Absalom and Achitophel is a poem written by

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Last updated: March 23, 2019

Absalom and Achitophelis a poem written by John Dryden that explains the political condition ofEngland and who should come to the throne in high satire. Dryden uses satireagainst the King, historical references, and a Biblical tale as an allegory torepresent the story of King Charles II and the Exclusion Crisis. Drydenwrote the poem in favor of King Charles II and to expose his enemies eventhough he had used the King’s greatest weakness, his fondness of women. KingCharles II had many mistresses and had many illegitimate children with them.Yet, Dryden did not portray the King in a bad manner and covered his sins; anddid nothing but praise the King for his political matters and tolerance of thepeople rebelling against him. In the first opening of the poem, Drydenimmediately described the King as a God saying “Then Israel’s monarch afterHeaven’s own heart,/ His vigorous warmth did variously impart/ To wives andslaves; and, wide as his command,/ Scattered his Maker’s image through theland” (Dryden 2214). This relates the King to God in the sense that throughpolygamy, the King has created life in Israel just like God has createdhumankind through Adam and Eve.

Even though Dryden did not deal with the King’sreal vices, it shows that the King’s actions are not without flaw which becomesclear when Absalom, his illegitimate son, is introduced. Thehistorical context of Absalom andAchitophel has to do with King Charles’ having no legitimate heirs andleaving his brother, James the Duke of York who was a Roman Catholic, as thefuture ruler. King Charles’ illegitimate son James the Duke of Monmouth(Absalom), was very popular among the people for his charm and passion for theProtestant cause. When the King’s health condition worsened, the people were inpanic of potentially being ruled by a Roman Catholic because of the PopishPlot, a conspiracy started by Titus Oats that gripped the kingdoms in an anti-Catholichysteria. The Earl of Shaftesbury took the opportunity to advocate theExclusion Bill that would prevent James the Duke of York to succeed to thethrone but the bill was rejected.

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This lead The Earl of Shaftesbury to appealto The Duke of Monmouth to rebel against his father, King Charles II and succeedthe thrown since there is no other way that he will become King because of hisillegitimacy. When the Duke of Monmouth was caught preparing to rebel againsthis father, The Duke of Shaftesbury was suspected to have come up with the planand was then seized and charged with treason. Dryden’spoem has a Biblical background related to the Old Testament. Absalom’srebellion against his own father can be seen in the Second Book of Samuel; so,he gives each character a biblical name: The Duke of Monmouth into Absalom; Dukeof Buckingham into Zimri the unfaithful servant; King Charles II into David;Earl of Shaftesbury into Achitophel; Titus Oates into Corah.

Dryden also makesIsrael represent England, the Jews represent the English men, and the Jews representthe Whigs who are against the king. This context gives Dryden the opportunityto praise the King as a God and satirize the people against him which in thiscase was Achitophel and his followers, the Whigs. Inconclusion, Absalom and Achitophel is a great political satire because itdepicts the political situation in the restoration of the monarchy and thepeople’s foolishness and vices. Dryden’s satire was made to criticize a son whowas still loved by their father, it makes The Duke of Shaftesbury denounce theking without wounding the King in any way, and praise the King without soundinglike he serves him. All of it was done skillfully that it portrayed Absalom asbeing misguided by Achitophel. 

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