Absalom and Achitophel by John Dryden: Detailed Summary

King David of Israel who is compared to Charles II of England had no legitimate issue from his legally married wife, though he had a number of illegitimate children from his several mistresses. Of these illegitimate issues, Absalom who is compared to the Duke of Monmouth was the bravest, handsomest and most polished of mien and manners. He charmed everybody and won their esteem and regard. He had distinguished himself in a number of battles abroad. He was the favorite child of his father, the King, and popular with the people.

John Dryden (1631-1700)

The Jews (English) were moody and self-willed. They were not satisfied even under the mild and gentle rule of King David. They clamored for greater liberty. They cherished the belief that since they had restored the king to the throne they had also the right to dethrone him. But the sober-minded section of the people was peace-loving. It had not forgotten the horrors that the civil war brought in its train. So, it wanted peace. Further, David ruled so well that even the malcontents among the people could not get a chance to raise the banner of revolt. Only the Devil alone provided them with an excuse to rebel. It was the so-called Popish Plot.

The Jebusites (Catholics) were treated oppressively by the chosen people (Protestants) in a variety of ways. They were deprived of their lands and were made to pay enhanced taxes. They could not be appointed to any high post under the government and were made to suffer many disabilities. They continued to suffer silently, but the situation became highly insufferable for them when their gods and holy relics were burnt. Such a turn in the situation they made a bid to convert the Protestants to their faith. This alarmed the Jewish Rabbles (the clergy) of the Church of England and also inflamed their mind. Hence originated the Popish Plot. This plot was verified with solemn oath by Titus Oates and others and was similarly denied and disowned by the Catholics. It was even alleged that the Jebusites (Catholics) had designed to assassinate the King.

The plot failed to win its immediate objective, but its repercussions were wide ranging. A number of people who were dissatisfied with the King for this or that reason emerged into activity and set about organizing a revolt against the government. The chief among the disgruntled band was Achitophel (Shaftesbury) who was surprisingly cunning and treacherous. In the matter of principles and morality, he was completely barren and bankrupt. He was perpetually discontented and restless. He made a bold and capable leader in times of danger, but was no good in times of peace. As a judge he was upright and above board, but as a politician he was abominable. He was determined either to rule the state or ruin it. In order to realize his unholy aim, he posed himself as the defender and promoter of the people's cause and a champion of their rights and liberty. He exploited the Popish Plot to inflame the popular mind. He set the rumor on foot that the King himself was a Catholic at heart who had signed a secret treaty with the Catholic France, their enemy. In this way he raised the anger of the heedless Jews.

Achitophel required a person who could act as a leader of the people and yet remain a puppet dancing to the pull of his wire. To him, Absalom appeared to be the most suitable person for his purpose. Achitophel knew that as Absalom was the illegitimate son of the king and had thus no legal title to the throne, he would depend entirely on his support and backing. So he tried to win him to his side by means of a number of cunning and plausible arguments. He began by flattering him and asserting that he was cut out for being a king, and as the people wanted him he must come forward to champion their cause. He tickled his vanity by calling him the savior of the nation and assured him that he was immensely popular. He then pointed to him that there was a current in the affairs of man which, taken on the tide, led on to fortune. Such a golden chance had now come for him and he must hurry to seize it. He must follow the example of his father who returned from exile swiftly at the call of the people and became the king. Again, he should not be afraid of the King because he had forfeited the love and regard of his people and was old, infirm and friendless. He was surrounded by enemies on all sides. If he went in for foreign help, people will detest him all the more. Achitophel further confined to him that by his cunning methods he had turned the people dead against David. People wanted their rights and liberty and they needed a suitable and capable leader to guide them in their movement. And none was as suitable as Absalom because he had royal blood in his veins.

Absalom listened to Achitophel's address attentively and felt flattered. But he hesitated to act upon it at once. In the first flush of thought it appeared to him that the course he was called upon to follow was inappropriate and inadvisable. So he replied to Achitophel thus -

"There is no excuse for me to rebel against my father whose rule is kind, gentle and benevolent. He is so merciful that he pardons even his enemies, and is ever eager to do good to his people. Even if he were a callous and cruel ruler oppressing his subjects it would not have been possible for me to rebel against him because he is after all my father. My sense of duty would deter me. Besides, he loves me and gives me every-thing except the right to inherit the crown because being his illegitimate issue I am not entitled to it. His brother (James) has every right in law to the throne and he is just, noble and capable. I regret that fate has made me illegitimate. I feel that I am fit for being a king, and the desire to be great troubles my heart."

The concluding observation of Absalom gave hope to Achitophel. He realized shrewdly that Absalom loved to be great, but was hesitant. So he decided to make him firm in his resolve. With that end in view he began further and spoke to Absalom thus,

"You should not let your extraordinary talents rot in idleness. God has made you to rule and so you must give the people the bliss and blessings of your reign, David is undoubtedly gentle and generous, but manly vein and vigor suits a king better. The people take his gentleness as a sign of weakness and so hate him. And thinking him a weak ruler they are trying to free themselves from his bondage. Sanhedrin (Parliament) kept him poor, and every time he approached it for funds he was obliged by it to give up some of his rights. I myself would continue to embarrass him with new plots of entangle him in the mesh of costly wars. His faithful friends are all suspects and he is hated by the people, for he is a Catholic. Moreover, the kings are the trustees of the people who have every right to withdraw the executive authority which the king holds and weilds as their trustee. The laws of succession are made for the good of the people. As for his love, let him show it in actual practice. If he loves you, why does he not declare you his successor? His brother hates you, and is waiting for a suitable opportunity to annihilate you. You should, therefore, take time by the forelock and strike while the iron is hot. You should rise against your father, but pose and declare to the people that the King's life was in danger and you are only trying to free him from the clutches of his enemies, the Catholics. And who can say that, perhaps, David himself wants to make you the king but is afraid of his brother and wants to be taken by force."

