Absalom and Achitophel "Beware The Fury Of A Patient Man"

John Dryden

"Beware The Fury Of A Patient Man"

Context: According to warnings supplied to the British government by Titus Oates in August, 1678, conspirators were plotting the murder of King Charles, who would be replaced by James Duke of York, acting as an agent of the Jesuits. The French would then play a role to suppress the Protestants. Dryden satirized what was called "The Popish Plot," in the guise of retelling the Biblical story of Absalom's plot against his father, King David. Anthony Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, who at first sided with the king, later changed sides and became a strong supporter of the Exclusion Bill, whose purpose was to deprive the Duke of York of right of succession. He is cast in the poem as Achitophel. Absalom represents Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II. David is Charles II. Though the details of the plot reported by Oates were largely false, there was enough truth in them so that an investigation did reveal an actual conspiracy. King Charles II was forced to take action against Parliament (called "The Sanhedrin" in Dryden's allegory). James went into temporary exile; and in 1681, the year of the appearance of Dryden's poem, Shaftesbury was arrested for treason. In the lament of King David, close to the conclusion of the poem, one is reminded of Maxim Number 289 by Publilius Syrus of the first century, B.C.: "An overtaxed patience gives way to fury," as well as of the colloquial: "Even a worm will turn." Here David (Charles II) is sorry that the conspirators had mistaken his merciful treatment of them for fear. Now that his patience has been overtaxed, he will be forced to act cruelly and decisively.

. . .
Must I at length the sword of justice draw?
O curst effect of necessary law!
How ill my fear they by my mercy scan,
Beware the fury of a patient man.
Law they require, let Law then show her face;
They could not be content to look on Grace,
Her hinder parts, but with a daring eye
To tempt the terror of her front and die.
. . .