Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Dryden’s political satire Absalom and Achitophel reflects upon politics in England during the era of the Popish Plot (1679-1681), when the Whig Party, under the leadership of the earl of Shaftesbury, sought to prevent the legitimate succession of James, duke of York, because of his Catholicism. The Whigs supported a parliamentary bill that would have placed the illegitimate son of Charles II, James, duke of Monmouth, on the throne. Alarmed by efforts to tamper with established monarchical power, Dryden employs the biblical revolt against David by his son Absalom as a parallel narrative to discredit the Whig cause.
The poem represents a mixed, or Varronian, kind of satire, for satiric passages exist alongside straightforward normative portions. The plot is both loose and inconclusive, the satiric elements being confined to the poem’s first major section. Dryden narrates the origin and development of the supposed plot, which the Whigs had concocted to discredit the king’s position. Each prominent Whig leader is the subject of an extended poetic character, ridiculing him as extremist and undermining his reputation. Though biblical names are used, readers of the time clearly recognized each object of Dryden’s satiric thrusts. The efforts of Achitophel to tempt Absalom are partially successful. In the second section, Dryden outlines his theory of government, advocating established rights and powers and rejecting innovation. A second series of characters praises the king’s supporters in Parliament, and the poem concludes with a speech by King David (Charles II) upholding his traditional rights, offering conciliation, but also indicating firmness.
In the poetic characters, Dryden’s artistic skill is at its best. Using witty aphorisms and the stylistic conventions of the couplet—such as balance, antithesis, and chiasmus—Dryden succeeds in discrediting Whig leaders.