Manner of Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1646 -1723
Portrait of Thomas Shadwell 1642-1692
Portrait of Thomas Shadwell
1st April 1670
watercolour on paper
5.08 x 5.08 cm. (2 x 2 in.)


Shadwell, Thomas (c.1640–1692), playwright and poet, was born in Norfolk, either at Santon Hall or Broomhill House, Weeting, the son of John (d. 1684) and Sarah Shadwell. His grandfather was George Shadwell, of Linedon (Lyndowne) in Enville, Staffordshire, and theirs was a minor but long-established gentry family from the county. John Shadwell, a lawyer, was of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and the Middle Temple. He inherited a good fortune and substantial property in Thetford, Norfolk, but following his support for the king in the civil war, he was forced to ‘sell and spend good part of his Estate’ (Works, 1.xvii). The family moved to Ireland shortly after the Restoration.

Early years and education

Thomas Shadwell had the ‘Birth and Education, without the Fortune of a Gentleman’ (Works, 3.20). He was one of eleven children, and was described as his father's heir apparent in 1658. He was educated at home where he learnt ‘all … gentleman-like exercises’ (ibid., 5.292). About 1655 Shadwell attended the grammar school in Bury St Edmunds, which was later the setting for one of his comedies, Bury Fair. On 17 December 1656 he matriculated from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. In 1687, attacked by Dryden as a weak classical scholar, he was ‘provoked’ to demonstrate his knowledge by translating the tenth satire of Juvenal, maintaining in the publication's preface that at school and Cambridge he had a reputation as a good Greek and Latin scholar (ibid., 5.292–3). In his will he left his son ‘latin and philosophical books’, including Hobbes's, but he was no match for Dryden's learning (ibid., 1.ccxxxv–ccxxxvi). He left Cambridge without taking a degree, and entered the Middle Temple on 7 July 1658. He studied there and then travelled, visiting Ireland for four months at the age of twenty-three, probably visiting his family. Some time between 1658 and 1668 he worked as a clerk to the auditor of the exchequer, Sir Robert Long.

Marriage and children

Some time between 23 February 1663 and 22 January 1664 Shadwell married Anne Gibbs [Anne Shadwell (fl. 1661–1705)], daughter of Thomas Gibbs, proctor and public notary at Norwich. She may have been the Anne Gibbs who, aged seventeen, married Thomas Gawdy of Norfolk in 1662. There was a rumour that Shadwell ‘hath owned himself … married by a Popish priest’ (Loyal Protestant, 9 Feb 1681), which he denied, saying only that he had had an active interest in Catholicism for about eight months in 1660–61. Anne acted in several of Shadwell's plays. She performed with the Red Bull Troupe in Oxford in July 1661, and that year was among the eight actresses in Sir William Davenant's Duke's Company in Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre. She had some musical skill, singing and playing the lute. She may have been still acting as a member of the United Company in 1686–7 and even in 1699, as a member of Christopher Rich's company at Drury Lane. In his will Shadwell called her a ‘diligent careful and provident woman and very indulgent to her children’ (Works, 1.ccxxxvi). She dedicated Shadwell's play The Volunteers to the queen in 1693 and was still alive in 1705.

Among the Shadwells' children were George, baptized on 20 January 1674 and buried on 20 February 1678; William, baptized on 21 September 1680 and buried on 27 October 1686; and Anne, who was baptized on the day of William's burial; Shadwell called her ‘the greatest comfort to me of all my children’ (Works, 1.ccxxxvi). Sir John Shadwell (1671–1747), who matriculated at University College, Oxford, in 1685, and became physician to Queen Anne and George I, was knighted on 12 June 1715, and died on 4 January 1747.

