Absalom and Achitophel Summary

John Dryden

Absalom And Achitophel

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Absalom and Achitophel Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Absalom and Achitophel by John Dryden.

Absalom and Achitophel is a widely celebrated satirical poem written by John Dryden, first published anonymously in November of 1681. It is written using the heroic couplet form, and is considered one of the finest English political satires of all time. It is credited with being the first written satire in the English language, and tells the Biblical story of Absalom, who rebels against King David. This, however, is commonly understood as an allegorical reading, and the events of the poem are actually about Dryden’s contemporaries, Charles II and the Exclusion Crisis. In writing the poem, Dryden hoped to rouse the populous against The Earl of Shaftesbury, along with the Whig Party. These groups had sponsored and advocated for this Exclusion Bill, which if successful, would prevent James II from succeeding to the throne. The bill was blocked by the House of Lords on two separate occasions. This was during the era of the Popish Plot, which took place during the years 1679 to 1681.

The allegory begins by representing England as the Biblical land of Israel, and the Englishmen as the Jews. The group of antagonists in the poem are working against King David, whose modern representation is Charles II. The First Earl of Shaftesbury takes on the role of Achitophel, the leader of this group. He exploits the Anti-Catholicism which was created during the Popish Plot. Achitophel decides that Absalom (in contemporary terms, King Charles’ illegitimate son) is the best candidate to take the throne instead.

Zimri, Shimei, and Corah, followers of Achitophel, are described in detail throughout the conversation between Achitophel and Absalom. This part of the poem distinctly resembles Milton’s Paradise Lost, which also lists what is now known as an epic catalogue.

Achitophel begins a very long speech, during which he attempts to convince Absalom to join his rebellion. He tells Absalom that the country cries for him to take the throne in secret. He says King Charles is not popular anymore because of the Popish Plot, and he has no other allies. Achitophel says that Egypt (modern translation here is France) will help Absalom to claim the throne as his own. He not only has the royal blood that is necessary to gain support of the people, but would be a much better King than anyone who would inherit the throne by means of succession. Here the reader is meant to understand the reference to James.

Absalom defends his father, saying David is a good King and has always treated him with kindness. But Absalom is also ambitious, and is fighting against the constant flattery that Achitophel is giving him. Absalom refuses to turn against his father. He says the crown should go to the person who rightfully deserves it, David’s brother, who has all the royal virtues. He admits his illegitimate birth makes him unsuited for the job, and wishes he had been born higher.

Achitophel renews his persuasion tactics. He implores Absalom to save the “religion, commonwealth and liberty” of their country. The throne needs someone powerful, like Absalom. David, on the other hand, is weak and gives the people too much. The nation has been carefully weakened, and they have a right to choose their own king. James is also jealous of Absalom, who should claim the throne as an act of self defense. Achitophel tells Absalom to pretend defense of King David, and then accuse James of plotting to murder the King. This will allow Absalom to force David to grant him, Absalom, succession. Achitophel also argues that David wants to do this anyway, but will not without some external pressure. David, Achitophel says, is like a woman who pretends to avoid a man’s advances but secretly wants them. This rather troublesome argument finally convinces Absalom to “commit a pleasing rape upon the crown.” The youth has now been gulled into becoming a tool for Achitophel’s ambitions.

The rest of the poem then deals with the beginnings of the rebellion, led by Achitophel (Shaftsebury), all within the very powerful and resonant allegory of the Bible. Absalom makes a very successful public speech promising peace to the people.

Dryden explains the many political issues throughout the poem in great detail. He makes a number of political arguments, all the while employing the use of the poetic verse.

The poem finally ends with King David’s speech, during which he upholds his traditional rights, offers conciliation to all the rebels, but also demonstrates firmness in his decisions.