“Absalom and Achitophel”
Notes and reading questions
“Absalom and Achitophel” is one of Dryden’s great political satires. We’ll be talking about satire more in the lecture, but for now, try to think of other satires with which you are familiar.
Dryden’s satire is a poem written in heroic couplets (more about these in lecture, too). Heroic couplets signal to the reader that the poem deals with an epic theme. They also indicate the writer’s authority.
In “Absalom and Achitophel,” Dryden comments on the Popish Plot (1678: an alleged plot by Catholics to kill the king and make England Catholic again), the Exclusion Crisis (to keep Charles’ Catholic brother, James, from inheriting the throne after Charles’ death), and the Monmouth Rebellion (1685: an attempt to put the king’s illegitimate son James, Duke of Monmouth on the throne). He frames these contemporary events in terms of the biblical story of King David and his rebellious son Absalom. Biblical narratives would have been very familiar to contemporary audiences.
Read the information on pp. 71-72 to learn more about the historical background. Here is a “table of equivalents” of the main characters:
David = King Charles II
Achitophel = Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, who encouraged
Monmouth to rebel
Absalom = James, Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s illegitimate
Israel, Jews = England
Jebusites = Roman Catholics
Jerusalem = London
Dryden supported the monarchy, but he was also critical of Charles II. Note how the poem manages to negotiate between support and criticism.
You’re required to read only the sections of the poem indicated on the syllabus (although you are, of course, encouraged to read the whole thing). The notes below provide questions to help you think about what is going on in those sections. I have also filled in the blanks of the story for you so you know what happens in the complete poem.
1-18: The beginning of the poem introduces King David. It suggests that in his day polygamy was perfectly acceptable, even sanctioned by God. David has many “wives and slaves” and as a result, many children. But he has no children with his queen, Michal, therefore he has no legitimate heir. Of all his children, there is none so beautiful and brave as his son Absalom. Absalom is a great warrior, but he is also a courtier, very charming. He is naturally pleasing to all. David sees in him an image of himself in former days, and indulges him in everything he desires. He “could not” or “would not” see his faults. Instead, Absalom’s faults are put down to “warm excesses.”
Think about the tone of the opening of the poem. Is it stately? Funny? Biting? Mocking? Serious? What kind of clues begin to show us that the poem is satirical?
What does Dryden imply by telling us that the times were “pious” before “priestcraft” began?
How does Dryden represent David’s polygamy? In a positive or a negative light? How does the reference to David’s polygamy make the reader see Charles II’s womanizing?
How does Dryden manage to be both mocking and serious at the same time?
18-29: How is Absalom portrayed here? Is there a negative side to all these wonderful qualities?
30-42: How does Dryden describe the relationship between Absalom and David? How do we begin to see Absalom’s faults?
Do you notice Dryden’s narrator beginning to assert his own perspective here?
33-52: Dryden supplies an axiom here: there is always going to be something wrong – but this is in order for the good to triumph: “God punishes the bad, and proves the best.” Is Dryden at all ambiguous about this statement?
Filling in the story here . . .
53-84: The Jews have shown themselves to be very wayward and disloyal, as they have created and destroyed rulers (a reference to the recent turbulence in England). In fact, they had asked David to come back to rule them after they had banished him. Dryden notes, however, that the Jews are unorganized and he also suggests that not ALL Jews are intent on changing the regime easily. These latter ones “know the value of a peaceful reign” (70) and they “curse the memory of civil wars” (73). The existence of these more moderate people and “David’s mildness” have meant that rebellion has been avoided so far, but trouble is looming . . . : “Plots, true or false, are necessary things,/To raise up commonwealths and ruin kings” (83-84).