Dramatic work, patronage, and literary controversy, 1668–1680

Shadwell's first play, The Sullen Lovers, was premiered on 2 May 1668 by the Duke's Company, for whom Shadwell was to write most of his plays. Anne Shadwell played the ‘sullen lover’ Emilia. The play, the first of several which Shadwell based on Molière, was acted for twelve days. Its considerable success was due to its ‘little witty expressions’, royal support, and the fact that ‘all the Duke and everybody's talk’ was that the self-important know-all Sir Positive At-All was a satire on Dryden's brother-in-law the playwright Sir Robert Howard, whose brother, the playwright Edward Howard, was lampooned as the conceited ‘Poet Ninny’ (Pepys, 9.185–6, 190–91). Sir Positive represents an attack on the heroic drama of Sir Robert Howard and Dryden. In the preface Shadwell attacks authors who have ‘wild Romantick Tales, wherein they strain Love and Honour to that ridiculous Height, that it becomes Burlesque’ (Works, 1.11).

The following year Edward Howard published a poem, The British Prince, and Shadwell wrote one for a series of mock-commendatory poems ridiculing his style. This was the first work produced collaboratively by the circle of court wits led by George Villiers, second duke of Buckingham, in the 1670s. These included the earl of Rochester, Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst (later earl of Dorset), John, Lord Vaughan, Sir Charles Sedley, Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, George Savile, and Fleetwood Sheppard. The group, all whigs, shared Shadwell's literary tastes, and were an important source of patronage. Sedley corrected two of Shadwell's plays and gave him the profits of his own Bellamira in 1687, and Shadwell wrote a verse letter to Wycherley ‘Inspir'd with high and mighty Ale’ (Works, 5.227). In 1678 Nell Gwynn said that Dorset ‘drinks ale with Shadwell’ at the Duke's Theatre ‘all day long’ (ibid., 5.430). Shadwell's conversational skills and talent for repartee must have been of a high order to allow him intimacy with ‘the wittiest men of England’ (ibid., 5.291). This group valued impromptu wit in conversation over polished wit in writing. Shadwell behaved as a gentlemanly amateur rather than as the professional writer he really was, a fact ambivalently treated in ‘An Allusion to Horace’ (1675), where Rochester says ‘true Comedy’ is only achieved by two ‘Moderne Witts’, ‘hasty Shadwell, and slow Wicherly’, but that

Shadwells unfinisht works doe yet impart,
Great proofs of force of Nature, none of Art.

After Shadwell's death, Wycherley told Alexander Pope that Shadwell ‘knew how to start a fool very well, but that he was never able to run him down’: that is, he could not maintain characterization throughout his plays (Spence, 1.205–6).

Shadwell dedicated The Sullen Lovers to William Cavendish, duke of Newcastle, who had been Ben Jonson's patron. Shadwell says that Newcastle found him out in his ‘obscurity’, and helped him several years before he was invited to Welbeck and ‘daily admitted into’ the duke's ‘public and private conversation’ (Works, 1.19–20). Four more of Shadwell's plays were to have what Dryden called ‘northern dedications’. Newcastle employed Shadwell to finish and ‘theatricalise’ his play The Triumphant Widow (acted 1674). In it Shadwell, who wrote more than half of this play, may have satirized Dryden as the hapless, Jonson-hating poet Crambo. Later, Shadwell reused two parts in Bury Fair. Shadwell was paid £22 in 1677 for publishing Newcastle's The Humorous Lovers, and after the duke's death in 1676 his son Henry, duke of Newcastle, continued the patronage.

Shadwell's play The Royal Shepherdess was performed for six days by the Duke's Company in February 1669; Pepys said there was nothing to admire in it but a ‘good martial dance of pikemen’ (Pepys, 9.459). In 1670 Shadwell's The Humourists was severely censored before performance, and ‘a numerous party’ arrived to damn the play; the actors did not know their words properly and the play was only saved by the kind intervention of a dancer. About this time Shadwell wrote a play, The Hypocrite, which is now lost. His adaptation of Molière's L'AvareThe Miser, was performed in 1672. His next play, his own personal favourite among his works and admired by critics and royalty, was Epsom-Wells (1672). It was rumoured to have been written collaboratively with Sedley, who wrote the prologue.

