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“The haste of a fool is the slowest thing in the world”.

Thomas Shadwell was the Poet Laureate for England from 1688-1692. He was born circa 1642 and died in 1692. His plays were known for their candor, wit and their realistic portraits of life in London. He also wrote operas, adapting Shakespeare’s The Tempest in The Enchanted Island.

He engaged in a long running literary feud with John Dryden, the previous Poet Laureate. Each writer included the other in their works lampooning and lambasting each other during this feud. Shadwell was a Whig and Dryden a Tory. It appears that they had little respect for each other professionally, and the political differences seem to have fueled their animosity.

This debate probably began with Dryden’s poem MacFlecknoe, a poem about a really bad poet who is approaching his demise and seeking his successor to rule the land of nonsense writing. Of course the old poet chooses Shadwell who excels in boredom and is excruciatingly slow in composing poetry.

Shadwell let loose his anger on Dryden in The Medal of John Bayes . In the introductory epistle of this poem (“Epistle to the Tories”), Dryden, as the poet laureate is referred to as a “mere” poet and is attacked for sucking up to the King. Dryden is also accused of stupidity, of being cheated by a coffee house server for two years before realizing it. Dryden’s reputation rose above Shadwell’s in the end, perhaps unfairly; but Shadwell succeeded him as poet laureate for England.

Shadwell was well known for using opium on a regular basis and died suddenly, quite possibly due to an overdose. He had a son, Charles, a playwright, and a daughter, Anne Oldfield, an accomplished actress with his wife Ann Gibbs, an actress.

Some of his better known plays besides The Sullen Lovers are Epsom Wells
(1672), The Virtuoso
(1676), a satire of the Royal Society, and The Squire of Alsatia
(1688), situated in Whitefriars, a London area where thieves were known to hide out.

Most of this information comes from Albert Borgman’s Thomas Shadwell: His Life and Comedies published in 1969.

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.

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