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Tuesday, July 9, 2013



Literature is a formation within language, which is a primary instance of the cultural system. Authors and readers are placed and defined inside this system as well as systems of race, gender and class. Graduate students of English literature in India read and study Mac Flecknoe within the network of these systems. They operate inside specific institutions which shape their practice.

Each act of reading a text prepares us for reading the next. Literature as well as criticism are, in the words of Paul de Man (1979), " condemned (or privileged) to be forever the most rigorous and consequently, the most unreliable language in terms of which man names and transforms himself ''. Reading, according to him, is an argument, 'an epistemological event prior to being an ethical or aesthetic value'. .
The 'epistemological event' that our study of Mac Flecknoe is going to be has the following main aspects:
(1) The autobiographical, social, historical, literary and poetic elements of the experience of the poet which inspired the poem: its origin and genesis, in other words.
(2) The Poem as a communication from the poet to the reader. History and Form.
Satire and Poetry,
(3) The interpretation of the text : its mock-heroic form, the poetic technique - verse, diction, rhetoric, style.
(4) The evaluation of the value-system that the poem symbolises.

Mac Flecknoe was published anonymously in October, 1682. The date of its composition and its authorship remained uncertain for ten years after publication. The first edition was piratical and Dryden had denied authorship to Shadwell. But that ' was merely being 'polite', for Dryden claimed it after Shadwell's death in December, 1692.

Thomas Shadwell, the target of satire in Mac Flecknoe, was born in 1642, and thus younger by more than ten years to John Dryden. He was a dramatist and professed imitator of Ben Jonson. His witty talk and amusing writing made him popular. His plays abound concrete imagery, vigorous metaphor and picturesque phrases. They show, as Rochester put it, 'great mastery with little care'. A humorist and caricaturist, he was indebted to the French Moliere and the English Ben Jonson. He ranges from cheerful force to coarse verisimilitude. 'His prosaic but vigorous mind plants the reader in Restoration life more faithfully than does the wit-and-intrigue comedy of Dryden, Etherage and Congreve'. 

The Sullen Lovers (1 668) and The Miser (1 672) are comedies by him which have I their source in Moliere. His Jonsonian Comedy of Humours is exemplified, particularly by The Humorists (1670) and Epsoin Wells (1672). He was witty enough to make Don Juan the hero of The Libertine (1676). Other popular plays by him were The Squire of Alsatia (1688) and Bury Fair (1689). He gives a picture of his age "roughly rather than finely drawn, and, to that extent, more veracious". IIe loved the country no less than the town. Bellamy in his Buly Fair expresses his own attitude. 

As a drama-critic, he advocated a development of Comedy on the line of Ben Jonson. He said : "All dramatic poets ought to imitate him (Jonson)". He disapproved of the prevailing form of the Comedy of manners. He believed that the delineation of humours was more fmitful. Comedy as an instrument of social and moral refom could be created only by a satirical portraiture of real characters drawn from ordinaiy I life. The realistic representation of human characters with satirical intent was, according to him, the essence of comedy. Keen observation and judgement was to be shown in the selection of humours. 'Judgement does indeed comprehend wit; for fancy rough-draws, but judgement smooths and finishes', he explained. In the Epilogue to The Humorists, he gave the definition of humour: 

A humour is the bias of the mind
By which with violence 'tis inclined
It makes our actions lean on one side still
And in all changes that way bend the will.

And in the Dedication to The Virtuoso he asserted: 'Four of the humours are entirely new and (without variety) I may say I ne'er produced a comedy that had not some natural humour in it, not represented before and I hope, I never shall'. He was never tired of praising Ben Jonson. In the Epilogue to The  Humorists, he said:
But to out-go all other men would be
0 noble Ben, less than to follow thee

Sutherland (1958) allowed Shadwell "to creep in at the bottom" of a supposed list of twelve best English comic dramatists.

But the real or historical Shadwell is less important, at least in this context, than Dryden's Shadwell. It is, therefore, more relevant to know Dryden's relations with him. Dryden had been friendly to Shadwell during the first decade of their acquaintance as dramatists from 1668 to 1679. He had praised Shadwell's genius in an Epilogue to The Volunteers, a play by Shadwell, written a Prologue to another play by him, A True Widow. They had worked together in preparing the critical comments on Settle's Empress of Morocco. But, during this same period, Dryden had also been engaged in a literary dispute or debate with Shadwell on rhyme, wit, humour and other issues, In Dryden's view Shadwell had no understanding of true wit or the merit of Ben Jonson whom he professed to imitate. 'I Know', said Dryden, 'I honour Ben Jonson more than my little critiques, because without vanity I may own, I understand him better' (Dedication to the Assignation 1673). Secondly, professional rivalry between Dryden and the younger Shadwell is easy to imagine. Dryden's appointment as Poet Laureate in 1668 may have made Shadwell envious. Ironically, Shadwell succeeded Dryden as the Poet Laureate in 1685,

 But the Exclusion Bill of 1679 brought about a change in social life. The revelry and Poets entertainment of the Restoration court and society which had lasted for about two decades ceased. And, the political turmoil that ensued with the Bill divided society and separated friends and turned them into enemies as in the case of Dryden and Shadwell. Absalom and Achitophel(1681) was published a week before Shaftesbury (Achitophel) was released. The whigs felt triumphant, and struck a medal in his honour. Dryden made a second attack in The Medal which he subtitled 'A Satire against Sedition'. One of the immediate replies was The Medal of John Bayes. This was attributed to Shadwell. Mac Flecknoe, Dryden's reply, is for greater poetry. John Bayes, by the way, is the satirical name associated with Dryden's. It is the name of the satirical character in the Rehearsal (1671). Shadwell is believed to have contributed to this concoction as well. Moreover, he had criticised rhyme in Dryden's plays and the Tories including Dryden (their champion). Thus, literary and political provocations infuriated Dyden known for his calm reserve.

Shadwell had often sneered at Dryden, a senior and superior poet. But the Shadwell of Mac Fleclcnoe is fictional or mythical. Its derivation from real experience is only like all other derivations of fiction from fact.

No doubt Dryden's best poetry (which is mock-heroic satire) is essentially social in the positive sense. He valued the commendation of adversaries as 'the greatest triumph of a writer, because it never comes unless extorted'. The best judge of a poem, according to him, however, is the impartial reader. The transmutation of life into art succeeds in Mac Flechoe, because the mock-heroic ceremony (the coronation) is a comic drama, transforming pei-sonal experience into literary criticism. 'There is a sweetness in good verse' (said Dryden, in the Preface to Absalom and Achitophel) 'which tickles even while it hurts'. The rhetorical power of the poem lies as much in its verse as in its argument which simplifies, exaggerates
and distorts.