As a child, Shadwell's music master was John Jenkins, musician-in-ordinary to Charles I and Charles II, and Shadwell came to play a significant part in musical culture, working with several professional musicians, including Henry Purcell, and composing the music to at least seven theatre songs. John Dryden refers to a performance Shadwell gave on the Thames to entertain the ‘royal barge’, by singing and playing on the lute. It was probably Shadwell who revised the adaptation of Shakespeare's Tempest by Dryden and William Davenant into a semi-opera, performed in 1674. With spectacular stage machinery, singing, and splendid dances, The Tempest, or, The Enchanted Island was exceptionally popular and profitable. It set a fashion for operatic entertainments, such as Shadwell's own Psyche (1675), which had music by Draghi and Matthew Locke. Psyche integrated music and dancing into the drama in a way which proved formative for English opera. Shadwell produced for it the first dramatic musical score published in England, its preface proudly claiming he had ‘some knowledge’ of music, ‘having been bred for many Years of [his] Youth to some Performance in it’ (Works, 2.280).

In 1674 Shadwell joined Dryden and John Crowne in their Notes and Observations on ‘The Empress of Morocco’, an attack on Elkanah Settle, who had insulted Dryden in the preface to his Empress of Morocco. Written in three weeks, Shadwell's Don John play, The Libertine, was acted in June 1675. His excellent satire on the Royal Society, The Virtuoso, was first performed in May 1676 and remained popular for nearly thirty years. It represented Robert Hooke as Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, who demonstrates phosphorescence by reading aGeneva Bible by the light of a leg of pork, and practises swimming without water, from a book on the subject. In the dedication Dryden is now attacked for ‘feminine understanding’ displayed by his fondness for repartee (‘tattle’) and dislike of Jonson. This was the immediate stimulus for Dryden's brilliant satire on Shadwell, MacFlecknoe. It was the devastating culmination of a literary disagreement which had begun with Shadwell's 1668 preface to The Sullen Lovers and was pursued through the prefaces of Shadwell's plays and the prologues and epilogues of Dryden's, despite their united attack on Settle in 1674. Shadwell favoured the comedy of humours over Dryden's wit-comedies, and thought Dryden's heroic tragedy ridiculous. He considered Jonson faultless, whereas Dryden thought him ‘frugal’ of wit. Shadwell thought comedy should have an instructive moral purpose, and not show indulgence towards aristocratic vices, whereas Dryden thought it should primarily entertain. Finally, they disagreed over the right of an author to borrow from other authors or the classics: what was imitation to Dryden was plagiarism to Shadwell.

MacFlecknoe has been seen as ‘a gauntlet thrown down by the leading professional of one faction’, the tory poets led by Mulgrave, ‘to the leading professional of another’, the whig alliance (Love, Scribal Publication, 256). MacFlecknoe was written in July–August 1676, and circulated in manuscript (published 1682). It represents the writer Richard Flecknoe as the emperor of Dullness, nominating Shadwell as his successor to the ‘realms of nonsense’ and the fittest of his sons to wage ‘immortal war on wit’, thereby lampooning Shadwell's claim to succession to the classical literary heritage and to be the true literary son of Ben Jonson. Shadwell's body—for he resembled Jonson in being enormously fat—‘fills the eye’, and his coronation rites involve the presentation of a ‘mighty mug of potent ale’ and a crown of poppies, referring to his heavy drinking and opium addiction. In this mock-laureate, mock-occasional poem, Dryden makes brilliant play with images of laureate activity, attacking Shadwell as a possible rival. His clumsy dunce has come to define Shadwell to posterity.

Shadwell revised Shakespeare's Timon of Athens into The History of Timon of Athens the Man-hater, adding a love-interest, singing, and a masque of Cupid and Bacchus. First performed in early 1678, it set a fashion for adaptations of Shakespeare's tragedies. Shadwell's A True Widow, corrected by Sedley, was performed late in 1678, but was not successful, and he followed it with The Woman-Captain in 1679. In September 1680 Shadwell helped John Aubrey to carry the coffin at Samuel Butler's quiet funeral. Butler had had some influence on The Virtuoso, and his jocular poem ‘To Thomas’ is probably addressed to Shadwell. It claims that while he used to be afflicted with ‘claps’, boozing has now made him so fat that sex is physically impossible.

