Absalom and Achitophel

by

John Dryden

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David Character Analysis

The third king of Israel. David is a merciful and kind king who does not have a male heir to inherit the throne. As such, the crown will ascend down a “collateral line” after David’s death to his brother. As he has many mistresses, David also has several illegitimate sons, but he loves Absalom the most, and the people of Israel likewise love Absalom and herald him as a national hero. David gives Absalom everything he wants, and he would give him the crown, too, if he could. Over time, however, David’s dishonest counselor, Achitophel, begins to stir up resentment for David and encourages Absalom to rise up against his father to ensure that David’s brother will not ascend the throne. Both Absalom and Achitophel confuse David’s mild nature for weakness, and after David runs out of patience, he is forced to exert his God-given power over the people of Israel and remind Absalom, Achitophel, and the people that he can strike them all down if he chooses. As David speaks to the Jews, a massive crack of thunder is heard through the land, and all of Israel knows David is their rightful king. Dryden’s David is an allegory for King Charles II of England, and like David, Dryden argues that Charles has a divine right to the throne, which Charles’s son, the Duke of Monmouth tried to usurp in Dryden’s time. Dryden was an ardent supporter of the monarchy and Charles II, and his portrayal of David in “Absalom and Achitophel” reflects this support, but he does not depict David as perfect. On the contrary, Dryden is critical of Charles’s leniency and even pokes fun at his rumored promiscuity, but Dryden nevertheless implies that Charles has been chosen by God to be the king of England, and that right cannot be appropriated by Parliament or the people.

David Quotes in Absalom and Achitophel

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

The Jews, a headstrong, moody, murmuring race
As ever tried th’ extent and stretch of grace,
God’s pampered people, whom, debauched with ease,
No king could govern nor no god could please
(Gods they had tried of every shape and size
That god-smiths could produce, or priests devise),
These Adam-wits, too fortunately free,
Began to dream they wanted liberty;
And when no rule, no precedent was found
Of men by laws less circumscribed and bound,
They led their wild desires to woods and caves,
And thought that all but savages were slaves.
They who, when Saul was dead, without a blow
Made foolish Ishbosheth the crown forgo,
Who banished David did from Hebron bring
And, with a general shout, proclaimed him king.

Related Characters: David, Saul, Ishbosheth
Related Symbols: The Crown
Page Number: 115-116
Explanation and Analysis:

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:

Th’ inhabitants of old Jerusalem
Were Jebusites, the town so called from them,
And theirs the native right—
But when the chosen people grew more strong,
The rightful cause at length became the wrong,
And every loss the men of Jebus bore,
They still were thought God’s enemies the more.
Thus, worn and weakened, well or ill content,
Submit they must to David’s government;
Impoverished and deprived of all command,
Their taxes doubled as they lost their land,
And, what was harder yet to flesh and blood,
Their gods disgraced, and burnt like common wood.
This set the heathen priesthood in a flame,
For priests of all religions are the same.

Related Characters: David
Page Number: 116-117
Explanation and Analysis:

From hence began that plot, the nation’s curse,
Bad in itself but represented worse,
Raised in extremes and in extremes decried;
With oaths affirmed, with dying vows denied.
Not weighed or winnowed by the multitude
But swallowed in the mass, unchewed and crude.
Some truth there was, but dashed and brewed with lies
To please the fools and puzzle all the wise.

Related Characters: David, Corah
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

This plot, which failed for want of common sense,
Had yet a deep and dangerous consequence,
For as, when raging fevers boil the blood,
The standing lake soon floats into a flood,
And every hostile humour, which before
Slept quiet in its channels, bubbles o’er,
So several factions from this first ferment
Work up to foam, and threat the government.

Related Characters: David, David’s Brother, Corah
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:

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:

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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David Character Timeline in Absalom and Achitophel

The timeline below shows where the character David 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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...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 for wisdom... (full context)
Absalom and Achitophel
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...poet begins, before religion determined polygamy sinful, one man was not limited to one woman. David, Israel’s king, spread his “Maker’s image” throughout his kingdom. He is married to Michal, and... (full context)
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Of all David’s illegitimate sons, Absalom is the most loved, both by the people and by his father,... (full context)
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David rules quietly, but the Jews are a willful and temperamental bunch and are easily corrupted.... (full context)
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...The Jebusites can do very little about this injustice, and they are forced to follow David’s rule. Their taxes are increased, and their land is seized. Their gods and their religion... (full context)
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...Israel to make major waves in the government, and many people begin to oppose King David, especially since they cannot rise to the same power. Some of those who oppose David... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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,” and Achitophel is very ambitious.... (full context)
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Achitophel reminds Absalom that had David not responded to the call to be king of Israel, he would still be in... (full context)
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...to grow. Still, Absalom doesn’t think he has any claim to the throne. After all, David rules with “unquestioned right,” and he is a good king. David is merciful and just,... (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... (full context)
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After David’s death, Absalom says to Achitophel, the crown will be passed down a “collateral line” to... (full context)
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...says, which is further proof he deserves the crown. Achitophel explains that he doesn’t dislike David—it’s just that David lacks “manly force,” and the people only follow him because he gives... (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... (full context)
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Achitophel confesses that he hates David’s brother, and the strife and dissention Achitophel has planted among the Jews has made them... (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... (full context)
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David’s brother already looks at Absalom with jealousy, Achitophel warns, and he will try to turn... (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... (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 only wishes he had not been... (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... (full context)
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Even more powerful than Jonas is Shimei, and he deeply hates David and all of the government. Shimei cheats the Jews out of money every chance he... (full context)
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...threatening their trade, and the Jebusites are threatening their religion. Absalom claims to still respect David, but as David befriends his enemies, his people suffer. David has all the power, Absalom... (full context)
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...up by “specious love and duty to their prince.” Soon, rumors begin to spread that David’s life has been threatened by his brother and Michal. (full context)
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...pursue,” the poet claims, and warns the Jews that if they don’t begin to respect David, they are sure “to physic their disease into a worse.” (full context)
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There is very little that David can do about the plot, as he has few friends, but those friends he has... (full context)
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There Sagan of Jerusalem and “Zadock the priest,” who will always follow David, who looks over the “western dome” and leads the “prophets’ sons.” Adriel is a member... (full context)
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These are the loyal men by David’s side, and they look on with sadness as the rebels try to take down the... (full context)
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Up until now, David says to the Jews, he has allowed his role as a father to cloud his... (full context)
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Still, David says, if Absalom should seek forgiveness, he will be happy to give it to him.... (full context)
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With their “plots and treason,” David’s people have tried to take his power away, but God will not allow that to... (full context)
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“Must I at length the sword of justice draw?” asks David. “O curst effects of necessary law!” He warns the Jews to “beware the fury of... (full context)