Analysis of John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel

John Dryden’s publication of Absalom and Achitophel (1681) had a specific political motivation. He wrote the poem during the threat of revolution in England, connected to the so-called Popish plot and the move to exclude the reigning King Charles II’s Catholic brother, James, duke of York, from his right to follow the Protestant Charles to the throne. The protesting faction supported instead Charles’s bastard son, James, duke of Monmouth, whom Charles recognized as his son but not his heir. Born in the Netherlands to Lucy Walter, James was a product of only one of many sexual liaisons of his mother’s. While rumors existed that Charles had secretly married Lucy, granting legitimacy to James, others insisted that James could not even be proved Charles’s son. Charles never produced an heir with his wife, the Portuguese Catherine of Brangaza. Although Lucy followed Charles to England, where James was raised a pampered member of the court and eventually made a duke, she had died before Charles married Catherine.


Dryden observed the parallel in England’s situation to that of ancient Israel under the rule of King David. The story found in the biblical book of 2 Samuel contained all of the political elements in which Dryden found himself, as a citizen of England, involved. Each of the main characters corresponded to a real-life person in Dryden’s time. David’s bastard son, Absalom, represented Monmouth, and his evil confi dant Achitophel represented Anthony Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury had introduced to Parliament the Exclusion Bill to prevent York from taking the throne. Other characters and their contemporary references included Zimri as George Villiers, the duke of Buckingham and a longtime opponent of Charles; Amiel, Edward Seymour, speaker of the House of Commons; Cora as Titus Oates, who fabricated the rumors that prompted social unease over the so-called Popish Plot; and Shimei as Bethel, sheriff of London. In addition the pharoah referenced in line 281, the biblical ruler of Israel’s enemy Egypt, represented King Louis XIV, ruler of France, an enemy of England.

Literary Criticism of John Dryden

By referencing only the biblical characters to maintain his allegory, Dryden accomplished his purpose, which was to comment on the folly of the political clash between the Protestant Whigs and Catholic Tories. Refl ecting his traditional middling position that tended toward compromise in the fairness with which he treated both factions, Dryden included positive passages about characters on both sides of the issue. Nevertheless he supported the Royalist cause. By 1681 the Royalists seemed to take the upper hand in the clash after Charles executed a tactical move to relocate Parliament to Oxford, where he would have more power over its members in isolation from London’s rebellious forces. The people eventually lost faith in the pro-Monmouth group, and Charles remained absolute ruler, never again convening Parliament, until his sudden death from kidney infection in 1685. Ironically while on his deathbed Charles secretly called a priest to minister to him. He converted to Catholicism and received the last rites, and his Catholic brother, the duke of York, became James II of England.

While readers recognized the situation in the poem as one reflecting England’s own, some were not confident about the precise present-day individuals Dryden’s characters reflected. That resulted from Dryden’s absolute devotion to the biblical parallel, although a close reading by those knowledgeable regarding Charles and the Jewish King David revealed some differences between the two reigns in the poem’s small details. For instance, lines 438–39, “Perhaps th’ old harp on which he thrums his lays, / Or some dull Hebrew ballad in your praise,” distinguished Charles’s love for music from David’s poetic talent. However, as David had, Charles had many illegitimate offspring, as many as 14, and, as David removed himself from Jerusalem, Charles moved from his seat of power in London because of news of a possible revolt by one of his illegitimate sons. Some critics feel that Dryden may have attempted to ease public disapproval of Charles’s many sexual affairs by comparing him to the highly lauded David, although the poem’s speaker notes that David had his affairs “Before polygamy was made a sin” (2). In addition, according to Royalist tradition, English kings had a divine right to rule, and David likewise had been specifi cally chosen by God to lead his people.