85-149: Dryden next introduces the Jebusites, who represent the Roman Catholic population. They had been the “chosen people” once, but now they are “worn and weakened” and have submitted to David’s government. Dryden is ambiguous in his attitude to “that Plot, the nation’s curse” (108) (the Popish plot): he suggests that it was “bad in itself, though represented worse” (109). He doesn’t deny its existence, but suggests that it was exaggerated. The plot failed to put a Roman Catholic on the throne, but it succeeded in encouraging other factions to “bubble o’er” (139) to “threat the [present] government” (141). Dryden lists the history of people in various factions, using a repetition of “some”: some of them have never been powerful; some of them have been powerful and have been “thrown” down; the worst, suggests Dryden, are those who have been rebellious once but have been pardoned by “their monarch’s fatal mercy” and have been given honours. Achitophel is one of these latter.
Your part to read:
150-58: How does the description of Achitophel compare with that of David? Of Absalom? Does Achitophel have any positive characteristics? Why does Dryden dwell so much on his physical repulsiveness?
Filling in the blanks again:
158-229: Dryden suggests that Achitophel walks the line between greatness and madness (and has tipped over toward the latter). He should be enjoying his “wealth and honour,” but instead, he courts danger. Achitophel has a son who is also represented as deformed (compare with David’s son). Achitophel has been a poor advisor to Israel, but his crimes have been forgotten in the wake of the patriotism he has assumed. As Dryden suggests: “So easy still it proves in factious times,/With public zeal to cancel private crimes” (180-81) (something relevant to our current world of politics). Achitophel is very ambitious. He used the Popish plot to make the Jews scared, and he even accused the King himself of being a Jebusite (Catholic). But he needs a “chief” to do his bidding, and so he settles on Absalom. He thinks that because Absalom is illegitimate, he will depend more upon the will of the people, and Israel might be more “drawn to the dregs of a democracy” (227).
230-269: Achitophel’s is the first direct speech we hear in the poem. He flatters Absalom, telling him he is an “auspicious prince” and his country’s “second Moses” (234). Notice the parallel to Eve in the garden, with Achitophel playing the snake. Achitophel’s words suggest that Absalom is ordained by Heaven and by Fate to rise against David. He also tells him that David also faced such a decision when he was in exile. In other words, if Absalom l fails to rebel against his father, he will be defying Heaven and his ordained role as well as proving himself “unnatural” (eg. unlike his father). Notice that “human will” is a factor in one’s Fate, according to Achitophel. You have to read the signs correctly and act.
270-302: Achitophel also suggests that David’s moment of greatness has passed. He is now like Satan, a rebel angel. (This is of course a weird reversal, because it is really Absalom – pushed by Achitophel – who is the rebel.) Achitophel suggests that the Popish plot has been the undoing of David, because now, all sorts of people have changed their allegiances and “tis the general cry,/’Religion, commonwealth and liberty’” (291-92). Achitophel suggests that Absalom would do better to join sides with them. At least he would get a “limited command” that way, instead of being relegated to the sidelines as he is now.
303-314: Dryden comments on the effect of Achitophel’s words on Absalom: “What cannot praise effect in mighty minds,/When flattery sooths, and when ambition blinds!” (303-04). Although the desire for power is all right for the deity, on earth it is a “vicious weed” (305). Dryden thus still presents Absalom in a fairly positive light: his problem is that he has too much of that spark from heaven, desire for power. He is half convinced, and half not convinced to rebel.
315-372: Absalom counters Achitophel’s words by pointing out the positive things about David, not the least of which is the fact that he is ordained by Heaven to be king. Absalom notes that even if David were a tyrant (which he’s not), the people might rise against him, but Absalom could not justify doing that as David has been very kind to him. Absalom also justifies the royal succession, if not through David’s lawful children, then through his brother. As Absalom thinks about this, he asks himself what cause he has to “repine at heaven’s decree” (361). But this thought raises doubts, as in the next line (362) he wishes that either he had not been given a higher standing in life or less ambition. He is presented as split here into his “mother’s mold” and “David’s part.” He rages against this, suggesting that his “soul” was made for greatness and that “Desire for greatness is a godlike sin” (372). And thus his fate is sealed.
