Thomas Shadwell was born in 1640, one of eleven children, to royalists John and Sarah Shadwell of Norfolk and had the breeding, if not the fortune as he would later say, of a gentleman. He was educated at home until 1655 when he began attending a grammar school in Bury St. Edmunds, a town that would appear as the setting of his later play Bury Fair. In 1656, he was admitted to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge where he studied for two years before following in his father’s footsteps and entering the Middle Temple. After leaving Middle Temple, Shadwell travelled for a few years and had an extended stay in Ireland, where his father held various government positions.
In 1663 or 1664, Shadwell married Anne Gibbs who would later act in many of his plays. One of the first actresses of the Restoration stage, Anne was performing leading roles as early as 1661 and became an actress for the Duke’s Company, which would stage nearly all of Shadwell’s plays. With the help of his patron the Duke of Newcastle, Shadwell’s first play, The Sullen Lovers, premiered on May 2, 1668, and Anne Shadwell played in the leading role. The preface to the comedy ridiculed the heroic drama of Dryden, and the play itself, which was based on work by Moliere and highly imitative of Jonson, was a popular success. Shadwell was soon moving among the London circles of wits and writers, socializing with dramatists like Sir Charles Sedley, Sir George Etherege, and William Wycherley, authors who all shared his Whig views and literary tastes, and engaging in lively, often vicious, debates with Dryden through a series of attacks published by both authors as prologues and epilogues to their plays.
For more than a decade after his first triumph, Shadwell produced one play a year for the Duke’s Company, many of which were not as successful as The Sullen Lovers, and composed songs for the theatre. His next great play Epsom-Wells was produced in 1672. The Libertine followed in 1675 and in 1676 the Duke’s Company staged The Virtuoso, a satire on the Royal Society that would remain popular almost thirty years after its premiere. In the preface to The Virtuoso, Shadwell attacks Dryden over his differing views of comedy and his general dislike of Jonson, whom Shadwell idolized. It was this attack that ultimately produced Dryden’s famous satire Mac Flecknoe, written and widely circulated in the late 1670s, a work that would ultimately threaten Shadwell’s career and irreparably damage his reputation.
In 1681, Shadwell’s Whig polemic The Lancashire Witches, with its anti-Catholic satire, caused a clash with the Master of Revels and proved a little too controversial to be popular. Shadwell’s status as a playwright was further damaged by the publication of Mac Flecknoe in 1682. As a result, Shadwell was effectively exiled from the theatre for the next several years. Soon, he turned to poetry. It is almost certain that Shadwell wrote The Medal of John Bayes, in response to Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel and The Medall, criticizing Dryden and the Tories and lauding Shaftesbury and Monmouth. This occasioned only further ridicule of Shadwell in Dryden’s second part of Absalom and Achitophel.
Shadwell returned triumphantly to the stage in 1688 with The Squire of Alsatia, a play that had a run of thirteen days and was an enormous financial success for Shadwell. His good fortune continued when Dryden was ousted from his position as Poet Laureate in the Glorious Revolution and Shadwell was asked to take his place as Laureate and Historiographer Royal. Before his death in 1692 he produced three more plays, the most successful of which was Bury Fair, and a fourth, The Volunteers, was published posthumously. In November of 1692, Shadwell died of an overdose of opium, taken to relieve the pain of gout he had battled for at least four years.
In 1720, Sir John Shadwell, the royal physician and Shadwell’s son, published an edition of his plays, and his other son Charles carried on his legacy as a playwright. Though for years Thomas Shadwell was regarded only as the poor playwright and Mac Flecknoe of Dryden’s satire, his works began to receive more attention in the latter half of the twentieth century. Though his plays have not entered the canon of English literature, he was highly regarded in his own time and remains an important figure in the history of restoration drama and a significant dramatist in his own right.
Bennett, Kate. “Shadwell, Thomas (c.1640–1692).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford UP, 2004. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.
Rothstein, Eric. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 80: Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Dramatists, First Series. Ed. by Paula R. Backscheider. The Gale Group, 1989. 181-195. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.