Dryden’s direct address “To the Reader” preceding the lengthy poem proves of interest. While he hoped to treat each political faction fairly, he acknowledged that “he who draws his pen for one party must expect to make enemies of the other. For Wit and Fool are consequents of Whig and Tory, and every man is a knave or an Ass to the contrary side.” He also stated he would take comfort in the “manifest prejudice to my cause” that the opposition would surely publicize, as that prejudice would “render their judgment of less authority against me.” Continuing, Dryden offers the opinion that “if a poem have a genius, it will force its own reception in the world.” His supporting logic for that idea was “for there’s a sweetness in good verse which tickles even while it hurts, and no man can be heartily angry with him who pleases him against his will.” His tone turns sharply sober later when he informs his readers, “I have but laugh’d at some men’s follies, when I could have declaim’d against their vices, and other men’s virtues I have commended as freely as I have tax’d their crimes.”

Dryden’s choice of the Bible as allegory proved appropriate for his era. Most educated individuals agreed that the Bible could be used as a type of gloss to reveal truths civic, as well as religious. No one else, however, had seen the artistic possibilities in the way Dryden did. The parallel story, as Earl Miner explains, granted a sense of action that the poetry itself lacked. The rhyming couplets in Dryden’s 1,031 lines framed only three incidents from the story of David’s retention of rule. In the first, Achitophel tempts Absalom to overthrow his father. In the second, the two together tempt the Jews to participate in a revolt. And in the third, David makes a moving speech to his reunited subjects, concluding with the lines, “For lawful pow’r is still superior found; / When long driven back, at length it stands the ground.” In this couplet, Dryden expressed the belief, which a struggle with his own religious allegiance eventually confirmed, that the tradition of the Catholic Church gave it a strength his culture badly needed.

Absalom and Achitophel contains a number of strong passages in its lengthy narrative. After a history of how David came to dote on his illegitimate son, Dryden wrote, “But life can never be sincerely blest; / Heaven punishes the bad and proves the best” (43–44), preparing readers for a downward turn in the monarch’s life. That turn, they soon observed, was due to the Jews,

a headstrong, moody, murmuring race
As ever tri’d th’extent and stretch of grace,
God’s pamper’d people whom, debauch’d with ease,
No king could govern nor no god could please
(Gods they had tr’d of every shape and size
That god-smiths could produce, or priests devise.) (45–50)

Dryden wrote of his own readers, many of whom recognized that reference. After the time of peace that Israel enjoyed, “David’s mildness manag’d it so well / The bad found no occasion to rebel” (77–78), those “bad” factions, thanks to “the careful Devil,” conjured a plot. The speaker then comments, “Plots, true or false, are necessary things / To raise up commonwealths and ruin kings” (83–84). To be fair to English subjects, Dryden added a passage intended to defend the rebellious Jews and, by extension, the supporters of anti-Catholic forces of 17thcentury England:

Submit they must to David’s government;
Impoverish’d, and depriv’d of all command,
Their taxes doubled as they lost their land
And, what was harder yet to fl esh and blood,
Their gods disgrac’d and burnt like common wood. (93–97)

Thus, the people stand ready to be convinced by those who plot against the king, although Dryden terms that plot a “curse” conjured up by other members of aristocracy and

Not weigh’d or winnow’d by the multitude,
But swallow’d in the mass, undhew’d and crude.
Some truth there was, but dash’d and brew’d with lies
To please the fools and puzzle all the wise.
Succeeding times did equal folly call
Believing nothing or believing all. (112–118)

Dryden emphasizes the term lies by giving it a line of its own, following a line that concludes with enjambment. That line forces the reader to run past brew’d, for which he or she anticipates a rhyme with crude in the preceding line. The fact that the anticipated rhyme is overwritten immediately awakens the sleepy reader. Dryden continues to blast the leaders of the movement as “Some by their Monarch’s fatal mercy grown / From pardon’d rebels kinsmen to the throne,” emphasizing that those leading the rebellion would have had no power had it not been for the actions of Charles at the Restoration. Of these men “the false Achitophel” (150) proves the worst, described as

A name to all succeeding ages curst,
For close designs and crooked counsels fit,
Sagacious, bold, and turbulent of wit;
Restless, unfi x’d in principle and place,
In power unpleas’d, impatient of disgrace. (151–155)