373-476: Achitophel is likened here to “hell’s dire agent” (no mincing words here!), pouring in fresh troops to assail “fainting Virtue” (note the suggestions here of rape). He suggests to Absalom that Heaven has given him his gifts for a reason. He also indicates that he thinks that David is too weak, giving into his people too much. Instead, the crown needs “manly force” (382). Achitophel’s arguments here slip and slide around, indicating that he is not committed to rebellion out of any higher purpose; rather, he wants power and will do anything to get it. He indicates that he has been successful in turning the people against David’s brother. He presents an argument for the will of the people to decide who shall be their king, then to overthrow that king if they like. Dryden rhetorically makes us sees this position as ludicrous. If this were the case, there would be chaos. Achitophel also suggests that Absalom should fear David’s brother: when he comes to the throne, he will have no love for Absalom. He notes that Absalom could fall back on the fact that he can be seen as rescuing David from the dangers around him.
477-681: Absalom is persuaded. Dryden represents Absalom again in a positive light: he is to be lamented instead of condemned. Achitophel manages to unite all the “malcontents” in the land: princes who think the monarchy has too much power, people who wish to profit by getting rid of the king, those who want to raise their own station, those who don’t want a monarchy, those who wish to restore their religion to power (Presbyterians and Puritans). And those who follow by “instinct,” not really thinking about it. Of these, there was one called Zimri (the Duke of Buckingham, with whom Dryden had been having a literary feud). He is satirized brutally here, as are a number of other particular people, including Corah (Titus Oates, famous “witness” against those involved in the Popish plot).
682-810: Absalom leaves the court, and spends his time telling people what they want to hear and pretending that he is on the side of the people. His next speech differs from his former in that it is contrived and insincere. He says his father is grown powerless and is giving away his power to friends and foreign nations. Absalom travels throughout the land, and Achitophel uses the opportunity to test those who have joined with them. Dryden presents a long section of the poem (753-810) defending the monarchy and condemning the idea that people should be able to change a king.
811-932: Here Dryden praises those individuals who support the king. They point out to David that certain events -- his brother has been banished from the court and the Plot thickened (so to speak) – are due to the machinations of Absalom, masterminded by Achitophel.
Here’s your part again:
933-end: This is David speaking (for the first time in the poem). He has the last word here, and he sets to right what has been happening. He is speaking as the word of God, as Dryden wants to emphasize the divine right of kings.
He says he has been very patient and merciful until now, not punishing those who have done wrong. But now the “offenders” even question his right to forgive. They suggest that “one was made for many” (in other words, that the king is made for the people), but David says he was made to rule them, as that is what kings do. He notes that his offenders think he has not punished anyone because he is weak, but in fact this mildness is a sign of his manliness. Although he is naturally forgiving, he suggests that he has been pushed from his natural course: “Tis time to show I am not good by force.” He suggests that if Absalom wants to shake things up, he must suffer the punishment. But then he wishes that he would “repent and live.” It is natural for parents to want to protect their children. Moreover, he suggests that Absalom was born into a situation that set him up to fail. David suggests that “patriotism” is a hollow word, usually disguising other motives. Absalom has been taken on as the “people’s saint.” But even though the people want him as their heir, it is not up to them to decide. If the people decide on the heir in the future, that means in effect they can depose their king. His subjects say they want to protect him, but in fact they are taking away his power. He falls back on the law and removes their power. He regrets the fact that he has to assert his power, but suggests that those who have plotted against him deserve their fate. He notes that he is going to let his foes fight each other, then “rise upon them with redoubled might.” The Almighty (God) gives his “consent” to these words, and “a series of new time began,” a new time in which nations are “willing” to acknowledge their “lawful lord.”
How does he both defend himself and avoid sounding defensive? How do his sentiments on 956 change? How does his impression of his son’s actions colour our sense of Absalom? What does David resolve to do? Does he seem all-powerful in his speech or vacillating? What is the effect of the last section bringing God into the picture?
1. What is Dryden satirizing here? How does satire help him get his point across?
2. Who is the audience for this poem?
3. How culpable is Absalom?
4. What makes Achitophel so repellant? Does he represent an allegorical kind of “badness” or is something else going on here?
5. How does David come across in the poem? Is he an effective king?
6. What relationship between the people and the king does Dryden favour?