Biography Thomas Shadwell

Thomas Shadwell

photo of Thomas Shadwell
  • Time Period1642 - 1692
  • Place
  • CountryEngland

Poet Biography

Thomas Shadwell was an English playwright and miscellaneous writer. He was born in 1642, at Santon Hall, Norfolk. He was educated at Bury St Edmund's School, and at Caius College, Cambridge. He left the university without a degree, and joined the Middle Temple. In 1668 he produced a prose comedy, The Sullen Lovers, or the Impertinents, based on a play of Moliere, and written in avowed imitation of Ben Jonson. His best plays are Epsom Wells (1672), for which Sir Charles Sedley wrote a prologue, and the Squire of Alsatia (1688). Alsatia was the cant name for Whitefriars, then a kind of sanctuary for persons liable to arrest, and the play represents, in dialogue full of the argot of the place, the adventures of a young heir who falls into the hand of the sharpers there. For fourteen years from the production of his first comedy to his memorable encounter with Dryden, Shadwell produced a play nearly every year. These productions display a genuine hatred of shams, and a rough but honest moral purpose. They are disfigured by indecencies, but present a vivid picture of contemporary manners. Shadwell is chiefly remembered as the unfortunate MacFlecknoe of Dryden's satire, the "last great prophet of tautology," and the literary son and heir of Richard Flecknoe: - "The rest to some faint meaning make pretence, But Shadwell never deviates into sense."

Dryden had furnished Shadwell with a prologue to his True Widow (1679), and in spite of momentary differences, the two had been apparently on friendly terms. But when Dryden joined the court party, and produced Absalom and Achitopizel and The Medal, Shadwell became the champion of the true-blue Protestants, and made a scurrilous attack on the poet in The Medal of John Bayes: a Satire against Folly and Knavery (1682). Dryden immediately retorted in MacFlecknoe, or a Satire on the True Blue Protestant Poet, T.S. (1682), in which Shadwell's personalities were returned with interest. A month later he contributed to Nahum Tate's continuation of Absalom and Achitopizel satirical portraits of Elkanah Settle as Doeg and of Shadwell as 0g. In 1687 Shadwell attempted to answer these attacks in a version of the tenth satire of Juvenal. At the Whig triumph in 1688 he superseded his enemy as poet laureate and historiographer royal. He died at Chelsea on the I9th of November 1692. A complete edition of Shadwell's works was published by his son Sir John Shadwell in 1720.