne. (139-142)
Shadwell is to become the poet king of the Realm of Nonsense, which—given the geography explained here—is actually just the vast and empty Atlantic Ocean. And as ruler of this dominion, Shadwell's unparalleled ability to produce appallingly bad poetry will exceed that of his predecessors, changing the bad poetry game forever.
Let Father Flecknoe fire thy mind with praise,
And Uncle Ogleby thy envy raise.
Thou art my blood, where Jonson has no part;
What share have we in Nature or in Art? (173-176)
Shadwell ought not cheat himself; he is no Ben Jonson. Shadwell belongs instead in the long, infamous tradition of bad poets, Dryden chides, and his reputation should never be anything other than "that one sap who tried to copy Ben Jonson and ended up failing miserably because he actually is a terrible writer." Sorry, Thomas.
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Strike through and make a lucid interval;
But Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day: (21-24)
In order to elevate the poem from a cheap critique to a hilarious and imaginative satire, Dryden drops some seriously clever insults. Here he uses metaphor to go after Shadwell's intellect. Throughout "Mac Flecknoe," Dryden employs his exceptional command of poetic conventions to very creatively, very literarily, basically just call Shadwell a stupid idiot.
So Shadwell swore, nor should his vow be vain,
That he till death true dullness would maintain;
And in his father's right, and realm's defence,
Ne'er to have peace with wit, nor truce with sense. (114-117)
Dryden takes great care in the poem to note Shadwell's lack of wit and cleverness, which is only made clearer in the context of Dryden's own supremely witty and clever writing. Described amusingly as terminally dull, and perpetually at war with wit and sense, it's clear that Shadwell does not have the intellectual upper hand.
And when false flowers of rhetoric thou would'st cull,
Trust Nature, do not labour to be dull;
But write thy best, and top; and in each line,
Sir Formal's oratory will be thine. (165-168)
Dryden depicts Shadwell as a heroic figure in "Mac Flecknoe," an excellent satirical move. All great heroic figures have a primary virtue, but for Shadwell, ironically, his "virtue" is dullness.
Where sold he bargains, whip-stitch, kiss my arse,
Promis'd a play and dwindled to a farce? (181-182)
Shadwell's writing is completely un-literary, Dryden argues, devoid of substance and taste. Dryden mentions several of Shadwell's not so clever catchphrases, which he thinks are only used to grab a cheap laugh.
Nor let thy mountain belly make pretence
Of likeness; thine's a tympany of sense.
A tun of man in thy large bulk is writ,
But sure thou 'rt but a kilderkin of wit. (193-196)
At least Dryden found a clever way to tell Shadwell he's fat and stupid. This cunning insult is one of many in "Mac Flecknoe"—where the subject matter is hardly brilliant, but the way it is presented is pretty darn creative and memorable.
Methinks I see the new Arion sail,
The lute still trembling underneath thy nail. (43-44)
"Mac Flecknoe" is inundated with references to literature and narrative, from Ancient Greek and Roman myths, to seventeenth-century English dramas. Much of the poem's satirical roots stem from these references especially to classical heroic epics, giving context to Dryden's depiction of Shadwell as a heroic figure. This ironic comparison of Shadwell to the Greek hero Arion is one of many of its sort throughout the poem.
No Persian carpets spread th'imperial way,
But scatter'd limbs of mangled poets lay: (98-99)
Dryden seems to view Shadwell as a scourge to poetry, a hack who gives English drama a bad name. Thus, Shadwell's coronation is decorated with the remains of good poets, as he takes the written word to a new low.
From dusty shops neglected authors come,
Martyrs of pies, and reliques of the bum.
Much Heywood, Shirley, Ogleby there lay,
But loads of Shadwell almost chok'd the way. (100-103)
Here Dryden shares with us a thought concerning the state of literature of the day. First he makes a joke about books being used for toilet paper, a suggestion perhaps that there weren't many writers around even worthy of being read. He then names a few mediocre contemporaries. But, of all the bad writers going, Dryden makes it clear that Shadwell is by far the worst.
Thy genius calls thee not to purchase fame
In keen iambics, but mild anagram:
Leave writing plays, and choose for thy command
Some peaceful province in acrostic land.
There thou may'st wings display and altars raise,
And torture one poor word ten thousand ways. (203-208)
Dryden takes another shot at the quality of Shadwell's writing, as well as the overall quality of the day's popular literature. He finds acrostic poetry, a literary fad of the day, lacking in substance. "Mac Flecknoe," on the other hand, written in "keen iambics," proves that Dryden, unlike his contemporaries, was a serious, well-versed, and truly literary writer.