The most important among Achitophel's followers was Zimri (Duke of Buckingham). He was an inconstant man of rigidly held extremist views. He squandered away his wealth and was banished from court on account of his own fault and foolishness. He then tried to form parties against the King, but could not become the leader of any one of them. He was inherently wicked, but lacked the means to put his wickedness into practice.

Next in importance in the group was Shimie (Slingsby Bethel, the Sheriff of London). He was so badly corrupt and debased that he did not shrink from even cursing the King. He was a miser of the worst type, so much so that he gave not a single entertainment during the tenure of his office. He starved his servants, drank no wine and kept no kitchen. He made his pile by cheating others in different ways. During his term as magistrate the wicked had a field day and the enemies of the king received every protection. In short, he was a very mean person.

But the worst of them all was Corah (Titus Oates). He was the son of a weaver, but the fact of his hatching the Popish Plot raised him in the people's esteem. He posed as the protector of society and the King and verified the plot on oath. His sunken eyes and harsh, loud voice was indicative of his ill-temper and proud nature. Whoever expressed doubt about his witness was dubbed a Catholic and implicated in his plot. He brought about the assassination of Agog for his being on friendly terms with Jebusites.

Misled by Achitophel, Absalom left the court. As a preliminary step he undertook a tour of the country with stately pomp and glamour. He spoke to the people with becoming humility and expressed sorrow at their hard lot and at his inability to help them, because he could not rise against his father who was the cause of their misery. He could offer them only his tears, his only weapon. His humbleness, his winning manners and charming looker impressed everybody, and wherever he went he was hailed as the "savior": This tour was maneuvered by the cunning Achitophel. Its purpose was to form an estimate of people's extent of love and support. He wanted to test the strength of their backing before coming out openly in revolt against the King. So the real purpose of Absalom and Achitophel was cleverly concealed behind a show of love and duty for the King. It was war in the guise of peace.

The mind of the people of Israel (England) was corrupted by means of a number of plausible arguments. They were made to believe that in the final analysis power rests with the people and that they were not bound by the bonds entered into by their ancestors. The kings were their trustees and they held the executive authority in trust for them. They, the kings, are in duty bound to exercise that authority for their good. If that authority is used arbitrarily and wrongly, the people were at liberty to withdraw it. The foolish Israelites were deluded by such reasoning. They did not pause to ponder and realize the fact that sons are certainly bound by the actions of their forefathers, for all mankind has to suffer for the sin of Adam. It followed, therefore, that the contract under which the people transferred power to one individual is as binding on them as on their forbears. The contract is irrevocable. Moreover, who is to examine and decide whether the actions of a king are right or wrong? The crowds are fickle-minded and hotheaded, and hence their thinking and arguing cannot be sound and safe to act upon. No orderly and civilized life would be possible if the right to rebel and dethrone the king is conceded to the people. Even if the king is unjust it is not advisable and desirable to topple an established government, for there may ensue a civil war, then, bringing in its train worse suffering for the people than before. But the misguided Israelites could not think on these lines, thanks to Achitophel and -his cunning.

The revolutionary mania was so widely rampant among the people that many of David's friends deserted his company. Even the few who stood by him even then were regarded as enemies of the people. Among such of his friends, the name of Barzillai (Duke of Ormond) was prominent. He was honorable and advanced in age and had always served his King faithfully. He had also accompanied the King in his exile and shared in his sufferings and sorrows abroad. He was generous of heart and a patron of poets and warriors. He had fathered eight children out of whom six were already dead. The poet is all praise for his eldest son who passed away in the prime of his life.

Next among the King's friends was Zadoc [the Archbishop of Canterbury]. He was modest and of retiring disposition. Then there was Sagan of Jerusalem the Bishop of London. He was the scion of a noble family and was endowed with a hospitable nature after him was John Dolben, the dean of Westminster on the list. He was noted for his fiery oratory. Also included in the friend group were some distinguished expounders of the law. Then there was a group of loyal peers of whom the eminent personalities were those of Adriel, Earl of Mulgrave, Jonathan, Marquis of Halifax, and Hushal, Earl of Rochester. The last of all came the name of Ameil Edward Seymour, the speaker of the House of Commons.

These enumerated friends of David remained loyal him to the end. They watched with anguish the mounting ramp of revolution, realized the dangers inherent in the situation and warned the King. They suggested to him that drastic action was called for, as mild measures would only worsen the situation.

At long last David, who had suffered with patience and forbearance till then, addressed the people with divinely animated voice and was listened to in pin-drop silence. He told them that as king, he was also the father of his people. So far he had been kind and indulgent towards them as a father should be, but how he would fulfil his duty as a king. The people had mistakenly taken his mercy as a sign of fear on his part. They wanted law and justice, so he would now give them what they wanted. He had been a patient man, and they should beware of the fury of a patient man when roused. He would give them justice and nothing but justice as they clamor for. He knew his own rights. He knew that people or the Parliament alone could not choose a successor to the throne as his consent was also necessary. He would not part with his friends simply on the clamor of the mob; they must first prove something against him. He would teach his people to obey him. His victory was certain. The zest and zeal of the people is soon exhausted and their energy dissipates in no time. Then they can be easily subdued. He would wait for his opportunity and then strike with overwhelming force, so that they may be easily conquered.

God listened to David's speech and agreed with it. Law and order was once more established in the country and he ruled in peace for years on end.

Cite this Page!

Sharma, K.N. "Absalom and Achitophel by John Dryden: Detailed Summary." BachelorandMaster, 11 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/absalom-and-achitophel.html.