Study Guide

Mac Flecknoe Themes

By John Dryden

  • Competition

    A little bit of friendly competition never hurt anyone. Unfortunately for Thomas Shadwell, this was not a friendly competition. John Dryden tears into Shadwell with a vengeance in "Mac Flecknoe," and by the end of the poem, the winner is obvious. Though Dryden makes a few jokes here and there at his own expense, it is clear that he has no need to actually proclaim himself the superior writer; the legacy of his work speaks for itself.

    Questions About Competition

    1. Why is it that Dryden got the last laugh? Why has "Mac Flecknoe" survived, when Shadwell's own poetic critiques of Dryden have been largely forgotten?
    2. How serious was Dryden here? Was he really out to get Shadwell, or was he just having a little fun?
    3. Can you tell which writers referenced in "Mac Flecknoe" Dryden actually admires?

    Chew on This

    Dryden had no need to say flat out that he was a better writer; the wit and humor of "Mac Flecknoe" makes that point perfectly clear.

    Winner, winner, chicken dinner—Dryden takes this war of wits. His work has stood the test of time, while Shadwell has been more or less lost in literary history.

  • Respect and Reputation

    Shadwell thought himself to be following in the footsteps of great playwright Ben Jonson. He even copied Jonson's style in many of his plays. Dryden wants to make it abundantly clear that the words "Shadwell" and "Jonson" should never be uttered in the same sentence. From a historical perspective, it seems like Shadwell's biggest break came with "Mac Flecknoe"—but unfortunately for him, for the wrong reasons.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. Why do you think Shadwell was the more famous writer at the time, eventually even replacing Dryden as Poet Laureate of England?
    2. How seriously do you think Dryden takes himself in this poem? Can goofy writing still be great?
    3. Why did Dryden single out Richard Flecknoe, a relatively obscure writer at the time?

    Chew on This

    It isn't Shadwell who is truly following in the footsteps of Ben Jonson, but rather Dryden himself, as he finds new and creative ways to write humorously—just as the earlier playwright once did.

    Dryden actually was jealous of Shadwell's growing fame, and sought with "Mac Flecknoe" to knock him down a peg.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    Cunning and cleverness are Dryden's bread and butter. "Mac Flecknoe" would fall flat as merely an unconvincing critique without Dryden's wry wit and tremendous sense of comedic irony. He uses a satirical lens to completely eviscerate Shadwell, but in a way that elicits humor rather than pity. Satires depend on cunning and cleverness to succeed, and "Mac Flecknoe" is certainly a success.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. Dryden accuses Shadwell of writing bad, lame comedies; but why is "Mac Flecknoe," conversely, a good, not lame, piece of comedic writing?
    2. What makes for a great satire?
    3. What are a few of the ways Dryden utilizes irony in the poem? What's the effect of its use?

    Chew on This

    Dryden was an extremely gifted and well-read writer with a superb command of the literary conventions of the day; that's why he was able to subvert them so successfully.

    Dryden developed an entirely new style of comedy with "Mac Flecknoe," cleverly and creatively subverting the genre of the epic poem through irony and hyperbole.

  • Literature and Writing

    In many ways, "Mac Flecknoe" is not merely a critique of a single bad writer, but a commentary on bad literature in general. Dryden, through his impeccable use of satire and irony, points out the mistakes that bad writers make. Then, through his own terrific writing, he shows them to do it right. Much of the poem's strength comes from Dryden's appreciation and knowledge of the classics, especially the heroic epic style. Dryden still draws upon these past influences to create "Mac Flecknoe," but instead of falling into trite, hackneyed patterns (Shadwell, cough), he invents something ingenious and wholly new.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. In what ways do the many literary references strengthen the poem?
    2. In what ways do the many literary references detract from the poem?
    3. What factors make for a bad piece of writing? What factors lead to successful writing? Would Dryden agree with you? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    "Mac Flecknoe" is a goofy, but still extremely clever and effective, critique of the literature of the day.

    With this new style of satire, Dryden was pretty much singlehandedly responsible for setting the stage for a whole new generation of legendary English satirists, including Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift.