Analysis of Absalom and Achitophel by John Dryden

Absalom and Achitophel
Analysis of Absalom and Achitophel by John Dryden 2

Absalom and Achitophel

John Dryden‘s Absalom and Achitophel, published in 1681, was driven by a specific political agenda. It was written during a period of potential revolution in England, which was linked to the Popish plot and the movement to exclude King Charles II’s Catholic brother, James, from succeeding him. The faction supporting Charles’s illegitimate son, James, Duke of Monmouth, as the heir to the throne, opposed this. Dryden drew parallels between the political situation in England and the story of King David in ancient Israel, as depicted in the biblical book of 2 Samuel.

In Dryden’s allegory, the characters in Absalom and Achitophel represented real-life individuals of the time. Absalom symbolized Monmouth, while Achitophel represented Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, who introduced the Exclusion Bill in Parliament to prevent James, Duke of York, from ascending the throne. Other characters in the poem, such as Zimri (George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham), Amiel (Edward Seymour, Speaker of the House of Commons), Cora (Titus Oates, who fabricated the rumors of the Popish Plot), and Shimei (Bethel, Sheriff of London), also had contemporary references. The Pharaoh mentioned in the poem represented King Louis XIV of France, an enemy of England.

Dryden’s purpose in using biblical characters was to comment on the political conflict between the Protestant Whigs and Catholic Tories and highlight the folly of their clash. Although Dryden aimed to treat both factions fairly, he ultimately supported the Royalist cause. By 1681, the Royalists gained the upper hand when Charles II relocated Parliament to Oxford, isolating it from London’s rebellious forces. Charles remained an absolute ruler until his death in 1685, when his Catholic brother James II became the king.

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While the poem’s readers recognized the parallels with England’s political situation, they may not have been certain about the precise contemporary individuals represented in the poem. Dryden remained devoted to the biblical allegory, but close reading revealed some differences between the reigns of Charles and King David. Dryden may have used the highly regarded biblical figure of David to mitigate public disapproval of Charles’s numerous extramarital affairs. However, the poem’s speaker acknowledges that David had his affairs before polygamy was considered a sin, implying that Charles’s actions were not as justifiable.

Dryden’s preface to the poem, titled “To the Reader,” indicates his awareness of potential controversy and opposition. He acknowledges that taking a stance for one party would make enemies of the other, but he expects the opposition’s prejudice to diminish their authority. Dryden suggests that if a poem possesses genius, it will find its own reception in the world because good verse has a sweetness that pleases even when it hurts. He expresses his intention to laugh at people’s follies rather than condemn their vices, treating virtues and crimes with equal freedom.

Dryden’s choice of the Bible as an allegorical framework was suitable for his time, as educated individuals recognized its potential for revealing civic and religious truths. However, Dryden explored artistic possibilities in the biblical parallel that others had not seen. He focused on three key incidents from the story of David’s rule, using rhyming couplets throughout the 1,031 lines of the poem. The story involved Achitophel tempting Absalom to overthrow his father, their joint attempt to incite a revolt among the Jews, and David’s powerful speech to his reunited subjects. Dryden expressed the belief that the Catholic Church’s tradition provided strength that his culture desperately needed.

In John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, there are several powerful passages that contribute to the lengthy narrative. The poem begins with a history of how David becomes infatuated with his illegitimate son. Dryden writes, “But life can never be sincerely blest; / Heaven punishes the bad and proves the best” (43–44), foreshadowing the impending downfall of the monarch. It becomes clear that the Jews are responsible for this turn of events, as Dryden describes them as a “headstrong, moody, murmuring race” (45). These Jews, who have indulged in various gods and rejected their king, become instrumental in conjuring a plot against David.

Dryden also addresses his own readers, many of whom would have recognized the reference to the historical context. During a period of peace in Israel, David’s leniency prevents rebellious factions from emerging. However, thanks to the influence of “the careful Devil,” these “bad” factions devise a plot. Dryden comments that “Plots, true or false, are necessary things / To raise up commonwealths and ruin kings” (83–84). To be fair to the English subjects and draw a parallel to the 17th-century anti-Catholic forces, Dryden defends the rebellious Jews by highlighting their mistreatment under David’s rule. They suffer impoverishment, loss of land, and the disgrace and burning of their gods (93–97).

Dryden suggests that the people are easily swayed by those who plot against the king. He describes the plot as a “curse” concocted by members of the aristocracy and “not weigh’d or winnow’d by the multitude” (112). The truth is mixed with lies to please the fools and confuse the wise. Dryden emphasizes the word “lies” by giving it its own line, interrupting the anticipated rhyme scheme. This technique grabs the reader’s attention and awakens them to the deceitfulness of the situation.

The poem continues to criticize the leaders of the rebellion, particularly focusing on Achitophel, whom Dryden describes as the worst among them. He is characterized as cunning, restless, unprincipled, and discontented with power (150–155). Dryden further condemns Absalom, David’s son, as false in friendship and implacable in hate, resolved to either ruin or rule the state (170).

Another character, Zimri, represents the condemned Buckingham. Dryden depicts him as a man who embodies the various qualities and flaws of all mankind, constantly changing opinions and occupations (545–550).

Since David does not have a brother in the biblical story, Dryden invents one for his poem. Absalom contemplates his loyal brother’s secure position, yet he feels deserving of something more due to David’s mistreatment of his mother. Absalom rationalizes his ambition, acknowledging that the desire for greatness is a sinful trait (372). Dryden employs paradox by comparing sin to godliness.

Absalom deludes himself and captivates the public’s imagination, just as he allowed Achitophel to captivate him. Dryden beautifully depicts the effect of Absalom’s charisma, his ability to enter the hearts of the people unnoticed (686–693). This passage showcases Dryden’s familiarity with actors and their craft, as he draws on his experience writing for the stage.

Those loyal to David eventually confront the actions of his beloved son and the negative influences upon him. The poem reveals that Absalom becomes the lure to draw the people down, while Achitophel’s hatred leads to a plot that threatens the church and state (927–932).

Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel conveys the idea that kings have a crucial role in upholding the stability of the state. The line “Kings are the public pillars of the state, / Born to sustain and prop the nation’s weight” emphasizes the weighty responsibilities that come with monarchy (953–954). The biblical story of Absalom’s death, in which he becomes entangled in branches and strangles to death, serves as a parallel to the fate of Monmouth, who would later attempt to overthrow his uncle and be executed. It is said that after Monmouth’s execution, no official portrait of him existed, and his head was reattached to his body for a posthumous painting that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

According to Samuel Johnson, Absalom and Achitophel is a poem that combines personal satire with the support of public principles. Johnson suggests that this blending of satire and principles made the poem appealing to a wide audience. He shares an anecdote from his father, who was a bookseller, about the poem’s immense popularity. His father compared its success only to the trial of Henry Sacheverell, a clergyman who had written arguments against the Whig ministry and was later tried for sedition in 1710. The burning of Sacheverell’s sermons and his subsequent martyrdom became a significant event that bolstered the Tories and challenged the failing Whig ministry. The time in which Dryden wrote and the following decades were marked by the power of written words in shaping political sentiments and driving change.

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