On the surface, John Dryden’s poem “Absalom and Achitophel” is a rehashing of the story of David, the third king of Israel, and his illegitimate son Absalom, who rebels against his father and tries to usurp his throne. However, this biblical story is merely an allegory, a form of extended metaphor, for the political events that unfolded in Dryden’s time. In 1678, an alleged Catholic conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II, known as the Popish Plot, swept across England, creating mass anti-Catholic hysteria and prompting the Exclusion Crisis of 1679. The Exclusion Crisis lasted until 1681 and consisted of three Parliamentary bills which attempted to exclude James, King Charles’s brother, from royal succession because he was a Roman Catholic rather than a Protestant. Dryden’s poem is a thinly veiled satirical roast of the political drama that pervaded English society in the late 1670s and early 1680s, and no one is spared his wit. According to Dryden, “the true end of satire is the amendment of vices by correction,” and “Absalom and Achitophel” is an attempt to that end. Through the use of satire and allegory in “Absalom and Achitophel,” Dryden ultimately argues that the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis were devious ploys to divert the rightful order of succession and prevent James II from ascending the throne.
Through the deceit of Achitophel, a politician who sows dissention among the Jews, Dryden allegorizes the Popish Plot and implies the fabricated plot is merely an attempt to breed strife between David and the government, or, figuratively, between Parliament and Charles II of England. In Israel, metaphorically England, the “Good Old Cause revive[s] a plot” to “raise up commonwealths and ruin kings.” The “Good Old Cause” is a reference to the Puritan Rebellions of the English Civil War (1642–1651), which pitted King Charles I, who was supported by the Catholics, against Parliament, which was supported by the Puritans, a form of Protestantism. The war was a victory for Parliament; Charles I was executed and the Commonwealth of England was created. The monarchy was restored in 1660, and Charles II ascended the throne. With this reference, Dryden implies that the Popish Plot is little more than a revival of the Good Old Cause and an attempt to dethrone a king. In the poem, rumor begins to spread that King David’s life is “Endangered by a brother and wife. / Thus in a pageant show, a plot is made, / And peace itself is war in masquerade.” Titus Oates, a priest of the Church of England and the mastermind of the Popish Plot, accused Charles’s brother James and Charles’s wife, Queen Catherine, of involvement in the plot against Charles. Dryden suggests that Oates’s claims are nonsense—the plot is a “pageant show,” a charade—and such claims amount to a “war in masquerade,” as the desired outcome, to remove a man who is destined to be king out of royal succession, is similar to that of the English Civil War. Ultimately, the plot fails “for want of common sense,” but it has a “deep and dangerous consequence.” The Popish Plot, Dryden implies, was destined to fail because it completely lacked wisdom. However, the paranoia and anti-Catholic sentiments the plot churned up led directly to the Exclusion Crisis, which again pitted Parliament against the king. Members of Parliament pushed for James to be removed from royal succession, and Charles adamantly supported his brother.
In the poem, Dryden discusses many of the men who support Achitophel and his plan to strip David of his power. In this way, Dryden also satirizes the politicians who supported the Exclusion Bill, portraying them as despicable men “who think too little and who talk too much.” Thus, Dryden implies that their proposed law—to keep Roman Catholics from the throne—is likewise foolish and dangerous. Achitophel, who encourages Absalom to rebel against his father, is a contemptable man who resolves “to ruin or to rule the state.” Achitophel is a representation of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, a Member of Parliament and founder of the Whig party, who opposed absolute monarchy in favor of a more democratic approach. Cooper was a major proponent of the Exclusion Bill, and Dryden implies Cooper intended to use the bill to either take the government over, or completely take it down. Achitophel has several supporters, “whom kings no titles gave, and God no grace,” including the “well-hung Balaam and cold Caleb free.” Balaam and Caleb represent Theophilus Hastings and Arthur Capel respectively, both politicians and members of the Whig party who supported the Exclusion Bill. Dryden therefore implies these men are low-level politicians who have little sense and no influence. While Balaam and Caleb may have little sense, “not bull-faced Jonas,” Dryden says, “who could statutes draw / To mean rebellion and make treason law.” Jonas represents Sir William Jones, a Member of Parliament who supported the Exclusion Bill. As Attorney General, Jones prosecuted several Catholics who were falsely accused and executed during the Popish Plot. In this way, Dryden implies that Jones, especially teamed with Cooper, can do real and lasting damage to the country and to the monarchy.
Achitophel and his supporters begin to stoke “the malcontents of all the Israelites” and sway public opinion, and the Sanhedrins, the Jewish high council, becomes “infected with this public lunacy” as well. The Sanhedrins, of course, are a metaphor for the English Parliament, and the “public lunacy” is the Exclusion Crisis. Through his satirical poem, Dryden had hoped the people of England and Parliament would see the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis for what they really were—plots devised to keep James II, a Roman Catholic, out of royal succession.
Politics, Allegory, and Satire ThemeTracker
Politics, Allegory, and Satire Quotes in Absalom and Achitophel
’Tis not my intention to make an apology for my poem: some will think it needs no excuse, and others will receive none. The design, I am sure, is honest; but he who draws his pen for one party must expect to make enemies of the other. For wit and fool are consequents of Whig and Tory, and every man is a knave or an ass to the contrary side. There’s a treasury of merits in the fanatic church as well as in the papist; and a pennyworth to be had of saintship, honesty, and poetry for the lewd, the factious, and the blockheads; but the longest chapter in Deuteronomy has not curses enough for an anti- Bromingham.
The true end of satire is the amendment of vices by correction. And he who writes honestly is no more an enemy to the offender than the physician to the patient when he prescribes harsh remedies to an inveterate disease, for those are only in order to prevent the surgeon’s work of an ense rescindendum, which I wish not to my very enemies. To conclude all, if the body politic have any analogy to the natural, in my weak judgement, an Act of Oblivion were as necessary in a hot, distempered state as an opiate would be in a raging fever.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
’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!
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.