Dryden shows his cards from the get-go, informing us that this poem is intended as satire.
The subject of the satire, it would seem, is the unlucky fellow identified here as the "True-blue Protestant Poet T.S," who is none other than Dryden's contemporary and rival, English poet and playwright, Thomas Shadwell.
Dryden converted to Catholicism several years after the publication of this poem, which might have something to do with his criticism of Shadwell's religious preference as a gung-ho Protestant. Let's read on to see if he makes any more of this in the poem itself.
All human things are subject to decay, And, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey:
Dryden begins with a lofty commentary on mortality, God, and kings, his introduction to what we can only assume will be a grandiose epic of Homeric proportions.
As we will soon discover, the entirety of the poem is written in rhymedheroic couplets, typical of the epic style. (Check out "Form and Meter" for more on how this poem is put together.)
From this initial couplet, Dryden creates the atmosphere of an epic, a grandiose story of gods and kings, in line with the tradition of poetic big names like Homer or Milton.
This Flecknoe found, who, like Augustus, young Was call'd to empire, and had govern'd long: In prose and verse, was own'd, without dispute Through all the realms of Non-sense, absolute.
Actually—j/k, everyone. This is no epic; it's a satire written in mock-epic form. In these lines we get a sense of the poem's true tone, in all its biting, sarcastic glory.
Here's our first appearance from the title character, one Mac Flecknoe, the monarch spoken of in line 2. This could be a reference to Richard Flecknoe, an earlier English poet likely of Irish origin. Flecknoe was regarded to be a poetaster—basically someone who writes bad poetry—known for having to pay to get his poems published
Like Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, Flecknoe's rule was long and successful. But of course Flecknoe's domain isn't Rome, but rather the "realms of Non-sense," of which he is the poet-king. This distinction does not reflect well on his literary talents.
This aged prince now flourishing in peace, And blest with issue of a large increase, Worn out with business, did at length debate To settle the succession of the State: And pond'ring which of all his sons was fit To reign, and wage immortal war with wit; Cry'd, 'tis resolv'd; for nature pleads that he Should only rule, who most resembles me:
The end of our king's life is near, however, and it is time now for him to declare his successor to the throne.
He has been blessed with a "large increase" (a.k.a. an ample brood of offspring), and he must choose which one of his children will inherit the kingdom.
So how will he make this decision? He will choose the heir who is most like the king himself, in wit and poetic ability (or, as Dryden implies, lack thereof).
Something tells us we aren't exactly going to get Shakespeare as the next king.
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.
Enter Thomas Shadwell, the hapless subject of Dryden's ire.
Instead of writing out the full name of "Shadwell," Dryden's original text actually reads "Sh—", implying a certain scatological expletive (hint: it rhymes with "snit"). It also implies the name of the writer: Shadwell.
Dryden's meter, however, consisting of ten syllable lines, requires a two-syllable word there. The full name "Shadwell" fits the bill.
In his supreme dullness and stupidity, it is Shadwell alone who appears fit to inherit the throne from Flecknoe.
Let's take a moment to step out of the kingdom of nonsense and back into reality: Shadwell and Dryden were once friends, but their relationship soured over several disagreements. They had divergent political views, as Dryden supported the Stuart monarchy while Shadwell was a member of the opposing party, called the Whigs.
They had religious differences, too, given Dryden's Catholic sympathies and Shadwell's Protestantism. And they had a running debate over the merits of Shakespeare and his contemporary Ben Jonson; Dryden was a Shakespeare fan, while Shadwell considered himself the leading student and heir to Jonson's legacy
This festering contentiousness between the two writers reached a boiling point when Shadwell published "The Medal of John Bayes" in 1682, which attacked Dryden head-on. Dryden responded within the year with "Mac Flecknoe." Though Shadwell would go on to replace Dryden as Poet Laureate of England, it seems that Dryden ultimately had the last laugh, given the legacy of "Flecknoe."