Summary of John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel

Absalom and Achitophel is a satirical poem by John Dryden.


King David of Israel (England) was a successful monarch though fond of women. He had a number of mistresses who bore him a large number of illegitimate children. However, his favourite illegitimate child was Absalom (Duke of Monmouth). He was a charming young man, very popular among the people. He was a great soldier, who had distinguished himself on foreign battlefields. The King pampered his son and did not mind his weaknesses.

The Jews were a strong and inconstant people. They were not happy with King David. They demanded more rights and privileges. They felt that, since they had brought David to the throne, they had the right to expel him. But the majority of the people loved the peace and did not like civil war. David was mild and gentle towards his subjects. Even so, the rebels made a plot against him which was called the Popish Plot.

The Jebusites (Catholics) suffered from several handicaps. They were deprived of their lands and their taxes were doubled. The situation became intolerable for them. They even tried to convert the uncommitted English people to the Roman Catholic faith. It is said that the Catholics made a plot to blow up the Parliament and to kill the king and important politicians. This was called the Popish Plot, but it was denied by the Catholics. However, Corah (Titus Oates) and his friends affirmed on oath that the plot did exist though it was not implemented. However, as a result of this plot; the people turned against the government.

The most important leader of the rebels against the King was Achitophel. He was a crooked intriguer fond of danger. As a politician, he was cunning and corrupt, though as a judge he was efficient and honest He exploited the Popish Plot to foment a revolt against the King. He became the champion of the people’s rights and a great enemy of the King.

Achitophel wanted a good leader to lead the people against the King. He found in Absalom (Duke of Monmouth) a good tool for working out his designs. Achitophel felt that since Absalom was an illegitimate child, he could fire his ambition and make him try for the throne. In order to win him over, he called him and persuaded him to join the revolt. In his speech, he gave a number of arguments to win over Absalom. Firstly, Absalom was very popular with the people and they would acclaim him as their Saviour. Secondly, the opportunity provided by the unpopularity of the King should be taken. Absalom might then eventually get the throne. Thirdly, he should not be afraid of the King because he is old and powerless. Moreover, if he became the champion of the public, all the people would join him in his fight against the King. Moreover, Absalom had royal blood and, as such, he was the most suitable person to succeed the King.

Absalom was impressed by the arguments of Achitophel. But still, could not make up his mind. Firstly, he did not want to fight his father, who was mild and gentle. Secondly, his father loved him too much and he did not like to abuse his goodness. The King’s brother James (Duke of York), who had been nominated by the King as his successor, was a capable and fair-minded person. Though Absalom wanted to be the king, he thought, that on account of his illegitimacy, he could not obtain the throne.

Achitophel noted the hesitation in Absalom and pressed his arguments further, in order to turn the scales in his favour. He told Absalom that the King’s mildness was a kind of weakness. The people wanted to be free from this weakling. Even the Parliament did not give him the funds he wanted. Further, his friends were not reliable and would leave him in a lurch. Moreover, James (Duke of York) was disliked by the people because he was a Roman Catholic. The people have every right to take away the authority of the King. Similarly, the law of succession could be changed for public welfare. Achitophel thought that the King did not love Absalom; otherwise, he would have nominated him as his successor. Now he could raise the banner of revolt, and inform the people that the King’s life was in danger and he wanted to free him from the Roman Catholics. Perhaps, the King would welcome this revolt as he was afraid of his own brother James.

Absalom was won over by Achitophel. Achitophel promised to unite all the people who were against the King. They would support Absalom in his revolt against the King.

One member of the anti-royalist group was Zimri (Duke of Buckingham). He was a great political intriguer and totally faithless and fickle-minded. When he was turned away from the court, he tried to form parties against the King, but could not succeed. Later, he received an opportunity to revolt against the King.

Shimei was totally anti-royalist. He was extremely miserly and starved his servants. He amassed a lot of money by fraud and deceit. He took no action against the King’s enemies in his capacity as a Sheriff. Wicked people had a glorious time as long as he was in office.

The wickedest of all was Corah, the son of a weaver. He invented the Popish Plot and affirmed it on oath. He named his enemies as the conspirators and abettors in the Popish Plot. It is said that he got the magistrate murdered because he did not believe him.

Absalom left the court in order to prepare for the revolt against the King. He toured the entire country in order to win supporters. He told the people that he sympathised with their difficulties but could not help them because he did not want to revolt against his father. He could only offer his tears to them if they could be useful as a consolation. The people assured him of support and regarded him as their Saviour. The tour, arranged by Achitophel and Absalom, was able to assess their strength before openly declaring war against the King.

The people of Israel (England) were misguided by the plausible arguments of the anti-royalist group. The argument used by them was that the power rests with the people and that the people are sovereign. The kings are only trustees to use the power for the public good. If the power is abused, the people have a right to take over. The common people did not realise that, once power is given to the king by their forefathers, the descendants cannot withdraw that power. Mankind suffers on account of the sin of Adam. Therefore, the people must suffer for the actions of their forefathers who gave powers to the king. This contract cannot be changed at the people’s will. Besides this, how can the crowd judge whether the actions of the king are good or bad? The fickle-minded crowd is likely to change its views. If people claim the right to revolt and expel the king, no civilised life is possible. It is much better to suffer under a bad king than to engage in a civil war. However, the Israelites (Englishmen) were misguided by Achitophel, with the result that they gave him full support.

So popular was the revolt that King David was left only with a few friends. The most important of his supporters was Barzillai (Duke of Ormond). He was a respectable old man who had stood beside the King through thick and thin. He had even gone to exile with the King. He was a patron of warriors and poets. His son, Duke of Ossory, died in the prime of his life. The boy was a great warrior and served his country faithfully. The next supporter of the King was Zadoch the Archbishop of Canterbury, a modest and humble man. Next in order stood Sagan of Jerusalem (the Bishop of London), who was known for his kindness and hospitality. Another supporter was John Dolben, Dean of Westminster who inculcated in the schoolboys, a sense of loyalty and discipline. Besides these, there were many other loyal peers who stood by the King in his hour of difficulty. The supporters of King David (Charles II) advised him to be strong and take a stand against the rebels. If he showed any weakness, the matters would go out of hand.

David felt happy at the support of his group and he spoke with firmness. He told the people that so far he had treated his subjects as a father would treat his children. But his mildness had been misinterpreted as weakness. He knew his rights. The Parliament could not bypass him in choosing a successor. He could not agree to the demand for the removal of his friends from the office. He would now rule as a king. The people wanted law and now he would deal with them according to law. The subjects had to obey him. His success against the rebels was certain because the enthusiasm of the mob was soon exhausted. He would meet the rebels according to his own convenience and crush them. God listened to the speech of David and blessed him. Law and order was restored in the country and the King’s firm rule established

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