Absalom and Achitophel

Absalom and Achitophel Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Dryden

John Dryden was born the first of 14 children to Erasmus Dryden and Mary Pickering in Aldwincle, a small civil parish in the eastern part of England. Dryden’s maternal grandfather was the village rector, and his paternal grandfather, Sir Erasmus Dryden, 1st Baronet, was a respected Member of Parliament. In 1644, Dryden went to Westminster School, a public school in London, which he references fondly in his poem “Absalom and Achitophel.” During Dryden’s time at Westminster School, he wrote and published his first poem, a royalist elegy about the death of a classmate that allegorizes the execution of Charles I, in 1649. Dryden then attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and graduated in 1654 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. During the Interregnum—the period of time between the execution of Charles I and the restoration of Charles II in 1660, during which Oliver Cromwell ruled over England—Dryden returned to London and worked for Cromwell’s Secretary of State. When the monarchy was restored, Dryden dominated the literary scene of Restoration England. He wrote numerous poems and public speeches, and he was frequently commissioned by King Charles to write directly on the crown’s behalf. After the ban on theaters was lifted in 1663, Dryden began writing plays and quickly became famous for works such as Marriage à la Mode (1673) and All for Love (1678). While certainly famous for his plays, Dryden is perhaps remembered most for his satirical poems, such as “Absalom and Achitophel” (1681) and “Mac Flecknoe” (1682). Dryden married Lady Elizabeth Howard in 1663, and while their marriage was said to be rather unhappy, the couple had three sons—Charles, John, and Erasmus—whom they deeply loved and were very close to. Dryden served as the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1668 to 1688, and in his time he was both celebrated and condemned. Despite being born a Protestant, Dryden converted to Catholicism in 1686. He died in the year 1700 at the age of 68 in London due to complications of gout and was buried at Westminster Abbey.
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Historical Context of Absalom and Achitophel

In the preface to “Absalom and Achitophel,” John Dryden claims he is merely a historian, but had he originally created the biblical story he recounts in his poem, he would have included the reconciliation of Absalom and his father, King David. Absalom and David are thinly veiled metaphors for Charles II of England and his illegitimate son, James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth. In the poem, Dryden implies that the real-life story of Charles and Monmouth is not yet over, and there is plenty of time for wisdom and mercy. Sadly, this did not prove to be the case, and after the death of Charles II in 1685, Monmouth and an army of followers attempted to seize the crown from Charles’s brother, James II, the next heir in the line of succession. James was a Roman Catholic, and Monmouth and his Protestant followers opposed a Roman Catholic on the throne. During the summer of 1685, the Monmouth Rebellion fought a sequence of battles against the English military led by John Churchill. Monmouth’s army was ultimately defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor on July 6, and on July 15, the 1st Duke of Monmouth was executed for treason. Monmouth’s uncle, James II, ignored the people and Monmouth’s pleas for mercy, even after Monmouth vowed to convert to Catholicism. James II remained on the throne until 1688, at which time he was overthrown by William of Orange during the Glorious Revolution. In 1701, the Act of Settlement was passed by Parliament, which officially excluded Roman Catholics from royal succession and mandated that the throne be occupied by Protestants only.

Other Books Related to Absalom and Achitophel

Satire, particularly political satire, became exceedingly popular in Restoration England as a means to address problems and injustices within the government and society as a whole, and John Dryden’s “Absalom and Achitophel” is one such work. Samuel Butler, an English satirical poet and Dryden’s contemporary, wrote “Hudibras,” a mock-heroic narrative poem based on the English Civil War, and published it in three parts in 1663, 1664, and 1678. The popularity of satire outlasted the Restoration, and Alexander Pope, another satirical poet, wrote and published “The Rape of the Lock” in 1712 about the unequal power relations present in England. Jonathan Swift continued the satirical tradition, and in 1729 he wrote an essay entitled A Modest Proposal, which is about England’s impoverished Irish population. Satirical writing has continued to be an important part of the literary canon and includes other works such as Voltaire’s Candide, William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and, more recently, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
Key Facts about Absalom and Achitophel
  • Full Title: “Absalom and Achitophel”
  • When Written: 1681
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1681
  • Literary Period: English Restoration
  • Genre: Political Satire, Poetry
  • Setting: Israel, during the reign of King David
  • Climax: Absalom decides to usurp David’s throne and gives a speech to the people of Israel.
  • Antagonist: Achitophel
  • Point of View: Third-Person Omniscient

Extra Credit for Absalom and Achitophel

Famous Company. In 1658, Dryden walked in Oliver Cromwell’s funeral procession with poets John Milton and Andrew Marvell, which inspired Dryden’s poem “Heroic Stanzas” (1659).

The Court of Public Opinion. Dryden wrote a satirical poem about Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury—the Englishman who is allegorized by Dryden’s Achitophel in “Absalom and Achitophel”—in 1682. Dryden titled the poem “The Medall” after the medal that was struck to celebrate Shaftesbury’s acquittal for high treason after the Exclusion Crisis.