Absalom and Achitophel is a landmark poetic political satire by John Dryden. The poem exists in two parts. The first part, of 1681, is undoubtedly by Dryden. The second part, of 1682, was written by another hand, most likely Nahum Tate, except for a few passages—including attacks on Thomas Shadwell and Elkanah Settle as Og and Doeg—that Dryden wrote himself.
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The poem is an allegory that uses the story of the rebellion of Absalom against King David as the basis for discussion of the background to the Monmouth Rebellion (1685), the Popish Plot (1678) and the Exclusion Crisis.
The story of Absalom’s revolt is told in the Second Book of Samuel in the Old Testament of the Bible (chapters 14 to 18). Absalom rebels against his father King David. The beautiful Absalom is distinguished by extraordinarily abundant hair, which is probably meant to symbolize his pride (2 Sam. 14. 26). When David’s renowned advisor, Ahitophel (Achitophel in the Vulgate) joins Absalom’s rebellion, another advisor, Hushai, plots with David to pretend to defect and give Absalom advice that plays into David’s hands.
The result was that Absalom takes the advice of the double agent Hushai over the good advice of Ahitophel, who realizing that the rebellion is doomed to failure, goes home and hangs himself. Absalom is killed (against David’s explicit commands) after getting caught by his hair in the thick branches of a great oak: “ His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on” (NRSV 2 Sam. 18: 9). The death of his son, Absalom, causes David enormous personal grief. The title of Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! is taken from David’s mourning in 2 Sam. 18: 33 or 19: 4.
In 1681 in England, Charles II was in advanced years. He had had a number of mistresses and produced a number of illegitimate children. One of these was James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth, who was very popular, both for his personal charisma and his fervor for the Protestant cause. Charles had no legitimate heirs, and his brother, the future James II of England was suspected of being a Roman Catholic. When Charles’s health suffered, there was a panic in the House of Commons over the potential for the nation being ruled by a Roman Catholic king. The Earl of Shaftesbury had sponsored and advocated the Exclusion Bill, but this bill was blocked by the House of Lords on two occasions. In the Spring of 1681, at the Oxford Parliament, Shaftesbury appealed to Charles II to legitimate Monmouth. Monmouth was caught preparing to rebel and seek the throne, and Shaftesbury was suspected of fostering this rebellion. The poem was written, possibly at Charles’s behest, and published in early November of 1681. On November 24, 1681, Shaftesbury was seized and charged with high treason. A trial before a jury picked by Whig sheriffs acquitted him.
Later, after the death of his father and unwilling to see his uncle James II become King, the Duke of Monmouth executed his plans and went into full revolt. The Monmouth Rebellion was put down, and in 1685 the Duke was executed.
Dryden’s poem tells the story of the first foment by making Monmouth into Absalom, the beloved boy, Charles into David (who also had some philandering), and Shaftesbury into Achitophel. It paints Buckingham, an old enemy of Dryden’s (see The Rehearsal for one example), into Zimri, the unfaithful servant. The poem places most of the blame for the rebellion on Shaftesbury and makes Charles a very reluctant and loving man who has to be king before father. The poem also refers to some of the Popish Plot furor.
john dryden absalom and achitophel summary
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 was Absalom (Duke of Monmouth). David’s kingly virtues were equally strong but unappreciated by a great number of Jews (Whigs), who because of a perverse native temperament, wanted to rebel. Although David had provided no cause for rebellion, as the wiser Jews (Tories) pointed out, a cause was found in the alleged Jebusite (Catholic) plot to convert the nation to the Egyptian (French) religion. The plot miscarried, but it did create factions whose leaders were jealous of David and opposed his reign. Achitophel was the chief of these leaders (the Earl of Shaftesbury, leader of the Whigs), and he made efforts to persuade Absalom to seize the throne. Achitophel was a brilliant wit touched by the madness of ambition.
Unwilling to be remembered only for his distinguished career as a judge, he “ Resolv’d to ruin or to rule the State,” using the king’s alleged sympathy for the Jebusites as an excuse for rebellion. Achitophel first used flattery to win over Absalom, proclaiming that the nation was clamoring for him—a “ second Moses.” At first Absalom resisted, pointing out that David was a wise and just king, and that David’s brother (the Duke of York) was the legal heir. These half-hearted objections Achitophel met with sophistry. David’s mildness, he claimed, had deteriorated into weakness; the public good demanded Absalom’s strength; the rightful heir was planning to murder Absalom; David himself secretly wanted Absalom to be king and would support his claim as heir to the throne. To these specious arguments Absalom succumbed, whereupon Achitophel proceeded to organize all the Jewish malcontents into a single seditious party.
Among these misguided patriots were opportunists, republicans, and religious fanatics. Zimri embodied the fickleness and “ extremity” of Buckingham, Shaftesbury’s lieutenant in the Whig Party. Shimei represented the Sheriff of London, who had betrayed the king’s interests, and Corah, the notorious Titus Oates, who had fabricated many of the details of the Catholic plot. Absalom made a nationwide tour, 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 represented 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, proclaimed Absalom a new messiah. The speaker of the poem attacked the Jews’ naïve support of Absalom and their willingness to overthrow legally instituted authority.
He feared that the government would quickly deteriorate into anarchy if the people were given the power to make and break kings at will by changing the order of the succession. Next came portraits of David’s supporters—the Tory leaders. Barzillai (the Duke of Ormond) was 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), were 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 defied the powerful rebel faction ultimately convinced David that concessions to the people would but feed their leaders’ ambition, and that Absalom was being used as a tool by the treacherous Achitophel. David finally reasserted the royal prerogative.
Realizing that his enemies had been scoffing at his moderation and clemency as a sign of weakness and fear, he resolved to show his strength. David, regretting that Absalom would be compelled to suffer, expressed his willingness to forgive at the sign of repentance, but he refused to condone disloyalty. The Sanhedrin’s attempt to change the line of succession David denounced, scorning their deceitful claim that they were trying to protect him from a scheming brother. Finally David stated his reluctance to resort to force but declared his readiness to use it to defend the supremacy of established law over both Sanhedrin and king. Heaven clapped its thunder in approval of David’s words and the new era that they heralded.