Poor Thomas Shadwell.
I get the impression (though I have zero factual evidence for this) that Shadwell was a man who took everything way too seriously: politics, literature, himself. Shadwell would become, or make himself, the butt of jokes by wits far superior to himself, especially John Dryden
Shadwell saw himself as the successor to playwright Ben Jonson
and wrote his 18 plays in the manner of Jonson. Like most people alive, I’ve never read one of them, but they’ve been described as having merit, though nowhere close to the level of Jonson’s work, of course.
It was Shadwell’s love of Jonson that contributed to his feud with Dryden, possibly more than politics did. Dryden and Shadwell were actually friends once, but Dryden was dismissive of Jonson’s work, and they conducted a public argument on the subject, which eventually became quite tedious.
To be sure, the politics were important. Dryden was a Tory Catholic
and a supporter of James II
, so he was ousted from the post of poet laureate
by William and Mary
and replaced with Shadwell, a rabid Protestant Whig
who was unable to get his plays performed during much of the reigns of the Catholic kings Charles II
and James II. Shadwell penned political attacks on Dryden and his satires Absalom and Achitophel
(where Shadwell is lampooned as "Og") and The Medal
In Dryden’s mock epic Mac Flecknoe
, Dryden depicts Shadwell not as the heir of Ben Jonson, but Richard Flecknoe
, a recently deceased prolific writer widely seen as a hack
in many literary circles. Typically, a writer writing about a person whom he didn’t want to name directly (even if most people knew who he was writing about) would refer to him solely by the first letter of his last name (e.g. S-----). But Dryden called him Sh----- throughout the poem, with obvious scatological
implications. Shadwell never had a chance.
When he died of an overdose of opium
, another satirist
, Thomas Brown
, penned a vicious "eulogy
" of Shadwell. (Brown, an equal opportunity offender
, had also attacked Dryden.)
Tom writ, his readers still slept o’er his book;
For Tom took opium, and they opiates took.
Oh, well. Shadwell happens.