The Role and Character of Achitophel in Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel

Collected from a thesis.

The Role of Achitophel in Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel: A Representation of the Unscrupulous and Ambitious Politicians with Extraordinary Intellect

Dryden writes Absalom and Achitophel at the request of Charles II to defend the King and his followers against the Whigs led by the Earl of Shaftesbury. From history, we know that Charles had no legitimate who could ascend the throne after his death. Therefore, the King was in a problem and nominated his brother James, the Duke of York, as the legal heir of the throne. But in general, the people of England were not in favor of James because he was a Catholic. The Catholics wanted James as their King but the Whigs did not want James. The Whigs were vigorously against the Duke of the York. They now want to succeed the throne the Duke of Monmouth an illegitimate son of Charles. Though the king loved his illegitimate son, he opposes this. At this time, Dryden was Poet Laureate and so he was asked to write a poem in support of the King attacking king’s opponents. Dryden did this ridiculing the opponents depicting a mirror-like poem Absalom and Achitophel.

In this poem, Achitophel is a treacherous conspirator whose name was cursed not only by the people of his contemporary age but also by the succeeding generations. Dryden says

“Sagacious, Bold, — the Pigmy Body to decay”(153-157).

Achitophel here is represented as sagacious, bold, a fiery soul, a great wit blessed with wealth and honor. As every man is free in his will, his mind was always busy making secret plans and for wicked advice. At the same time, he was restless and had a lust for power but when he was in power he wasted it. Outwardly, he appeared to be prudent and courageous, noted for taking the risk, but he was mischievous by nature. Dryden argued that Shaftesbury had a weak and sickly body but he never cared it and he was always busy planning intrigues against the King and the Crowd and Absalom for his gain.

Dryden explains in this passage that why Achitophel wanted to use Absalom in the struggle against the King.

“Achitophel still wants a chief,—depending on the Crowd:”(220-225).

Achitophel knows that he is unpopular and as such he could not be able to lead the revolt against the King. Moreover, his loyalty was suspected and he was to face treason. He, therefore, wanted a suitable person to become the leader and to use him. Here, Dryden also added that politicians neither love nor hate anyone and they are only interested in their good. Achitophel knew that Absalom had no legal claims to the throne and would have to depend on the support of the people. Regarding this, Achitophel actually would like to use Absalom as a weapon. So, Achitophel thinks in this way, the authority of the king would be undermined and it may pave the way for the rule of the mob.

“He stood at bold Defiance with his Prince/ …/

Against the Crown: and sculk’d behind the Laws” (205-207)

And then in these lines, we get an impression that the crimes which Achitophel had planned now became obvious and he openly defied the authority of the King. He further tried to protect himself by supporting the rights of the people against the King and tried to take shelter behind the laws of England. He found some evidence in support of the plot of the Catholics against the King but added to it, evidence fabricated by him to strengthen the case. In this case, he used agents who went around whispering into the ears of the common people. And additionally, he is trying to convince the common people that how the King is becoming arbitrary. In such a way Achitophel is trying to prove the King as a Jebusite or Roman Catholic. He says,

“Of listening Crowds, with jealousies and Fears

Of Arbitary Counsels brought to light,

And proves the King himself a Jebusite”(A&A, 212-214).

So, the desire for power happened between Absalom and King David created in the mind of Absalom by Achitophel is a kind of competition that exists all the time and in all the society among all.

Dryden reveals the cunning and intriguing nature of Achitophel through some expression in this poem from lines

“If not when the King —– left to publick Scorn”(388-400).

One of the arguments stated by Absalom is that the King is becoming generous to his subjects and is in turn loved by them. Achitophel meets this argument very cleverly in his second speech. He thinks that he will devise some ways by which the King will become unpopular and will lose the affection of his subject. Achitophel assures Absalom that it will be his business to create trouble for the King by starting conspiracies against him. Such plots will involve the King in some expensive war for which he will not be able to pay for long. If he wants money for the war from the public treasury he will have to come to Parliament for it and naturally he will have to bargain with his authority for a grant of money from Parliament and the public fund. On account of the jealousies and fear of the king, the anti-royalist group will call his supporters Roman Catholics and as the agents of the will of France. This will create a conflict between the King and his supporters because he will not be able to give his patronage to them for want of money. So, in such a position his followers will leave him and he will be left alone to face the hatred of the people. So, we can here point out that Achitophel has an inventive brain and he is being able to create a gulf between the King and his supporters. Thereby, the king will become unpopular and his supporters will join to revolt against him. This will ultimately lead to his unpopularity which will indirectly help the struggle of Absalom against the King. So, Achitophel is instigating the crowd against the King because of taking Absalom’s side and to make conflict between the King and Absalom for desiring the same thing, “power”.

