Absalom and Achitophel

by John Dryden

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Absalom and Achitophel

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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 government, Dryden identifies the norm with the status quo, but the poem is faithful to history in leaving the conflict unresolved at the end. Basically but not entirely a satire, it praises the king and his supporters and provides a defense of the English monarchy as it then existed.


Griffin, Dustin. “Dryden’s Charles: The Ending of Absalom and Achitophel.” Philological Quarterly 57 (Summer, 1978) 359-382. Argues that the end of the poem can be connected to the way Charles II himself behaved during the Exclusion crisis of 1678-1681—he waited for a right moment to act.

Lewalski, Barbara K. “The Scope and Function of Biblical Allusion in Absalom and Achitophel.” English Language Notes 3 (1965): 29-35. Concerned with the range and importance of biblical allusion in Absalom and Achitophel and with its use in structuring the poem. Suggests the poem’s epic dimension.

McKeon, Michael. “Historicizing Absalom and Architophel.” In The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature, edited by Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown. New York: Methuen, 1987. Argues that, “In Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden proposes a model for a new sort of poetry, which draws power and value from the realms of religious faith, political allegiance, and historic factuality while evading subservience to them all.”

Schilling, Bernard. Dryden and the Conservative Myth. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1961. Discusses Dryden’s role as spokesman for royalism and as creator of myths that justify and defend kingship. Shows how the myth appears in the structure, style, and content of Absalom and Achitophel.

Thomas, Walter K. The Crafting of “Absalom and Achitophel”: Dryden’s “Pen for a Party.” Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1978. Investigates political conditions in England from 1678 to 1681. Discusses Dryden’s responses to them in Absalom and Achitophel.

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Critical Evaluation