Absalom and Achitophel


John Dryden

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Absalom and Achitophel Summary

In holy times, before religion made polygamy a sin, one man was not confined to one woman. Law did not forbid a man from taking both a mistress and a wife, and Israel’s monarch, David, spread his royal seed across the land. Michal is his queen, but several women have “godlike David’s” sons. Theses sons, however, are not of royal birth and thus cannot legally ascend the throne. Of all David’s illegitimate sons, Absalom is the most loved and admired, by both the Jews and his father. Absalom is handsome and full of grace, and he has proven himself a hero fighting in foreign wars. David is filled with “secret joy” as he watches Absalom grow into a respected man, and in his son, David sees his own “youthful image.” David’s reign is peaceful and quiet, but the Jews, “a headstrong, moody, murmuring race,” begin to desire more liberty. It is not long before the Jews revive the Good Old Cause to “raise up commonwealths and ruin kings.”

The Jebusites, who are native to Israel, begin to lose their rights. Their taxes are increased, their land is seized, and their gods and religion are discredited. Their priests are incensed, and soon the plot, the “nation’s curse,” begins to circulate. The Jebusites, in a clandestine plan, infiltrate all areas of Israel, including the courts and brothels, looking for converts. The plot ultimately fails because it is lacking “common sense,” but it also has a “deep and dangerous consequence.” The Jebusite plot makes major waves within the government, and the people begin to rise up and rebel against David. Some even oppose David from within the government, and the most influential of these men is “false Achitophel.” Achitophel is smart and accomplished, ambitious of power, and has flexible morals. He wants to either completely take over the government or destroy it, and he pretends to befriend David to accomplish just that. Absalom stokes Israel’s discontent and tells everyone that David is a Jebusite. The Jews have a history of announcing 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 king, but if he must have one, he wants it to be Absalom.

Achitophel begins by publicly hailing Absalom’s birth as royal. He claims Absalom will be the Jews’ “savior,” and that he is the answer to their prayers. Absalom’s popularity soars, and even babies learn to say his name. Achitophel flatters Absalom with compliments of his superior virtue and reminds him that David, too, had to answer a call to the throne when he was in exile in Gath. The people are restless and crying for a new king, and Achitophel is sure if Absalom joins their cries with his royal blood, the people will choose him as their king. Absalom is flattered by Achitophel’s words, but David’s right to the crown is “unquestioned.” David is a good king, Absalom says, he is kind and merciful, and he rarely draws blood. Absalom is certain that if the people are turning against David, he should not fan the flames of dissention. Besides, David gives Absalom everything, except his crown, and he has already told Absalom that he would give it to him if he could. The crown is, however, “justly destined for a worthier head.”

After David, the crown moves down a “collateral line” to David’s brother, who, regardless of his “vulgar spite,” has a legitimate claim to the throne. Still, Absalom does wish he had been born into royalty, so he could rightfully assert his own claim to the crown. But to desire power that rightfully belongs to another, Absalom says, is a “godlike sin.” Achitophel can see that Absalom is not yet convinced, so he steps up his game. He tells the young prince that God has made him virtuous for a reason—because he is meant to be king. David is “weak,” Achitophel says, and now is the perfect time to challenge his power. Achitophel plans to wait until David has foolishly given the last of his money to the people, and then he will incite more public discord or bury David with expensive foreign wars. Achitophel admits that he despises David’s brother, and most of the Jews hate him, too. The people have a right to choose their own king, Achitophel says, and they do not want David’s brother. The time to claim the crown is now, if they wait until after David’s brother is on the throne, they might not be able to ensure that Absalom is king.

To realize his plan, Achitophel joins the various “malcontents” of Israel to one final end—to strip David of his power and give it to Absalom. Many men assist Achitophel in his quest, including Zimri, Balaam, and Caleb, but none are as powerful as Shimei. Shimei robs and cheats the Jews every chance he gets, so they decide to make him their magistrate. Under his tenure as magistrate, treason is legal and he stacks juries with “dissenting Jews” to guarantee that the king’s enemies are free and his supporters are imprisoned. Worse yet is Corah, who engineered the plot. He is a priest, and his memory is impeccable. Thus, the people fail to see his deceit. Surrounded by such men, Absalom addresses the people. He claims he is outraged by their troubles, and he wishes he could suffer on their behalf. Absalom tells the people that he loves his father, but their liberty is at stake. Then he wipes a tear from his eye and tells the people his tears are all he has to give. As the people raise their arms to Absalom in praise, he departs with Achitophel and his men in a royal procession, visiting the people of Israel. Everywhere they go, Absalom is received with love and admiration, and Achitophel is easily able to identify any possible enemies to their cause.

“O foolish Israel!” the speaker of the poem cries. Absalom’s procession is a charade, and is merely “war in masquerade.” No one is safe if kings can be “dissolved by might.” Plus, the speaker says, people are often wrong and a “faultless king” could be ruined. No sensible man would disrupt the government and dethrone their king, which will surely make their grievances worse. Despite this public opposition, however, there are still loyal men who stand by David, including Barzillani, who was in exile with David, as well as Zadock and Sagan of Jerusalem. Perhaps most loyal is Amiel, a government official who tirelessly subdues David’s opposition from inside the ranks. These loyal men inform David of Absalom’s ambition and Achitophel’s deceit, and finally, having grown impatient, David addresses the people of Israel.

David tells the people that he has allowed his role as a father to cloud his judgement as a king, but he will now show them that he is “not good by force.” Absalom’s attempt to “shake” up the kingdom and seize the crown is not a threat to David, and if Absalom wants to continue his efforts, he must be prepared to “fall.” David is the king, he says, and God will not allow such treason to come to pass. David is not afraid to draw his sword if he must, and he reminds the Jews to “beware the fury of a patient man.” If the Jews want a fight, David is ready, and while they are “breathless” and exhausted, he will strike them down. As David speaks, thunder rocks the sky, and every Jew knows their rightful king.