Power and ambition drive the plot of John Dryden’s poem “Absalom and Achitophel.” King David of Israel has all the power in theory, but in practice, he has little ambition. According to Achitophel, the King’s deceitful counselor, David is lacking “manly force,” and he gives in too easily to the people. The King is “mild” and hesitant to draw blood, and Achitophel, in his own ambition for increasing power, sees David as weak. “But when should people strive their bonds to break,” Achitophel says to David’s son Absalom, “If not when kings are negligent or weak?” The Jews of Israel “well know their pow’r,” Achitophel maintains, and it is the perfect time to assert that power and overthrow David’s rule. Absalom, too, is ambitious and gains power through war, and, after Achitophel’s influence, Absalom has ambition to ascend his father’s throne. With the portrayal of power and ambition in “Absalom and Achitophel,” Dryden ultimately argues that while some ambition of power is good and even admirable, attempting to take power that rightfully belongs to the King is a deadly sin.
David’s mild nature and his willingness to give the people what they want produces men who are greedy for more and more power, like Achitophel. Dryden describes Achitophel as wise and “bold,” and notes that he is “restless” and “unfixed” in his current office and ethics. “In power,” Achitophel is “unpleased,” and “impatient of disgrace.” Dryden implies that Achitophel is accomplished and has some power in government, but he wants more, and since he thinks David is a “disgrace,” he tries to obtain more power through unscrupulous means. Of Achitophel, Dryden writes: “In friendship false, implacable in hate, / Resolved to ruin or to rule the state.” Achitophel’s ambition for power is so strong, he only pretends to respect the King, when in truth he despises David and plans to strip his power by any means necessary. According to Dryden, Achitophel is tired of “lawful fame and lazy happiness” and hates “the golden fruit to gather free,” so he gives “the crowd his arm to shake the tree.” In other words, Achitophel is no longer interested in the power, or “golden fruit” that is freely available, so he attempts to shake some power loose from higher up the tree. He holds “up the buckler of the people’s cause / Against the crown, and skulked behind the laws.” Achitophel pushes against the King and advocates for the people, disregarding David’s power and amassing his own.
Although Absalom’s ambitions of power are reasonable at first, he, too, grows greedy and eventually sets his sights on overstepping the King through dishonest means. When Dryden first introduces Absalom, he notes, “Early in foreign fields he won renown / With kings and states allied to Israel’s crown.” Initially, Absalom’s ambition is appropriate and loyal, and he makes a name for himself fighting in wars. However, despite this power, Absalom begins to desire more; “My soul disclaims the kindred of her earth / And, made for empire, whispers me within: / ‘Desire of greatness is a godlike sin.’” Absalom knows the power he desires, that of his father’s throne, is not his to have; however, this does not stop him from pursuing it. As Absalom tries to win the favor of the Jews, he employs a brilliant scheme in which he claims he has no power, telling the people that his father has given away all of his power. As he speaks, Absalom wipes a tear from his eye. “’Tis all the aid my present power supplies,” he says of his tears. By claiming to be lowly and powerless, Absalom is effectively able to gather more power from the people through their support and love, and they quickly become his devoted followers and forsake David.
King David’s waning power, however, is true in appearance only, and he soon grows tired of Achitophel’s plotting and Absalom’s rebellion. From David’s “royal throne, by heav’n inspired, he spoke to the people of Israel “with awful fear.” “’Tis time to show I am not good with force,” the King says, “Those heaped affronts that haughty subjects bring / Are burdens for a camel, not a king.” David’s power, David claims, is endowed by God, and thus he cannot be brought down with Absalom and Achitophel’s earthly attempts at power. David claims his power is not to be trifled with. “Must I at length the sword of justice draw?” he asks, “To make examples of another kind.” Up until now, David’s power has been silent and controlled, but he can easily draw his sword and order war. For David, there is power in restraint, but he reminds his subjects that he can just as easily release violence and conflict. David knows that his enemies will one day “fight,” and he is prepared. When they are “breathless” and tired, David will “rise upon ‘em with redoubled might, / For lawful pow’r is still superior found.” David’s enemies will expend their power and tire, but David’s power cannot be diminished.
As David speaks to the Israelites, thunder rips through the sky. God himself confirms that David’s power is absolute, and, Dryden therefore argues, cannot be usurped or threatened by even the most ambitious play to power. As “Absalom and Achitophel” is an allegory for Dryden’s own political climate, Dryden thus implies that King Charles II of England’s power, while often easy-going and merciful, is absolute as well. Like David, Charles’s power is bestowed upon him by God, and it is therefore sinful for Charles’s illegitimate son the 1st Duke of Monmouth, or anyone else, to tread on that power.
Power and Ambition ThemeTracker
Power and Ambition Quotes in Absalom and Achitophel
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.
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.
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.