Absalom and Achitophel

by

John Dryden

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Achitophel Character Analysis

A deceitful counselor to King David and the antagonist of “Absalom and Achitophel.” Of all the men who oppose David within the government, Achitophel is the most influential. He is smart, ambitious, and morally flexible. He pretends to be David’s friend, but in actuality, he either wants to rule Israel or completely destroy it. Achitophel stokes the “malcontents” of the Jews and incites anti-Jebusite hysteria in an attempt to ruin David, and then he encourages David’s son Absalom to rebel against him. Achitophel hates David’s brother, the heir presumptive, and he wants to make sure that he never ascends the throne. Achitophel begins his plan to ruin David by claiming David is a Jebusite, and while he knows that his argument is “weak,” he also knows the Jews fear the Jebusites, and his approach proves very effective. As Achitophel works on Absalom, Achitophel’s trusted men wreak havoc with the Sanhedrin and try to bring David down from inside the government. Achitophel finally convinces Absalom to rebel, and they embark on a procession through Israel to further ingratiate Absalom with the people and identify enemies to their cause. However, Achitophel has mistaken David’s mercy and mild temper for signs of weakness, and when David finally loses his patience, Achitophel is reminded of David’s divine power. Dryden’s Achitophel represents Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, a Member of Parliament during Dryden’s time and the main supporter of the Exclusion Bill. Shaftesbury was the founder of the Whig party, which sought to exclude Charles II’s brother James from the throne, and he was a major opponent of Charles throughout his reign. What comes of Achitophel is never revealed in Dryden’s poem, but historically speaking, Shaftesbury was tried for treason after encouraging Charles’s son the Duke of Monmouth, to rebel against the crown, but he was later acquitted. Through Achitophel, Dryden suggests that Charles and James both have just claims to the throne and is not for Shaftesbury, Monmouth, or Parliament to infringe on that power.

Achitophel Quotes in Absalom and Achitophel

The Absalom and Achitophel quotes below are all either spoken by Achitophel or refer to Achitophel. 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

In friendship false, implacable in hate,
Resolved to ruin or to rule the state,
To compass this the Triple Bond he broke,
The pillars of the public safety shook,
And fitted Israel for a foreign yoke.
Then, seized with fear, yet still affecting fame,
Usurped a patriot’s all-atoning name.

Related Characters: Achitophel, David
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

By buzzing emissaries fills the ears
Of list’ning crowds with jealousies and fears
Of arbitrary counsels brought to light
And proves the king himself a Jebusite:
Weak arguments! which yet he knew full well
Were strong with people easy to rebel.
For, governed by the moon, the giddy Jews
Tread the same track when she the prime renews,
And once in twenty years, their scribes record,
By natural instinct they change their lord.

Related Characters: Achitophel, David, David’s Brother
Page Number: 120
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:

Ours was a Levite, and, as times went then,
His tribe were God Almighty’s gentlemen.
Sunk were his eyes; his voice was harsh and loud:
Sure signs he neither choleric was, nor proud;
His long chin proved his wit; his saintlike grace
A church vermilion, and a Moses’ face;
His memory, miraculously great,
Could plots exceeding man’s belief repeat,
Which therefore cannot be accounted lies,
For human wit could never such devise.
Some future truths are mingled in his book
But, where the witness failed, the prophet spoke:
Some things like visionary flights appear;
The spirit caught him up, the Lord knows where,
And gave him his rabbinical degree Unknown to foreign university.

Related Characters: Achitophel, Corah
Page Number: 131
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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Achitophel Character Timeline in Absalom and Achitophel

The timeline below shows where the character Achitophel appears in Absalom and Achitophel. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Absalom and Achitophel
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Of the government officials who oppose David, Achitophel is most influential. Achitophel is smart, motivated, and of questionable morals, and he is very... (full context)
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...never been a smarter or more capable member of the Abbethdin, or high court, than Achitophel, but he doesn’t serve David like he should. “Wild ambition loves to slide, not stand,”... (full context)
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...the Jews seem to elect themselves a new king every 20 years or so, and Achitophel decides it is time to do just that. He knows that he can never be... (full context)
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Achitophel begins to publicly hail Absalom as “auspicious” and “royal,” calling him the “second Moses.” Absalom... (full context)
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Achitophel reminds Absalom that had David not responded to the call to be king of Israel,... (full context)
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Achitophel has sown so much dissention amongst the Jews that they begin to cry “Religion, Commonwealth,... (full context)
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Absalom is flattered by Achitophel’s compliments and encouragement, and Absalom’s own ambition and desire for power begins to grow. Still,... (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 abuse the... (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. David’s brother may... (full context)
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Achitophel can see that Absalom is not yet convinced that he should assert his royal blood... (full context)
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Achitophel’s plan to ruin David is simple, and he explains it to Absalom. Achitophel will stand... (full context)
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Achitophel confesses that he hates David’s brother, and the strife and dissention Achitophel has planted among... (full context)
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It 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... (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 brother says very... (full context)
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Absalom should not tell David of his ambition for the crown just yet, Achitophel recommends, but he should offer to take up arms in his father’s defense against his... (full context)
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Achitophel’s words are hard for Absalom to hear. Absalom may desire David’s crown, but Absalom is... (full context)
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To ensure that David’s brother is removed from the line of succession, Achitophel begins to join all the disgruntled Jews to that very end. Some Jews believe that... (full context)
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...Jebusites and believe their own cause to be right above all others. These men are Achitophel’s “tools” and there is “a whole Hydra more.” (full context)
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Of Achitophel’s men, there is Zimri, who has many ideas but is never right. Zimri has had... (full context)
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The rest of Achitophel’s men are easy to forget, except for Corah. Corah is of common birth but has... (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... (full context)
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...their hands to worship “their young messiah,” and Absalom leaves in a procession along with Achitophel and his men, moving in the direction of the sun. Everywhere Absalom’s “moving court” goes,... (full context)
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...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 him of Achitophel’s plan to destroy the church and... (full context)
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...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 of society,... (full context)