A King Among Sons
The Satire of Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel
John Dryden’s poem “Absalom and Achitophel” asks the reader the same question that the Lord asks in I Samuel 16:1 “How long will you grieve over Saul?” Dryden has positioned himself as the Samuel to Charles II’s King David, while his bastard son James Monmouth plays Absalom, and the Earl of Shaftesbury is Achitophel. The satirical edge of the poem is in the reciprocal relationship to what a king can get away with, and how little that affects the mock religious worship of a monarch as a matter of formality. Samuel saw Saul replaced with David much like Dryden saw Cromwell replaced with Charles II. This analogous relationship diminishes Monmouth and Shaftesbury’s revolt into something ridiculous and doomed to fail. This recognition carries a satirical punch because Monmouth wishes he was King, but he’s merely a bastard son inciting revolt, and is thus reduced to mockery. The sweetest part of this joke is the relatable nature of the two very flawed characters that mirrors all of humanity’s scheming bastardry across all of time and literature.
Dryden may reduce and mock Monmouth, but he is anything but reductive in his approach. Indeed, there seems to be a profound psychological understanding of politics, the customs of monarchy, and ethics. Absalom doesn’t immediately go through with Achitophel’s scheme to put him on the crown. He asks, “what pretence have I/ To take up arms for public liberty?” and concludes, “My father governs with unquestioned right,/ The faith’s defender and mankind’s delight.” The cunning of Achitophel’s suggestion is appealing to Absalom’s sense of heroism and familial obligation when he says, “had thus old David from whose loins you spring/ Not dared, when fortune called him, to be king.” Meaning that Absalom should seize power and suggesting the highest form of flattery is imitation. The plan appeals to Absalom’s sense of justice so it is not surprising when he later asks, “why am I scanted by a niggard birth?” In other words, why should I miss out because of how I was born?
Achitophel constantly refers to the state of Israel and the Jewish people. “The Jews well know their pow’r: ere Saul they chose/ God was their king, and God they durst depose.” Saul was the king of Israel before David and is the poem’s characterization for the long dead Oliver Cromwell. The king is chosen by God, and to go against the king’s will is to go against the will of God. Achitophel isn’t focusing on these tragic consequences but the unfairness of the situation, and the power at hand to enact fairness. Shaftesbury wanted parliament over the crown to enact what he thought would be fair, for Dryden this was playing God.
Dryden sees Shaftesbury’s schemes as an opportunity for satire because it’s as if Shaftesbury has completely forgotten England’s recent history. Dryden has seen better men try this glorious revolution and fail. It’s apparent that Shaftesbury should have seen this same current of history, but somehow thinks his attempt will be different. By casting Shaftesbury as Achitophel Dryden is admitting that politicians have always been this greedy, near sighted, and scheming to the point of redundancy and madness.
The solace of the poem that keeps the work from being bitter is that God and King are in control, and the country is in good hands. The utter simplicity of this terribly nuanced situation is ripe for the jesting wit that rings throughout the rhyming couplets and iambs. The king can sleep with whoever, and even father bastard children, and we all have to say, “your majesty.” It’s easy for Absalom to say that this situation isn’t fair, but fair has nothing to do with God’s plan. Though it makes perfect logical sense for Absalom to resent his station, it is quite spoiled and whiny. By casting Monmouth as Absalom Dryden is likewise showing that nobility has likewise always been entitled, pampered, spoiled.
The satire of Absalom and Achitophel is limited in that it only goes after vices in of themselves and doesn’t touch too much upon social structures. As a royalist and a religious man, Dryden had little reason to question the throne, or the divine right of kings. It’s the behaviors of greed, and entitlement that Dryden is limited to satirizing, and not the mode of government, which is arguably more responsible for social strife. The ultimate comedy is the recognition that life has always been this messy, and perhaps will continue to be so into the future.