You Talkin' to ME?
Political strategy and the subjects of satire in Absalom and Achitophel

John Dryden was a shrewd political survivor. He managed to live and write through three monarchies, a Commonwealth, and multiple incarnations of at least two religions with no worse consequence than eventually being stripped of his laureateship when the Glorious Revolution put the question of succession and state Catholicism permanently to rest. To call Absalom and Achitophel a masterwork of satirical verse and political propaganda is simple; however, as the large body of criticism generated by the work indicates, to define clearly the subjects of the satire and isolate the purpose of the poet is an extraordinarily complicated undertaking. The dialogic structure of Varronian satire permits Dryden to negotiate all sides of the issues, a crucial skill for a public writer when the nature of power and law, and where they are seated--in Parliament, King, people, or poet—are at stake.

Dryden was both Poet Laureate to King Charles II as well as royal historiographer. The duties of the former position must have impeded the faithful execution of the latter—depending on to who or what "faithful" refers. Major readings of Absalom and Achitophel by such critics as Steven Zwicker, Bernard Schilling, and George McFadden analyze, amongst much else, what can be termed the directionality of the poem; that is, they situate the purpose of its satire, "the amendment of vices by correction" (l. 72), as generally directed towards the people, or as generally directed towards the king. The poem of course seems to move in both directions—from a court perspective and a public one, a strategy immediately apparent in the rhetoric of impartiality deliberately emphasized in the preface. Dryden pretends, from the outset, to evenhandedness in his treatment of the issues addressed. The preface is a preemptive defensive maneuver (but no apology) on behalf of a moderate political stance, noting the possibility of merits on each side of Whig and Tory, Puritan and Papist.

Steven Zwicker, in Politics and Language in Dryden’s Poetry, calls this the rhetoric of the "Middle Way," but suggests that Dryden’s contemporaries never would have read it as such. He posits it as a mere convention, necessary to gain the poem acceptance amongst the widest readership of moderates, a strategy that suggests it was intended essentially for circulation outside the court. Dryden’s self-identification as not the inventor but "only the historian" (l 59) towards the end of the preface seems to support that argument, as does his thrice-repeated claim to "honesty" (l 3, 20, 73). Schilling, in Dryden and the Conservative Myth, goes even further, portraying Dryden as a purely professional writer working on assignment from the king in an effort to bring his case before the nation. In this reading, any criticism of David/Charles II must function as little more than a token counterweight against the overwhelmingly cutting satire of Achitophel/Shaftesbury, Absalom/Monmouth, and the Jews/English as a whole, who at the time were still recovering from widespread panic over the Popish Plot and remained largely in favor of Exclusion.

That is the first part of the paradox. To penetrate a politically literate public’s appreciation of their sovereign’s flaws, those flaws must first be acknowledged—acknowledged, but deemphasized. Based on what the poet could have said about Charles II and did not, this would seem to be Dryden’s approach. The king does not get away cleanly, but the worst offenses are either abrogated or ignored. His promiscuity, which gave rise to Monmouth and occasioned the succession crisis, is immediately dismissed as the God-mandated directive to populate the planet. The "gift" of 3.5 million francs from Louis XIV that allowed Charles' fiscal independence from Parliament is referenced by Absalom only as "petty sums of foreign gold" (l 709), and the ramifications of a Catholic succession are completely omitted. Indeed, the future James II is the subject of a practical panegyric spoken by Absalom--a panegyric that fails to mention the Duke’s pronounced Catholic faith. The system is not perfect, Dryden admits, but it wants no more than patchwork and a buttress, and not a total teardown (l. 801-04). The harshest criticism is reserved for the treacherous Achitophel, the ambitious Absalom, and the spoiled, misled, panicky, malcontented populace. Thus the critical imbalance is explained.

Except, of course, that it isn’t. George McFadden, in Dryden, the Public Writer, argues from the contrary viewpoint, postulating Absalom as Dryden’s attempt to enrage and prompt Charles II to the kind of action described by the king’s speech in lines 939-1025. An easygoing criticism makes sense here too; Dryden must tread lightly on the king’s toes in order to get his attention without attracting the rage the poem inspires. He must keep Charles focused on those that oppose his will, and their motivations—hence the satire of the public, the Plot, and the Parliament, the sugar coating on the tough pill to swallow. Achitophel’s Satanic ambition may have been deeply flawed, and his fall from grace its much deserved result, but Dryden affords him ample time and space to detail what he perceives as the kingdom’s royal pains. Schilling points out that Achitophel cannot be an idiot in the poem, as his appointment as an advisor would reflect poorly on the king. Consequently, though evil and corrupt, he is not stupid, and his opinions have real weight. Even the devil may speak true.

The text alone cannot end the debate about Dryden’s ultimate target. The dialogic structure, as described by Bakhtin, and heteroglossic quality of the poem insulate the poet from any definitive reading. Zwicker even reminds us of the divide between poet and narrator--a distinction McFadden does not make—that only adds to the mystery. In Zwicker’s reading, we do not necessarily know who is leading the reader through the various viewpoints. It seems unlikely, however, that in a relatively closed environment such as the court, and in times as politically volatile as the third quarter of the 17th Century, such subtle rhetorical subterfuge would truly have afforded an ill-favored poet any real protection from a king perceiving himself as publicly wronged. The implicit double-negative of unfavorable depiction by an unfavorable man—Achitophel—would not have been enough to save Dryden if Charles II decided to take issue on the subject of his depiction to the public, nor would the gambit of anonymous publication, nor the veil of unbroken biblical parallel. Eventually the words are all Dryden’s, and Dryden responsible for their deployment.

