To the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever attempted to assign an author to the initials appended to The Perplex’d Prince – “T.S.” – but I do rather wonder…
I pointed out the reference to Absalom And Achitopel in the preface to The Perplex’d Prince. I didn’t realise it at the time, but there’s a second Dryden poem mentioned there: The Medal. This was a reaction to the reaction to the dismissal of the charges against the Earl of Shaftesbury (if you follow me), after he was accused of high treason in the wake of the Exclusion Crisis. His supporters marked the occasion by pressing a medal that showed a symbolic Shaftesbury, in the form of a sun, emerging from behind black clouds.
Dryden’s response was The Medal, or A Satyr Against Sedition, a poem it is said was [*cough, cough*] suggested by Charles himself. This bitter attack upon Shaftesbury and his followers brought Dryden still more into the public eye, and not everyone was happy about it.
One of those who responded in print was Thomas Shadwell, a poet and playwright – and fervent Protestant. Shadwell and Dryden had once been friends and collaborators, but Dryden’s acceptance of a position at Charles’s court put an end to that. After the publication of The Medal, Shadwell retaliated with The Medal Of John Bayes: A Satyr Against Folly And Knavery, a brutal attack on Dryden himself. Nothing loath, Dryden hit right back with Mac Flecknoe: A Satyr On The Trew-Blue-Protestant Poet, T.S., and then took another swing in the second part of Absalom And Achitopel, in which Shadwell appears – unflatteringly, I need hardly say – in the character of Og.
It was Dryden’s use of Shadwell’s initials in Mac Flecknoe, and his assumption that the reading public would know who “T.S.” was, that made me wonder whether Shadwell could possibly have been the author of The Perplex’d Prince – and whether Dryden even meant to imply that it was so. The pamphlet fits with Shadwell’s declared politics, certainly, but what interests me more is the dismissive way in which Dryden’s hugely successful poems are mentioned in the preface, being ranked alongside the mere disposable detritus of the literary world.
Then again, such a manoeuvre may have been too subtle for Shadwell, who apparently preferred the fist to the sword. Perhaps a third party, the true author, made use of Shadwell’s initials, either to hide behind them or just as a joke. Or perhaps it was another T.S. altogether: there was a Thomas Sprat writing at the time, but he seems to have been a straightforward royalist, so that makes it improbable. Anyway, I like to think it was Shadwell.
John Dryden remained Poet Laureate through the reigns of Charles and James, but when James went, so did he – to be succeeded by his arch-rival. Thomas Shadwell may have lost the literary war against John Dryden, but with his own appointment to the position of Poet Laureate under William, he certainly had the last laugh.