Absalom and Achitophel: John Dryden - Summary and Critical Analysis

Absalom and Achitophel published anonymously in November 1681, is one of the finest English political satires. It was intended by Dryden to rouse popular feeling against Shaftesbury and to secure his indictment.

John Dryden

The essential theme of the poem is the origin of several fractions against the government and the king as the Popish plot of the Titus Oates. Dryden explains the political condition of England at the beginning of the poem. The rest of the poem deals with the beginning of rebellion under the leadership of Shaftsbury whose speeches are calculated to persuade the Duke of Monmouth (Absalom) to lead a revolt against his father, King (David). The replies of Absalom are also set forth in the poem. The power of the poem essentially lies in the mechanism of Biblical allegory. Every contemporary character is given a Biblical name. The principal political personages are: Monmouth (Absalom); Shaftesbury the false tempter (Achitophel); the Duke of Buckingham (Zimri); Charles II (David); Titus Oates (Corah); Slingsby Bethel, Sheriff of London (Shimei).

The English nation is Israel and English men are the Jews. The political situation in England is paralleled with the rebellion of the Jews against their king David. We may analyze the evolution of the thought in the poem as follows. David and Absalom (Charles II and Monmouth) are described in Line 1-44. Monmouth, who later became the leader of the rebels, is praised by Dryden here as a warlike youth: in peace, the thoughts of he could remove war and seemed as he were only born for love. The problem of political succession is thus initially posed.

The condition of Israel (England is next described lines 45-84. The continuous parallelism between the Biblical incident and British Politics should be borne in mind). The plot inspired by the priests is dealt in lines 85-149. Although the plot was discovered and suppressed it led to the creation of serious factions. One such faction was led by the false Achitophel whose satirical picture is given in lines 150-229. He approaches Absalom. In a long speech Achitophel persuades Absalom to champion the public cause and to save the “religion, commonwealth and liberty.”
After Absalom’s first reply to Achitophel follow a series of satirical portraits of the latter’s followers. They are Zimri, Shimei and Corah. Here the poem has the characteristic of an epic. The list of Achitophel’s followers is similar to the epic catalogue in Milton’s Paradise Lost Book I (lines 490-680).

Absalom supported by followers like Shimei and Corah, secures a wide and popular following. His first public speech (lines 693-722) sets forth the grounds of rebellion and promises the people a peaceful and prosperous reign and “Religion and redress of grievances” which as Dryden says are: “Two names that always cheat and always please”.

Dryden discusses the political issue at length (lines 752-810). Conservative political doctrines are set forth with admirable skill. Dryden’s ability to conduct an argument in verse is most apparent here. He opposes all change in political life. He distrusts the public “rout”. If the authority of the king is questionable on the basis of the sovereignty of the public will, then by that very principle the authority of any government (even that's a popular one) can be challenging. The many may err grossly as the few. It is also erroneous to plead that political succession must conform to popular will. Kings have their right to determine the question of succession, just as Adam’s action has bound the whole of posterity. Here Dryden is expressing his own convictions, and is not simply supporting a party-cause.

Absalom and Achitophel is the finest of English political satires. Its powerful appeal is derived from its Biblical parallelism and the series of satirical portraits of unsurpassed excellence. The mechanism of the Biblical parallel helps Dryden to reconcile the scholarly tradition with the popular traditions of satire. This reconciliation makes the poem at once a literary work and a popular piece of wide appeal. All in all, as a political satire, Absalom and Achitophel derives its force from the series of the satiric portrayals of the politicians of his time.

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