Only the contemporary context of authorship, readership, and political strategy can lead to a satisfactory conclusion of the apparent paradox and locate the true target of satire. The existence of the poem itself acknowledges the new political circumstances of a post-regicide monarchical system—circumstances that suggest true power no longer stems from a divinely appointed king but the obedient people of "willing nations." The last lines of the poem establish a contract between subject and king: in the "series of new time" (l. 1028), ie. the Restoration, the two bodies are approaching codependence. Charles is the lawful king, but the people can choose (carefully) to obey. 1649 set a retrospectively lamented but nonetheless unforgettable precedent; Dryden knows to what lengths a highly motivated populace can go, especially as a majority. Absalom and Achitophel is not Annus Mirabilis, a mystifying and mythologizing portrayal of an affectionate and hard-working father-king in the aftermath of military victory and a force majeure. It is a more sophisticated and sober representation of a later age, with far more echoes of the London Fire than the defeat of the Dutch.

All three critics discussed above see King David’s speech from lines 939-1025 as being important in support of their divergent arguments. Zwicker and Schilling read it as a warning to the Parliament and people to obey their rightful sovereign, to "beware the fury of a patient man" (1005) who has for too long shown them mercy. McFadden reads it as Dryden’s vision of the King as he should be, sword unsheathed in preparation for a judicious bloodletting. They all see it as the exercise of power by one body on another; however, a close reading suggests a third alternative: a different sort of middle way, not a mere rhetorical blind but a political stance of kingly right moderated by the new awareness of public and Parliamentary power. It starts well enough, with strength and bloody promise, but as it continues David’s statements become somewhat more conditional. "A king’s at least a part of government / And mine as requisite as their consent," he says (l. 977-98). "Votes shall no more established power control," he continues, which sounds right, but only "such votes as make a part exceed the whole" (l. 993-95). "No groundless clamours shall my friends remove / Nor crowds have power to punish ere they prove" (l. 995-96, italics added). When it finally comes to the subduing of his enemies, it is not even David that Dryden has doing the real work. "Thus on my foes, my foes shall do me right" he says, and "Then let’em take an unresisted course, / Retire and traverse, and delude their force" (l. 1017, 1020, 21). Only when they have sufficiently weakened themselves will Charles raise an iron fist, clad in the armor of law.

If it is an image of strength that Charles II wished presented to the people, one must ask why he did it at a remove, permitting Dryden to speak on his behalf. He was not the first king who needed to impress notions of obedience on his subjects amidst political and social turmoil; not even the first in his family. James I’s Basilicon Doron, written in 1599, draws on Scripture—including the second book of Samuel, the source material for Absalom—to transmit such a message; however, as Alan Sinfield notes (in an article written about MacBeth), "once James has brought the pronouncement into visibility, the reader is at liberty to doubt the king’s tendentious interpretation of it…we are led to think of the text not as propounding a unitary and coherent meaning which is to be discovered, by as a handling of a range of issues and as unable to control the development of radically divergent interpretations" ("MacBeth: History, Ideology, and Intellectuals." 72). Six years after writing the Basilicon James nearly found himself on the wrong side of the Gunpowder Plot. Applying the same reasoning to Absalom, Charles II, why take that risk? If Zwicker is correct and the poem would not have been read as moderate beyond its rhetoric, Dryden chanced pushing more subjects away from obedience to the king under threat of applied authority—a threat the King lacked the resolve to make himself, or so it might have appeared. It seems an unnecessary political risk to potentially neutralize any popular gains by equal losses, while simultaneously and implicitly undermining the authority of the king.

This argument may overstate the overall practical political influence of the poem, and I wish to avoid too strict a binary reading. As stated above, upon publication and the extension of readership beyond the court, Absalom was bound to function as admonishment and advice, moderate, factional, or radical, in both directions, and whatever Dryden’s intention was, he would have had to cloak it somewhat. He could not write with the Earl of Rochester’s bluntness and deliver genuine political commentary at the same time, for political and personal reasons, not the least of which were financial dependence on and real loyalty to the king. Nonetheless, it makes slightly more sense from a political standpoint to read the poem as McFadden does: advice to a beloved but troubled sovereign from a shrewd political survivor.

In 1513, another such survivor wrote a pamphlet of advice to any who would wish successfully to rule a state. The Prince addresses many of the faults and renders the same judgments on rule as appear in Absalom and Achitophel, suggesting the possibility of similar intent. "Any man," Machiavelli writes, "who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires" (42). Comparisons abound; The Prince includes sections on Cruelty and Clemency (Absalom’s delay of revenge versus the application of justice), Liberality and Stinginess (Absalom has given too much), Avoiding Contempt, the importance of Private Advisors, and the dangers of relying on a stronger foreign power for aid. Machiavelli had to at least as careful about rendering criticism of his patron’s rule as Dryden, and found a form that allowed specific addresses to be cloaked in a veil of general application.

It is easier to change the beliefs and habits of an individual to whom one is close than masses that already know one’s true allegiance to be in opposition to their own. Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, as a political treatise, deserves to be classed with Machiavelli’s The Prince as constructive criticism cloaked in complimentary terms. It is not allied with the masses or Parliament, but recognizes their strength, and paints them in terms amenable to a king in conflict with them. As the country discovered clearly not many years after Charles II’s death, Britain was already beyond Absolutism. Dryden recognized this, and in his great poem urged action within law, strong rule with practical savvy.

Dryden, John. "Absalom and Achitophel." Selected Poems. Ed. Steven Zwicker. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. Robert Adams. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1992.

McFadden, George. Dryden, the Public Writer.

Schilling, Bernard. Dryden and the Conservative Myth.

Sinfield, Alan. "MacBeth: History, ideology, and intellectuals." Critical Quaterly. V. 28, nos. 2.

Zwicker, Steven. Politics and Language in Dryden's Poetry.

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