However, Achitophel tried to manipulate the crowd and, at the same time, Absalom also. In the following lines Achitophel addresses Absalom,

“Auspicious Prince! —- shews the promis’d Land:” (230-235)

as a lucky prince, a star in the southern sky, and a Saviour in such a way so that he might turn him into his prey. He then further added, the people look upon you as a second Moses and you are a result of the prayers of the general people. By saying this he is evoking the embodiment and the hidden ambition of the young Prince. Then Achitophel says,

“Believe me, Royal Youth Thy Fruit must be

Or gathered Ripe or rot upon the Tree”( 250-251).

Here actually Achitophel is precipitating or forcing the will of Absalom by persuading his thought for taking arms against the King.

Moreover, Dryden portrays the struggle in the mind of Absalom after he had heard the speech of Achitophel in these lines,

“Th’ Ambitious Youth, — for Publick Liberty?”(309-316).

Achitophel has given solid arguments for advising the prince to revolt against the father though sometimes he feels that his arguments are weak. The seeds of ambition struck root in the fertile brain of Absalom and he began to think seriously about the proposal made by Achitophel. Actually Absalom was undoubtedly an ambitious young man who had a great desire for winning fame. He had an angelic temperament also. But he was led astray unknowingly just as the angels in heaven were led astray by Satan. There is an implied comparison between Satan’s temptation and the sweet words of Achitophel. Unknowingly, Monmouth drifted from the right path on account of his being intoxicated with the prospect of winning, and the corruption of excessive words of praise used by Achitophel. There was a great hesitation in his mind. So, here we can compare the mental state of Absalom as a pendulum half unwilling and half willing to respond to the proposal of Achitophel. His feeling of loyalty rose uppermost within him. Dryden shows here Achitophel’s power as a psychologist.

In addition, in these lines,

“In Friendship False, —-Bond he broke”(A&A,173-175)

Dryden portrays Achitophel as a false friend and a revengeful enemy and he thinks in a way that either to rule a state or to ruin the country. To achieve his end, he broke the Triple Alliance between England, Sweden and Holland by instigating war against Holland. Therefore, he dealt a blow to the security of peace and paved the way for bringing England under the rule of a foreign power. Overcoming the fear of the consequence of his action, he assumed the name of a patriot and posed as a champion of the people’s cause. In the time of political trouble, it is easy to hide one’s wicked action by pretending a concern for public welfare. Crimes against the state and evil deeds can be excused if they are done under the cover of fulfilling the wishes of the public. In such a period people shut their eyes to treason and wickedness because they themselves are wicked, corrupt and vicious. So, Achitophel’s showing goodness to Absalom is actually a kind of false friendship. It’s not from the core of his mind. He can do anything for his own sake. This is a kind of pretension also for achieving his goal.

And in the same manner, Achitophel was portrayed as a bold leader in the time of danger in these lines,

“ Pleas’d with the Danger, when the Waves went high

He sought the Storm but for a Calm unfit” (A&A, 160-161).

In fact, he welcomed crisis when the political atmosphere became stormy. Undoubtedly it can be argued that he liked to catch fish in troubled water and was unfit for the time of peace because then his actions were too reckless in his attempt to show his wisdom. He thinks his mind was confused and was born as an unnatural, shapeless lump of flesh like an embodiment of anarchy. Achitophel actually would like to take advantage when the situation is bad.

Thus Achitophel plans to rebel against the royal power with multitude.

“To farther this Achitophel Unites— to serve the same design”(491-494)

in these lines we see to achieve this object, Achitophel united the discontented people of Israel (England) into a single party that had been working separately, now began to work together to achieve one and the same goal. The best people among them included persons of royal blood who were of the view that the king was exercising too much power. Some of the men were really patriotic but they were misguided. They were not evil-minded but they were won over by unholy tricks and intrigues. These people made extraordinary claims on the basis of their property and the result was that the government could not stand this pressure and broke down.

In fine, we can say that the combination of exceptional intellectual caliber and stupendous moral bankruptcy is too rare which we see in Achitophel. Indeed, it is not to be found in the character of every politician. Such men as Achitophel, pursuing their ambitious and selfish political goal with extraordinary brilliance through devious means, do exist. There may be few persons of such brilliant intellect who put their intelligence to such devious schemes, but they certainly linger in all lands and in all times. It is true to some extent that, the Earl of Shaftesbury cannot be removed from the context in which Dryden puts him, for we cannot have the same political situation as existed in England at that time. But most of the features presented in Achitophel are to be found universally among politicians – hypocrisy, lack of integrity, ambition, etc. When an acutely intelligent man turns his mind to a lust for power, he makes use of his intellectual ability to gain his ends unscrupulously. Such men are to be found in increasing numbers in the modern world of power politics. It proves the universality of Dryden’s portraiture of the Earl of Shaftsbury.