The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 751

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.

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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.

Among these misguided patriots are opportunists, republicans, and religious fanatics. Zimri embodies the fickleness and “extremity” of Buckingham, Shaftesbury’s lieutenant in the Whig Party. Shimei represents the Sheriff of London, who betrays the king’s interests, and Corah, the notorious Titus Oates, who fabricates many of the details of the Catholic plot.

Absalom makes a tour of the nation, planned by Achitophel to gauge the extent of the people’s support for their plan to exclude the legal heir from the throne and to establish Absalom’s right to the succession by law. Traveling up and down the land, Absalom craftily represents himself as the people’s friend, opposed to Egyptian domination, the Jebusite plot, and a senile king, but powerless to act because of his loyalty to the crown and the lawful succession. The Jews, always easy to delude, proclaim Absalom a new messiah.

The speaker of the poem attacks the Jews’ naïve support of Absalom and their willingness to overthrow legally instituted authority. He fears that the government will quickly deteriorate into anarchy if the people are given the power to make and break kings at will by changing the order of the succession.

Next are portraits of David’s supporters—the Tory leaders. Barzillai (the duke of Ormond) is lavishly praised as the noblest adherent to David’s cause and one of Israel’s true heroes. Two members of the clergy, namely Zadoc (the Archbishop of Canterbury) and the Sagan of Jerusalem (the Bishop of London), are commended for their services to the crown. Other loyalists, praised for their services in Sanhedrin (Parliament), include Adriel (the Earl of Mulgrave), Jotham (the Marquis of Halifax), Hushai (Laurence Hyde), and Amiel (Edward Seymour). These loyal chieftains who defy the powerful rebel faction ultimately convince David that concessions to the people will but feed their leaders’ ambition, and that Absalom is being used as a tool by the treacherous Achitophel.

David finally reasserts the royal prerogative. Realizing that his enemies interpret his moderation and clemency as signs of weakness and fear, he resolves to show his strength. David, regretting that Absalom will be compelled to suffer, expresses his willingness to forgive at the sign of repentance, but he refuses to condone disloyalty. David denounces the Sanhedrin’s attempt to change the line of succession, scorning their deceitful claim that they are trying to protect him from a scheming brother. Finally David states his reluctance to resort to force but declares his readiness to use it to defend the supremacy of established law over both Sanhedrin and king. Heaven claps its thunder in approval of David’s words and the new era that they herald.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 270


*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.


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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 Essays