Absalom and Achitophel

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Absalom and Achitophel 

Introduction of the Poem

The False Achitophel’ is an extract from John Dryden’s famous verse satire, Absalom and Achitophel part 1 published in 1681.

Absalom and Achitophel deals with the political scenario of England in the late 1670’s and the early 1680’s. The brotestant wigs were agitating to exclude from succession to the throne Charles II’s heir and brother James on the grounds that he was a Roman Catholic and they encouraged Charles’s illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth to assert his claims. This agitation was led by the Earl of Shaftesbury and the Dukie of Buckingham. Their action reminded Dryden of the biblical story of David Absalom and Achitophel. Achitopher was counsellor to David, king of Jadah and Isarel from 1000-962 B.C. He later furned traitor and incited Absalom, one of the king’s numerous bastards, to rebel against his father. Absalom rebelled and forced his father to abandon his capital city.

Dryden applied this biblical story to the contemporary situation with Charles II asking as King David, Shaftesbury as Achitophel and Monmouth as Absalom. The English Achitophel is designated as the “false Achitophel’ in order to distinguish him from his biblical namesake.

The False Achitophel’ gives the satiric portrayal of Anthony Ashley Cooper (1621-83), the first Earl of Shaftesbury.

Summary of the Absalom and Achitophel  Poem

The poet says that of all people opposing the king, the dishonest Acidophil was the foremost. He would be remembered by posterity as someone evil as he was fit only for secret plans and evil advice. He was intelligent and daring but possessed an agitated mind. He was unstable and fickle minded and also perverted. He often changed his ideas as well as positions. His lust for power was unlimited and he was intolerant of any blow to his dignity. His overactive mind dragged his small body along with it and taxed it so much that it became weak and sickly.

In troubled times Achitophel could provide bold leadership he relished the stormy situations and loved to play with dangers. He went out of his way in search of adventures but he was not fit for the times of peace and so he deliberately acted rashly in order to display his cleverness.

Echoing Shakespeare the poet says that genius and madness are closely related and there is a very thin line dividing the two. The implication is that Shaftsbury was a genius with a streak of insanity. He behaved strangely. He was wealthy and honorable. He was old and naturally his body needed rest but instead of living in peace he engaged in all sorts of strenuous actives and made his body further weak. He had very little of life left yet he was in no mood to take his ease. And he took all this trouble for his son, who was no better than a two-legged animal with an ugly body.

Acidophil was treacherous in friendship and merciless in hatred. He was determined either to wreck his country or to rule it according to his will. To achieve his goal he violated the triple alliance of England, Holland and Sweden against Frace by instigating was against Holland. Thus he put the peace and security of his country in jeopardy and brought it to the brink of subjection of its neighbor, France. Then overcome with the fear of consequences of his actions he proclaimed that he was a patriot.

Satirizing the public opinion the poet says that people for give all sorts of misdeeds committed in the name of patriotism. In periods of internal trouble it is very easy to wash one’s hands of one’s crimes by attributing them to the public cause, people’s support turns treachery into loyalty and evil into good. Popular approval can cancel all guilt. No act is illegal unless people take notice of it and for the most part people see their weaknesses reflected in their evil leaders.

The poet once again returns to Shaftsbury but this time he focuses on his merits. The poet says that none can deny that Shaftsbury was a man of fame. Though as a politician he was hateful he was most worthy of admiration as a judge and legal authority. As a judge Shaftsbury had no rival in England. He was impartial, honest and wise. He could not be influenced with bribes, he gave prompt relief to the victims and he cold be easily approached.

Finally, the poet feels sorry for Shaftsbury. He says that if this man had remained contented with his role of a judge and it he had not polluted his noble mind with evil designs, the king would have given him the highest praise. Here, it may be recalled that the biblical prototype, David is traditionally regarded as the author of the psalms.

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