Absalom and Achitophel by John Dryden
To begin the analysis of the poem we should at first say a few words about John Dryden, the man who wrote “Absalom and Achitophel”, the political situation in England of that times and the reasons that inspired him to write it. At first the author published the poem anonymously, just to let it become an earworm in the society.
Actually, the explanation of the success of “Absalom and Achitophel” is very simple: it lies in the obvious similarity of the main characters, aforementioned Absalom and Achitophel, to the Dryden’s contemporaries. The poem wasn’t just a plain satire, it was a well-thought PR action. John Dryden tried to drop the popularity of the Whig Party in general and one of its prominent member – the Earl of Shaftesbury – in particular.
The ultimate goal of it was to prevent the Whigs promote the Exclusion Bill that, in its turn, will prevent James II (the current potential King of England) from succeeding to the throne. So, the small poem was directed to the changing the monarchy, no less.
If we look through the brief summary of “Absalom and Achitophel” and then conduct analysis of the poem, we will easily see how the main themes and motifs are revealed and how they, through the Biblical setting, instill the opinion about the characters into the heads of the readers.
Charles II is represented by the Biblical King David and Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury is Achitophel, the main antagonist to King David. Achitophel and the group of his allies decide that the King isn’t worthy to rule and choose his illegitimate son Absalom (King Charles also had one, so the parallel is completely transparent) to be the next successor.
Achitophel starts to get closer to Absalom, flattering him and describing to the young man his virtues as possible King. The land, according to Achitophel, needs such a strong and wise ruler as Absalom could be. During his advances we see that Achitophel is right: Absalom is indeed a worthy and noble man, to the point that he utterly rejects the very possibility to disobey his father and, moreover, to overthrow him. Despite being not the best King (as Absalom concludes after long persuasions of Achitophel), King David is still his father, he raised Absalom and was caring and kind.
So, as an obedient son, he will never step against him. But gradually, the words of Achitophel start to haunt the young man’s mind. Finally he agrees that King David shouldn’t be the King anymore, but still says that King David has a brother who also possess all the virtues that the King may need. His brother, succeeding to the throne, will be as wise and just as Absalom is, but this change will be at least legitimate.
Achitophel, though, is not satisfied with this suggestion. The young and naive Absalom is easy to manipulate, unlike the older and much more experienced brother of King David. So Achitophel resorts to the personal reasons: he reminds Absalom that he is an illegitimate son. Embittered, the young man berates and rejects his own mother for being of low origin. He dreams about becoming noble, so that he could be really worthy to be the ruler.
Seeing this moment of weakness, Achitophel doubles his efforts. He points out that the people have the right to choose their own King, not being limited by noble David and his brother. The King is the one who cares about his country the best, not the one who was born in special conditions. Moreover, Absalom’s popularity is rising so fast that King David will soon seriously consider killing the unwanted rival (we don’t know if it’s true though). So, Absalom’s actions won’t be a revolt, they will be an act of self-defence.
The last arguments of Achitophel solidify his portrayal as an evil and ruthless sociopath. He says that the power (and King David as it’s bearer) is similar to a woman, who resists the advances of a man, but secretly wants to be taken, relieved of her responsibilities and brutally raped. Achitophel seduces Absalom to commit “a pleasing rape upon the crown” and after that the young man throws away all his morals and hesitations and is completely immersed in the vision of his power as a new King.
John Dryden wrote “Absalom and Achitophel” in the form of heroic couplet. The beginning of the poem, where Achitophel and his allies – Zimri, Shimei and Corah – are described, is very similar to the beginning of “Paradise Lost” by John Milton, where he describes Satan and his demons on their council.
This comparison only adds more of epic flavor to the poem and sets frame of the main theme of the plot: the seduction of an innocent soul. The analysis of Achitophel character shows that as his personality is revealed throughout the poem, he progresses from the mere rebel desiring for power to the classical evil counselor from fairy tales to the outright devilish being.
Achitophel starts from flattering Absalom and he tells the truth: the young man is indeed innocent, he is an embodiment of virtues. But during the talks to Achitophel, Absalom loses them one by one. At first he utterly refuses to discuss his father’s style of ruling, stating that it is not his business to judge the King.
Achitophel, knowing that Absalom’s self-esteem is quite low because of his illegitimate birth, starts to persuade the young man that King David makes mistakes and the country deserves more competent ruler. It seems that this part is also logical – Absalom has no options than to agree that his father isn’t perfect. This statement is, of course, true: managing the whole country is an incredible heavy task and no one can achieve perfection in it.
But Absalom, who has an idealized image of his father, is devastated after he had to admit that King David isn’t perfect. Still he loves his father and offers Achitophel another way to change the current state of affairs: to give the crown to David’s brother. Absalom is still too humble to agree that he is the only one who can become the new King.
From now on, the image of Achitophel is outright demonised. We see the sharp contrast between the two characters: Absalom makes the hard decision to benefit his country, but Achitophel isn’t interested in the wellbeing of the country at all. His only concern is his own power. He just need at least partially legitimate proxy to rule. Achitophel reminds the young prince about the most painful part of his life: his mother being a commoner, just to break Absalom entirely.
This is a point of no return for Absalom. He bitterly rejects his mother – a terrible sin to the Biblical and modern moral standards – just for being born of low origin. It contrasts so much with his previous words about King David as his loving father no matter what. We see that Absalom is ready to reject his devotion to parents – he just started from the least important one for him. Just mere seconds later, Absalom is horrified by his own words and his weakness, but it is too late: the first crack is made and from here Achitophel uses just more and more dirty methods to achieve his goal.
The pinnacle of his advances and the most incomprehensibly disgusting part is comparing the crown and its bearers to the victimized women who secretly dream about being raped. This predatory and primal attitude can horrify anyone from the modern society (it goes well beyond the definition of harassment), but it was equally unsetting for the contemporaries of John Dryden, just maybe because of slightly different reasons.
Moreover, comparing David himself to such a woman, Achitophel urges Absalom to rape his own father. This metaphor really crosses the line of every possible moral code and again return us to the “Paradise Lost”. We, as readers, are now unsure that Achitophel needs only the power and the crown for himself. Now it looks like his goal was to thoroughly destroy anything good and right in Absalom.
The story is horrifying and disgusting enough to let the readers decide that any King is better than Achitophel’s pawn. Manipulating the audience with the help of the primal human fears and taboos, John Dryden, without even showing King David (Charles II) persuades the readers that he is way, way better than the Earl of Shaftesbury and anyone he decides to take under his wing.