The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The political situation in Israel (England) had much to do with David’s (Charles II’s) virility, which, though wasted on a barren queen, produced a host of illegitimate progeny, of which by far the fairest and noblest is Absalom (duke of Monmouth). David’s kingly virtues are equally strong but unappreciated by a great number of Jews (Whigs), who, because of a perverse native temperament, want to rebel. Although David provides no cause for rebellion, as the wiser Jews (Tories) point out, a cause is found in the alleged Jebusite (Catholic) plot to convert the nation to the Egyptian (French) religion. The plot miscarries, but it does create factions whose leaders are jealous of David and oppose his reign.

Achitophel (the Earl of Shaftesbury, leader of the Whigs) is the chief of these leaders, and he makes efforts to persuade Absalom to seize the throne. Achitophel is a brilliant wit touched by the madness of ambition. Unwilling to be remembered only for his distinguished career as a judge, he resolves “to ruin or to rule the State,” using the king’s alleged sympathy for the Jebusites as an excuse for rebellion. Achitophel first uses flattery to win over Absalom, proclaiming that the nation is clamoring for him—a “second Moses.” At first Absalom resists, pointing out that David is a wise and just king, and that David’s brother (the duke of York) is the legal heir. These halfhearted objections Achitophel meets with sophistry. David’s mildness, he claims, deteriorated into weakness; the public good demands Absalom’s strength; the rightful heir is planning to murder Absalom; David secretly wants Absalom to be king and will support his claim as heir to the throne. To these specious arguments Absalom succumbs, whereupon Achitophel proceeds to organize all the Jewish malcontents into a single seditious party....

(The entire section is 751 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Jerusalem. Capital city of the ancient Israelites (also called Sion), beginning with King David’s reign. Within the poem itself, Jerusalem is never described; its presence is merely assumed as the backdrop for the action, as dictated by history. What interests Dryden is not so much the location of the story, but the psychology of the characters involved in the rebellion. Insofar as he uses a biblical story to reflect political events in England, Jerusalem represents London. Dryden uses biblical events and characters in the poem to mirror the political situation in late seventeenth century London—which can be equated with Jerusalem—when Lord Shaftesbury (equated with the biblical Achitophel) opposed Charles II (King David) in the choice of his brother, James, as heir to the throne. Shaftesbury conspires with the Duke of Monmouth (Absalom), the king’s illegitimate son, to become king.

Dryden’s narration utilizes biblical history as a model for other historical events, with its characters incarnating great archetypes that recur through history. Since Absalom’s rebellion may be seen as an archetype for political uprising by a family member against a legitimate ruler, Jerusalem may also be seen as an archetype—a symbol of any major capital city in which legitimate government is threatened by insurgency from within.

Although Dryden’s contemporaries understood his poem as a veiled statement about events in London, the poem’s narrative widens the potential interpretations of the story, its characters and its setting. Thus, Dryden’s Jerusalem transcends time and space, becoming not only London but a city anywhere at any time whose government is threatened by internal rebellion.


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.