Absalom and Achitophel

by John Dryden

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Absalom and Achitophel Summary

Absalom and Achitophel is a mock heroic epic by John Dryden that satirizes the British Whig Party, which sought to prevent the succession of James, Duke of York, to the English throne. 

  • The Whigs, a political party, tried to break the traditional line of succession and prevent James, Duke of York, from ascending to the throne.

  • Dryden devotes half of the poem to scathing portraits of Whig leaders, to whom he applied biblical pseudonyms, such as Absalom and Achitophel.

  • Dryden devotes the second section to favorable portraits of James' faithful supporters. However, the Whigs are successful, and Charles II ascends the throne.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Context

Absalom and Achitophel is a response to seventeenth-century English political turmoil. Charles I was beheaded in 1649, and the Puritan military leader Oliver Cromwell became head of state. After Cromwell’s death in 1658 and the brief rule of his son, the monarchy was restored in 1660 under Charles II.

Dryden supported Charles II. He became alarmed when, in the late 1670s, a movement arose among Whigs (the more liberal English political party) to try to pass a decree in parliament that would make the Earl of Monmouth, Charles II’s illegitimate son, heir to the throne. James, Duke of York, Charles’s brother, was the rightful heir, but he was openly Roman Catholic, a problem in a Protestant country.

Dryden supported James as Charles’s heir because he disapproved of changing the traditional order of succession. He wrote Absalom and Achitophel as a satire mocking the political maneuvers of the Whigs trying to displace James. He hoped the poem would help his opponents see the error of their ways.

In addition to being a satire, Absalom and Achitophel is an allegory: Dryden uses biblical characters to stand in for English political figures. King David is Charles II, while Absalom, David’s son, is the Earl Monmouth, Charles II’s illegitimate son. Achitophel, the evil advisor of Absalom, is the Earl of Shaftesbury, a Whig who introduced the bill to block James from ascending to the throne.

The Biblical story of Absalom would have been familiar to Dryden’s readers. In it, Absalom is encouraged by advisors like Achitophel to rebel against his father. Readers would be well aware from the start that Absalom was killed and his rebellion failed, just as any reader today would know that the South lost the American Civil War. By using Absalom as a stand-in for the Earl of Shaftesbury, Dryden communicates his belief that attempts to make Monmouth king are both foolish and doomed.

Within a frame provided by the narrator, the poem allows the reader to witness the evil Achitophel’s attempts to persuade Absalom to rebel, Absalom’s noble refusal, Achitophel’s continued arguments that rebellion is right, Absalom’s speech to the people after falling for Achitophel’s scheme, Absalom’s march to battle, King David’s speech opposing his son, and a final assurance that the king will prevail.

Summary

The first 229 lines of Absalom and Achitophel provide the background story of Absalom, emphasizing the love his father, David, has for his handsome and charismatic son. Absalom loves his father in return but is tempted by advisors such as Achitophel to rebel against him.

The next part of the poem (230–302) recounts Achitophel’s speech to Absalom. Using flattery and playing on the young man’s ambitions, Achitophel tries to lure him into rebellion. Achitophel acts as a crafty, satanic figure, skillfully using speech to tempt Absalom to evil.

A short interlude (303–314) from the narrator appears next, reaffirming that Achitophel is leading Absalom astray. Then Absalom, a figure of goodness, rejects Achitophel (315–372), supporting his father, King David, and revealing his own virtue. Absalom states that “Desire of greatness is a godlike sin.” Achitophel responds with more arguments (373–476), flattering Absalom further and even suggesting that he fight under the illusion of defending his father. 

Following Achitophel’s second speech, the narrator once again takes over (477–697), outlining the deluded aims of the many advisors pushing Absalom to rebel, including Zimri, meant to represent the Duke of Buckingham. These men are defying the will of God, using the “rabble” to selfishly overturn the divine order to increase their power and profit.

Having been persuaded by these wicked counselors to seize the throne, the...

(This entire section contains 751 words.)

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handsome and popular Absalom addresses the people (698–722). He simultaneously praises his father and blames him for this rebellion. Absalom also presents what he is doing as what is best for the people.

Absalom sets out gloriously with chariots, horses, and men to overthrow his father and is followed by a long trail of advisors. Youth, charm, and vigor are on his side (723–810). Good advisors, “a small but faithful band,” counsel King David to act (811–938).

Finally, the wise King David speaks (939–1025), saying he does not want to turn against his much-beloved son but has been forced to do so. He condemns the rebellion and those who mistake his mercy and kindness for frailty and weakness. At the poem’s end (1026–1031), the narrator assures the reader that with God’s backing, David’s power will be restored.

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