Satire is a form of literature, the proclaimed purpose of which is the reform of human weaknesses or vices through laughter or disgust. Satire is different from scolding and sheer abuse, though it is prompted by indignation. Its aim is generally constructive, and need not arise from cynicism or misanthropy. The satirist applies the test of certain ethical, intellectual and social standards to men and women, and determines their degree of criminality or culpability.
Satire naturally has a wide range; it can involve an attack on the vices of an age, or the defects of an individual or the follies common to the very species of mankind. Absalom and Achitophel is a landmark political satire by John Dryden. Dryden marks his satire with a concentrated and convincing poetic style. His satiric verse is majestic, what Pope calls: “The long majestic march and energy divine”. Critics have unanimously remarked on Dryden’s capacity to transform the trivial into the poetical; personal envy into the fury of imaginative creation.
The obscure and the complicated is made clear and simple. All this transforming power is to be seen at the very beginning of Absalom and Achitophel. The state of ‘Israel’ is easy to understand and yet Dryden shows himself a master both of the Horatian and the Juvenalian styles of Satire. He is urbance witty devastating and vigorous, but very seldom petty. Ab & AC : Basically a Political Satire: Dryden called Absalom and Achitophel ‘a poem’ and not a satire, implying thereby that it had elements other than purely satirical. One cannot, for instance, ignore the obvious epic or heroic touches in it.
All the same, the poem originated in the political situation of England at the time and one cannot fail to note that several political personalities are satirised in it. Published in November 1681, the theme was suggested by the king to Dryden. At this time, the question of succession to King Charles had assumed great importance. The Earl of Shaftesbury had been thrown into prison to face a charge of high treason. There were two contenders for the succession. Firstly, Charles’ brother James, Duke of York, a known Roman Catholic; the second contender was Charles’ illegitimate son, the Protestant Duke of Monmouth.
The Whigs supported Monmouth while the Tories supported the cause of James in order to ensure stability in the country. There was great public unrest on account of the uncertainty of succession. King Charles II saw to it that the Exclusion bill brought before Parliament, to exclude the succession of his brother James, could not be pushed through. The earl of Shaftesbury, a highly ambitious man, sought to capitalise on this unrest. He also urged Monmouth to rebel against his father. The King, though fond of his illegitimate son, did not support his succession because that would have been against law.
The Earl of Shaftesbury was arrested on a charge of high treason and lost popular support. Dryden’s Aim in Absalom and Achitophel: The aim of Dryden was to support the King and to expose his enemies. Of course, Charles had his own weaknesses; he was extremely fond of women. But Dryden puts a charitable mantel over his sexual sins. He is mild in dealing with his real vices. The king himself did not think unfavourably of his love affairs. Sexual licence was the order of the age and as such, it did not deserve condemnation.
Dryden has nothing but praise for the king’s moderation in political matters and his leniency towards rebels. Dryden’s lash falls on the King’s enemies particularly the Earl of Shaftesbury. He was reckless politician without any principles who, “ having tried in vain to seduce Charles to arbitrary government had turned round and now drives down the current”. Dryden dreads the fickleness of the mob and he is not sure to what extremes a crowd can go. However, the king’s strictness and instinct for the rule of law won for him popular support and he was able to determine the succession according to his desire.
Dryden’s reference to the godlike David shows his flattery of the King and his belief in the “Theory of the Divine Right of Kings”. Political Satire Cast in Biblical Mould: Dryden chose the well known Biblical story of Absalom revolting against his father David, at the wicked instigation of Achitophel, in order to satirise the contemporary political situation. The choice of a Biblical allegory is not original on dryden’s part, but his general treatment of the subject is beyond comparison, as Courthope points out.
But all the while Dryden takes care to see that the political satire in not lost in the confusion of a too intricate Biblical parallelism. The advantage of setting the story in pre-Christian times is obvious as it gave Dryden had at once to praise the King and satirise the King’s opponents. To discredit the opponents he had to emphasise on Monmouth’s illegitimacy; but at the same time he had to see that Charles (who was Monmouth’s father) was not adversely affected by his criticism. He could not openly condone Charles’ loose morals; at the same time, he could not openly criticise it either.
With a masterly touch he sets the poem : “In pious times are priestcraft did begin Before polygamy was made a sin; When man on maultiplied his kind, Ere one to one was cursedly confined…. ” The ironical undertone cannot be missed; Dryden is obviously laughing up his sleeve at Charles himself, who, as a witty patron, could not have missed it, nor failed to enjoy it. Conclusion: Dryden is correctly regarded as the most vigorous and polished of English satirists combining refinement with fervour.
Dryden is unequalled at debating in rhyme and Absalom and Achitophel displays his power of arguing in verse. It may be said that Absalom and Achitophel has no rival in the field of political satire. Apart from the contemporary interest of the poem and its historical value, it appeal to the modern reader lies in its observations on English character and on the weaknesses of man in general. His generalisations on human nature have a perennial interest. Dryden triumphed over the peculiar difficulties of his chosen theme. He had to give, not abuse or politics,but the poetry of abuse and politics.
He had to criticise a son whom the father still liked; he had to make Shaftesbury denounce the King but he had to see to it that the King’s susceptibilities were not wounded. He had to praise without sounding servile and he had to criticise artistically. Dryden achieves all this cleverly and skilfully. Achitophel’s denunciation of the king assumes the shades of a eulogy in Charles’ eyes. Absalom is a misguided instrument in Achitophel’s hands. The poem is certainly a political satire, but it is a blend of dignity with incisive and effective satire.