Political controversies, 1680–1687

Shadwell was a member of the whig propaganda club the Green Ribbon Club, which he probably joined before November 1678. In 1681 Shadwell put on the whig polemic The Lancashire Witches whose crude anti-Catholic satire was cut by the censor, though Shadwell later printed the uncut text. It features flying witches and the bigoted, superstitious, and ignorant Irish priest Teague O'Devilly, who proves to be complicit in the Popish Plot. Its consequence was the silencing of Shadwell as a playwright until 1688. In 1682 Shadwell, leading writer of the whigs, and Dryden, leading poet of the tories, clashed yet again, this time over politics, after Dryden published two anti-Shaftesbury poems, Absalom and Achitophel (1681) and The Medal (1682). In The Medal of John Bayes (1682), almost certainly by Shadwell, the author lampoons Dryden as clumsy, ‘lumpish’, and a ‘Hackney-rayler’, and the tories as dangerous fools to deny the Popish Plot, while eulogizing Monmouth and Shaftesbury. Among the responses was the second part of Absalom and Achitophel, which contained lines by Dryden attacking Shadwell's poetry, his weight, and his habits. He was to be known by Dryden's nickname Og in satires thereafter.

Dramatic work and the laureateship, 1688–1692

In 1688 Shadwell wrote the enormously successful play The Squire of Alsatia, which had an unbroken run of thirteen days. Shadwell received the astonishing sum of £130 for the benefit night, from which many had to be turned away. After the revolution of 1688 Dryden was deposed as poet laureate, and Dorset, as lord chamberlain, awarded the post, with that of historiographer royal, to Shadwell, who embarked on a series of tedious laureate poems. His enjoyable comedy Bury Fair (1689) was followed by the less successful Amorous Bigotte (1690), and The Scowrers in late 1690 or early 1691.

For at least four years Shadwell had suffered from gout, the pain of which he relieved with opium; he died from an overdose on 19 or 20 November 1692. He was buried on 24 November at St Luke's Church, Chelsea, and the funeral sermon was preached by Nicholas Brady. In his will, witnessed in 1690 in his Chelsea house, he left mourning rings to his brother, Dorset, Sedley, Edmund Ashton, and William Jephson. His wife, the major beneficiary and executor, inherited leases of two properties in Salisbury Court by the Dorset Garden theatre, rights to the rent for the theatre, and money, some of which was invested in property. She also inherited plate, goods, and chattels. Shadwell's play The Volunteerswas performed posthumously, and he was succeeded as poet laureate and historiographer royal by Nahum Tate.

Sir John Shadwell published a collected edition of Shadwell's plays in 1720, prefaced with a biographical account of his father as a good patriot and subject, well educated, clever, and a wit. It concluded with Sir John's Latin memorial inscription. This was originally on Shadwell's monument in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, but had to be rewritten after complaints by certain clergymen that it included an ‘Encomium’ upon plays. Another son, Charles Shadwell (fl. 1692–1720), was a playwright; his patron was Lady Newtown. He served in the army in Portugal under Major-General Newton, governor of Londonderry, and in 1710 was supervisor of the excise in Kent. His play The Fair Quaker of Deal (1710) was successfully performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and followed by The Humours of the Army (1713). His other plays were acted at the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, and printed in 1720: Irish HospitalityThe Plotting LoversThe Hasty WeddingThe Sham Prince, and Rotherich O'Connor.

For three centuries Shadwell was seen only as the clumsy dunce hack of Dryden's MacFlecknoe, unacceptably ‘coarse’, and of use only in furnishing details of interest to social historians. From the last years of the twentieth century Shadwell has begun to receive significant attention. New editions have been prepared of his plays, and The Virtuoso was revived by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1991. Scholarship has revealed Shadwell to be a central figure in our understanding of late seventeenth-century theatre, culture, and politics, and he has come into his own as a major Restoration playwright. John Aubrey's comment in 1680 that Shadwell ‘is counted the best comedian we have now’ (Brief Lives, 2.226–7) deserves to be respected.

Kate Bennett  DNB