Absalom and Achitophel

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The poem opens with a depiction of the Jews beset by fears and rumors of plots against King David by a discredited sect. Achitophel, leader of the king’s opponents, inflames the crowd against their monarch with a view toward replacing the rightful heir with Absalom, the king’s illegitimate son. Though reluctant to challenge David, who insists on the succession by established tradition, Absalom finds the attention and the prospect of power appealing and leaves the capital to gather support among the people.

After a lengthy discussion urging avoidance of extremes in government, the poem praises the king’s allies. David himself brings the poem to a close with an oration strongly condemning factionalism and warning of punishment for those guilty.

The poem presents memorable satiric caricatures in heroic couplets, discrediting opponents of King David (Charles II): Achitophel (the Earl of Shaftesbury), Corah (Titus Oates), Zimri (the Duke of Buckingham), and others. Despite the biblical names, readers of the time easily recognized the objects of the satire, who are ridiculed by being portrayed as reckless, extravagant, and extreme. The heroic couplet, permitting easy antithesis, represents an effective metrical form for calling attention to contradictions inherent in human beings. Caricature and an analogy or parallel to biblical history represent two of Dryden’s most effective satiric techniques.

In his memorable essay on...

(The entire section is 511 words.)