Absalom and Achitophel

by

John Dryden

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Absalom Character Analysis

David’s illegitimate son and the protagonist of “Absalom and Achitophel.” David does not have any legitimate heirs to the throne, but Absalom is his favorite child. Absalom is handsome and ambitious, and he has made himself a hero at war. The people of Israel love Absalom almost as much as David does, and Achitophel believes that the Jews would accept Absalom as their king. Achitophel begins to encourage Absalom and herald his birth and blood as royal, and he tries to convince Absalom to rebel against David. Absalom, however, is not a malicious man, and he doesn’t initially believe he has a right to the crown, but he is eventually worn down by Achitophel’s flattery and his own growing desire for more power. Absalom agrees to rebel against David, and as he travels Israel in a procession with Achitophel, Absalom conforms to Achitophel’s deceitful ways. Absalom and Achitophel mistake David’s mercy and good nature for weakness, but David soon loses patience with both Absalom and Achitophel. David asserts his power as king before the people of Israel and effectively shuts down Absalom’s rebellion, but Dryden never does say what becomes of Absalom. Absalom metaphorically represents Charles II’s illegitimate son James Scott, the 1st Duke of Monmouth, who rebelled against Charles and the throne in Dryden’s time. Through the character of Absalom, Dryden ultimately argues that Charles and his brother James both have a divine right to the crown that is not extended to Monmouth. Dryden’s depiction of Absalom implies that Dryden does not think Monmouth a wholly terrible person, but someone who is merely tempted and blinded by power; however, Dryden also suggests that Monmouth’s common birth automatically excludes him from ascending the throne. Dryden argues through Absalom that Monmouth’s play to power, specifically his attempt to seize a position of power that rightfully belongs to another, is a sin against God. Dryden doesn’t entirely denounce Absalom’s ambition (he even celebrates his exploits at war), but he does argue that usurping the throne is completely unethical.

Absalom Quotes in Absalom and Achitophel

The Absalom and Achitophel quotes below are all either spoken by Absalom or refer to Absalom. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Politics, Allegory, and Satire Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin edition of Absalom and Achitophel published in 2001.
Absalom and Achitophel Quotes

But when to sin our biased nature leans,
The careful devil is still at hand with means
And providently pimps for ill desires:
The Good Old Cause revived a plot requires.
Plots, true or false, are necessary things
To raise up commonwealths and ruin kings.

Related Characters: Absalom, David, David’s Brother
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

What cannot praise effect in mighty minds
When flattery soothes and when ambition blinds!
Desire of power, on earth a vicious weed,
Yet, sprung from high, is of celestial seed:
In God ’tis glory, and when men aspire,
’Tis but a spark too much of heavenly fire.
Th’ ambitious youth, too covetous of fame
Too full of angel’s metal in his frame,
Unwarily was led from virtue’s ways,
Made drunk with honour, and debauched with praise.

Related Characters: Absalom, Achitophel, David, David’s Brother
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

Half loath and half consenting to the ill
(For royal blood within him struggled still),
He thus replied, ‘And what pretence have I
To take up arms for public liberty?
My father governs with unquestioned right,
The faith’s defender and mankind’s delight,
Good, gracious, just, observant of the laws,
And heav’n by wonders has espoused his cause.

Related Characters: Absalom (speaker), Achitophel, David
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

What more can I expect while David lives?
All but his kingly diadem he gives,
And that,’ but there he paused, then sighing said,
‘Is justly destined for a worthier head.
For when my father from his toils shall rest
And late augment the number of the blest,
His lawful issue shall the throne ascend,
Or the collateral line where that shall end.
His brother, though oppressed with vulgar spite,
Yet, dauntless and secure of native right,
Of every royal virtue stands possessed,
Still dear to all the bravest and the best.

Related Characters: Absalom (speaker), Achitophel, David, David’s Brother
Related Symbols: The Crown
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

Why should I then repine at heaven’s decree,
Which gives me no pretence to royalty?
Yet oh, that fate, propitiously inclined,
Had raised my birth or had debased my mind;
To my large soul not all her treasure lent
And then betrayed it to a mean descent.
I find, I find my mounting spirits bold,
And David’s part disdains my mother’s mould.
Why am I scanted by a niggard birth?
My soul disclaims the kindred of her earth
And, made for empire, whispers me within:
“Desire of greatness is a godlike sin.”

Related Characters: Absalom (speaker), Achitophel, David
Related Symbols: The Crown
Page Number: 123-124
Explanation and Analysis:

But when should people strive their bonds to break
If not when kings are negligent or weak?
Let him give on till he can give no more;
The thrifty Sanhedrin shall keep him poor,
And every shekel which he can receive
Shall cost a limb of his prerogative.
To ply him with new plots shall be my care,
Or plunge him deep in some expensive war,
Which, when his treasure can no more supply,
He must with the remains of kingship buy.
His faithful friends our jealousies and fears
Call Jebusites and Pharaoh’s pensioners,
Whom, when our fury from his aid has torn,
He shall be naked left to public scorn.

Related Characters: Achitophel (speaker), Absalom, David, David’s Brother
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

Religion and redress of grievances,
Two names that always cheat and always please,
Are often urged, and good King David’s life
Endangered by a brother and a wife.
Thus, in a pageant show, a plot is made,
And peace itself is war in masquerade.
O foolish Israel! never warned by ill,
Still the same bait and circumvented still!

Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

Add that the pow’r for property allowed
Is mischievously seated in the crowd,
For who can be secure of private right
If sovereign sway may be dissolved by might?
Nor is the people’s judgement always true:
The most may err as grossly as the few
And faultless kings run down, by common cry,
For vice, oppression, and for tyranny.

Related Characters: Absalom, Achitophel, David
Page Number: 134-135
Explanation and Analysis:

To change foundations, cast the frame anew,
Is work for rebels who base ends pursue,
At once divine and human laws control,
And mend the parts by ruin of the whole.
The tampering world is subject to this curse,
To physic their disease into a worse.

Related Characters: Absalom, Achitophel, David
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

’Tis time to show I am not good by force.
Those heaped affronts that haughty subjects bring
Are burdens for a camel, not a king:
Kings are the public pillars of the state,
Born to sustain and prop the nation’s weight.
If my young Samson will pretend a call
To shake the column, let him share the fall:
But oh that yet he would repent and live!
How easy ’tis for parents to forgive!

Related Characters: David (speaker), Absalom, Achitophel
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

Then let ’em take an unresisted course,
Retire and traverse, and delude their force;
But when they stand all breathless, urge the fight
And rise upon ’em with redoubled might,
For lawful pow’r is still superior found;
When long driven back, at length it stands the ground.
He said. Th’ Almighty, nodding, gave consent,
And peals of thunder shook the firmament.
Henceforth a series of new time began,
The mighty years in long procession ran:
Once more the godlike David was restored,
And willing nations knew their lawful lord.

Related Characters: David (speaker), Absalom, Achitophel
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:
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Absalom Character Timeline in Absalom and Achitophel

The timeline below shows where the character Absalom appears in Absalom and Achitophel. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
To the Reader
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...history. Had the poet invented the story, they claim, it would have included reconciliation between Absalom and David. But the story is not yet over, and there is plenty of time... (full context)
Absalom and Achitophel
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Of all David’s illegitimate sons, Absalom is the most loved, both by the people and by his father, and David is... (full context)
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...never be the king; however, if he must have one, he wants it to be Absalom. So, Achitophel begins to flatter and praise Absalom every chance he gets. (full context)
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Achitophel begins to publicly hail Absalom as “auspicious” and “royal,” calling him the “second Moses.” Absalom is the answer to their... (full context)
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Achitophel reminds Absalom that had David not responded to the call to be king of Israel, he would... (full context)
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...much dissention amongst the Jews that they begin to cry “Religion, Commonwealth, and Liberty.” If Absalom joins their cries with his “royal blood,” Achitophel believes, the Jews will surely choose him... (full context)
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Absalom is flattered by Achitophel’s compliments and encouragement, and Absalom’s own ambition and desire for power... (full context)
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If the Jews are unhappy with David, Absalom asks Achitophel, why should Absalom encourage them? David is not a tyrant, and he doesn’t... (full context)
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After David’s death, Absalom says to Achitophel, the crown will be passed down a “collateral line” to David’s brother.... (full context)
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Achitophel can see that Absalom is not yet convinced that he should assert his royal blood and claim the crown,... (full context)
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Achitophel’s plan to ruin David is simple, and he explains it to Absalom. Achitophel will stand back as David continues to give all he has to the people.... (full context)
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...him come to power. In which case, Achitophel says, David will be forced to declare Absalom’s blood royal by law. “If not,” Achitophel says to Absalom, “the people have the right... (full context)
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...is better for the Jews if David’s brother does not ascend the throne, Achitophel tells Absalom, and the Jews know how powerful they are. After all, they did choose Saul as... (full context)
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David’s brother already looks at Absalom with jealousy, Achitophel warns, and he will try to turn the people against Absalom. David’s... (full context)
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Absalom should not tell David of his ambition for the crown just yet, Achitophel recommends, but... (full context)
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Achitophel’s words are hard for Absalom to hear. Absalom may desire David’s crown, but Absalom is neither cruel nor boastful. He... (full context)
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...bold,” and as they watch the plot unfold, they are not afraid to raise up Absalom as a “lawful prince” and condemn the Jebusites. The most vocal are the “hot Levites,”... (full context)
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Surrounded by men like Achitophel’s, Absalom turns his back on court. He has “high hopes” for the crown, and he is... (full context)
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Absalom tells the Jews that he, too, grieves the loss of their land and wishes that... (full context)
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Absalom’s charm wins over the Jews, and they are united by their “common interests.” The people... (full context)
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“O foolish Israel!” the poet cries. Absalom’s procession is a charade; in it, “a plot is made, / And peace itself is... (full context)
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...“true succession” of the crown by entertaining “the plot.” David’s men soon inform him of Absalom’s plan to secure the crown and of “false Achitophel’s pernicious hate,” and the men tell... (full context)
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...now demonstrate that he is “not good by force.” The troubles brought to David by Absalom and Achitophel may weigh down “a camel, not a king.” For kings are the rocks... (full context)
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Still, David says, if Absalom should seek forgiveness, he will be happy to give it to him. However, Absalom must... (full context)