John Dryden claimed that Absalom and Achitophel was carefully planned to promote political reform. To gain this end, Dryden used satire, the true aim of which he defined as “the amendment of vices by correction.” The particular vices he wanted to correct were those of the Whigs of his day, who were seeking to secure the succession of the duke of Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II, to his father’s throne. Second, realizing that direct satire might defeat its purpose by incurring resentment, Dryden chose to attack the Whigs by casting them as characters in the biblical story of Absalom’s revolt against David. Third, to increase his satire’s effectiveness, he cast it in verse, “for there’s a sweetness in good verse, which tickles even while it hurts.”
Written in heroic couplets, Absalom and Achitophel is often called Dryden’s best poem, and it is one of the most famous political satires ever written. Its direct literary influence reaches from Dryden’s contemporaries to Alexander Pope and Charles Churchill in the eighteenth century and to Lord Byron in the nineteenth century. In the poem, Dryden indicates similarities between the biblical story, which tells how the wicked Achitophel urged King David’s illegitimate son Absalom to rise up against his father, and events in England between 1678 and 1681, when Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, a leader of the Whiggish opposition to the king, was accused of persuading James Scott, duke of Monmouth and illegitimate son of Charles II, to rebel against his father.
Perhaps Dryden intended his poem, published in November, 1681, to help in convicting Shaftesbury, on trial for treason for his part in the rebellion. If so, Dryden was not successful: The jury, friendly to Shaftesbury, declared it did not have sufficient evidence for a conviction and acquitted Shaftesbury. Dryden’s devastating satire probably helped to create an atmosphere so hostile to the earl that soon after the trial he fled to Holland, where he remained until his death several years later.
The poem is difficult reading for those unaccustomed to satire, unversed in the Bible, and unacquainted with late seventeenth century English history. It presented no problems to readers in Dryden’s day, who, vitally interested in contemporary politics and well read in the Bible, were able to correlate King David’s situation with that of Charles II. The Bible not only gave Dryden’s satire a ready-made, well-known reference; it also provided heavenly authority for condemning the actions of Shaftesbury, Monmouth, and their allies. It enabled Dryden to use the outcome of the biblical story of David to show that Monmouth’s rebellion would be useless and that the king’s divinely sanctioned victory would be inevitable.
In the poem, which is 1,031 lines long, the speaker suits the tone to the rhetorical purpose in telling the story of the rebellion. The first part (lines 1-227) begins with a good-humored account of the father-son relationship, in which Absalom (the duke of Monmouth), although illegitimate and therefore unable to succeed to the throne, is David’s (Charles II’s) beloved son, whose every fault is forgiven. The tone becomes condemnatory when the speaker accuses David of too much leniency. David is too lenient toward his grumbling subjects, the Jews (the English), whom “No king could govern, nor no God could please”; toward the inhabitants of his own city, the Jebusites (the Londoners); and particularly toward their depraved leader, the “false Achitophel” (Shaftesbury). Achitophel is a Satanic tempter who looks for and finds in Absalom a likely victim. Achitophel’s appeals to Absalom’s ambition (lines 229-302) soon prove convincing. Absalom, of course, fails to realize that “They who possess the...
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prince, possess the laws” applies not only to his mastery of his own father but also to Achitophel’s mastery over him. Next (lines 491-681), readers are told how Achitophel collects other malcontents, named in the poem after evil men of the Bible. They include several noblemen, the Lord Mayor of London, the Sheriff of London, members of Parliament, and others important in the opposition to Charles II. First is Zimri, the notoriously indecisive duke of Buckingham, who “in the curse of one revolving moon,/ Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon.” Dryden was so proud of that jab that he compared his own satiric skill with the artistry of the executioner Jack Ketch, whose deft ax strokes left his victims with their heads still sitting on their necks.
After Absalom is applauded for his hypocritical lament on the necessity of rebellion (lines 682-810), a few alarmed defenders of the king, bearing the names of virtuous men in the Bible, appear to warn the king that he must act to save his throne (lines 816-938). These include such members of the high nobility as the duke of Ormonde and the Marquis of Halifax and churchmen such as the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The climax of the narrative, when the king is about to invoke the law, is intended to evoke the situation in England in the autumn of 1681, when royalists hoped that Charles II would assert his rights (lines 939 and following). The king’s soliloquy shows that reluctantly he put aside geniality for sternness. In so doing, he becomes like Zeus the Thunderer and like Jehovah the Judge in condemning the rebels to the fate they themselves have chosen (lines 1005-1011). The poem ends with the speaker’s announcement of the simultaneous end of rebellion and disappearance of all discord—an abrupt but appropriate conclusion because it corresponds to the king’s decisive action. The ending, with its promise of “a series of new time,” is a prophecy that recalls both Greek myths of renewal and Hebrew accounts of how Jehovah made fresh starts possible.
Significant in the historical context is that the ending of the poem is a warning to rebels not to persist. If events in England are really parallel to biblical events, then, as Dryden strongly hints, Monmouth’s end will be like that of Absalom, who was killed despite David’s pleas that he be spared. Monmouth’s fate, it turned out, was like Absalom’s. In 1685, soon after the death of his father, Monmouth led an army rebellion against his uncle, James II, the new king. Monmouth was caught, tried, convicted, and executed.