Dryden will later compare Achitophel’s words to snake venom, making a strong connection to the temptation by Satan in the Garden of Eden. He uses equally strong words for the son, Absalom, “that unfeather’d, twolegg’d thing, a son” (170), who “In friendship false, implacable in hate; / Resolv’d to ruin or to rule the state.” Dryden also condemns Buckingham through the character of Zimri, about whom the speaker relates:

A man so various that he seem’d to be
Not one, but all mankind’s epitome.
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong,
Was everything by starts and nothing long,
But in the course of one revolving moon,
Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon. (545–550)

Because David had no brother to play the part in the biblical plot that York did in reality, Dryden invents one for his poem. Absalom thinks about him and the fact that he stands “secure of native right” (354) and is loyal to the king. Although Absalom understands his mind may be debased, he also feels that he deserves something for David’s treatment of his mother. In attempting to rationalize his plan, he admits “Desire of greatness is a godlike sin” (372). Dryden employs paradox in suggesting sin can be like God. Absalom continues deluding himself, capturing the public’s imagination and trust, as he allowed Achitophel to capture his. Dryden notes the results with beautiful control, exhibiting the art that he describes:

Th’ admiring crowd are dazzled with surprize
And on his goodly person feed their eyes;
His joy conceal’d, he sets himself to show,
On each side bowing popularly low;
His looks, his gestures, and his words he frames,
And with familiar ease repeats their names.
Thus, form’d by nature, furnish’d out with arts,
He glides unfelt into their secret hearts. (686–693)

Dryden’s experience writing for the stage had put him into close contact with many actors. This passage reflects his familiarity with their craft. His understanding of men’s natural motivation to attain power allows his characterization of Absalom some tenderness. Those loyal to David eventually must be honest regarding his beloved son’s actions and the effects of bad influences upon him, as the speaker explains:

That Absalom, ambitious of the crown,
Was made the lure to draw the people down;
That false Achitophel’s pernicious hate
Had turn’d the Plot to ruin church and state;
The council violent, the rabble worse,
That Shimei taught Jerusalem to curse. (927–932)

Dryden also wants his audience to understand that the monarch’s pampered existence includes fearsome responsibilities, when he writes, “Kings are the public pillars of the state, / Born to sustain and prop the nation’s weight” (953–954). In the biblical story Absalom strangles to death in a bizarre accident in which he becomes fatally entangled among branches. Monmouth would, after his father’s death, attempt to overthrow his uncle and be executed as a result, with eight blows of the ax required to behead him. One gruesome legend has it that after his execution, someone noticed no offi cial portrait had ever been made of Monmouth. Supposedly his head was placed back on his body and the corpse used as a model for the portrait now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Samuel Johnson later described Absalom and Achitophel as a poem “in which personal satire was applied to the support of public principles.” In his opinion, this caused the poem to be of interest to “every mind.” He adds an interesting anecdote relating that his father, “an old bookseller,” in describing the huge sales of the poem, “told me he had not known it equaled but by Sacheverell’s trial.” His father referenced notes on a trial sparked by arguments written by Henry Sacheverell, rector of St. Peter’s, against the Whig ministry. His trial for sedition had famously been held from February 27 to March 23, 1710. The two sermons constituting his arguments were ordered burned, and Sacheverell became a martyr, advancing the cause of the Tories against the failing Whig ministry. Dryden’s era and the decades beyond proved a heady time for the expression of political sentiment, when the written word bore force for change.

Graham, W. Absalom and Achitophel. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1965.
Johnson, Samuel. Lives of the English Poets. Vol. 1, 1777. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958.
Miner, Earl, ed. Selected Poetry and Prose of John Dryden. New York: The Modern Library, 1985.
Plumsky, Roger. “Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel.” The Explicator 60, no. 1 (fall, 2001): 60–63.
Selden, Raman. John Dryden: Absalom and Achitophel. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1986.

Categories: History of English Literature, Literature

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