John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel has long been established as a manifestation of the intricate fabric of patriarchal scheme of the Restoration monarchy. Generations of critics have found it as an extremely intriguing territory, swiftly trafficking with the contemporary socio-political notion of the king as the father of the nation and his celestial alignment with the God himself.
This perspective locks Dryden’s text within the obvious interpretation of it as a literary tool to manifest the structures of the father-oriented monarchy. The woman-question, in this kind of critical thinking, becomes a vivid attempt on the poet’s part to wipe out the female voices and thereby underplaying female authority in a patriarchal society.
This, indeed, becomes apparent when we focus upon the fact that in the text we hear no word uttered by any female subject; in fact, there are only three names of female characters mentioned in the text- Michal, Annabel, and Bathsheba and of course they are hardly the references to be proud of, for Michal’s soil is “ungrateful to the tillers care”, Annabel is almost a gift to Absalom from his father David and the king “Is grown in Bathsheba’s embraces old”.
Apart from these three somewhat humiliating references there is no other mention of the women in Absalom and Achitophel. The poem surely aims at fashioning a binary opposition between the feminine qualities and the masculine faculties that David/Charles II represents. The perfidious nature of the group that goes against the divinely justified Monarchy is heightened by the feminization of the rebelling factions. As the kingship is settled by God, to stand against monarchy is logically to stand against God’s will.
Achitophel’s luring of Absalom into the rebelling faction is therefore drawn as a reworking of the scene of Milton’s Paradise lost where Satan lures Eve into disobeying God’s words. Like Eve in the Garden, Absalom is cajoled to believe it is his righteousness that should act against David and this disobedience to God and David is reasonable. By taking the question of succession into his own hands, Absalom, like Eve, threatens to destroy Eden that is Dryden’s England.
This act of disobedience is similar to that of the Original Sin, which, of course, was brought by a woman. Moreover, this crisis about the succession is initiated, in Dryden’s vision, not by David’s lustful behaviour but by Queen Michal’s inability to bear an heir- her “ungrateful soil”. This image of female sterility is contrasted with the masculine fecundity of David: “His vigorous warmth did variously impart/ To wives and slaves, and, wide as his command, / Scattered his Maker’s Image through the land. The silence ascribed to the women in the text is a mechanism performing the job of discarding the female sex from the overwhelming social reality of patriarchy, a process that is embedded in the contemporary historical atmosphere. But while attempting to achieve this end, I propose, the text curiously assumes a paradoxical position, a position that was not indeed in Dryden’s design but which managed to install itself within the text unconsciously.
Dryden’s patriarchal machinery of silencing women in the text both ensures a meticulous building of a monarchy and also serves to recognise a certain degree of male anxiety that undercuts this powerful structure of male authority. In his 1680 treatise Patriarcha, Sir Robert Fillmore attempted to prove that the kings were the fathers of their people and he advised his readers to “honour thy father”. His whole argument was structured around the fundamental formula of erasing women from his text as well as from his idea of justified monarchy.
Both these texts use non-representation of female subject as a way to establish the unquestionable male authority but what they instead do is to question that very authority which they intend to posit as transcending human frailties. By suppressing the female voice they betray an anxiety. Femaleness is a dangerous potential; it could bring disruption unto the stout fabric of patriarchy, it could call the nightmares of female resistance up into the dreamy vision of an Edenic past where patriarchy holds the essential key to power.
By limiting the women to a sort of non-entity, Dryden’s poem, in a circuitous manner, acknowledges its anxiety regarding the women and agrees to the fact that it is possible for women to deconstruct the patriarchal monarchy, thereby providing them with an immense power. The patriarchy is in a precarious position, always afraid of the femaleness. The women must be silenced as their voices are standing in opposition to the patriarchy. As the rebellious faction is against the patriarchal monarchy, so it is compared with the female character of Paradise Lost.
This technique of equating femaleness with the evil is not something invented by Dry den and was present even in Shakespeare’s The Tempest; the female practitioner of magic Sycorax is characterized as a witch. Again, Prospero tried to fashion a narrative from which the figure of his wife would be absent, but just as his absent wife returns again and again to haunt his narrative, the absent female voices in Absalom and Achitophel pierce the supposed infallible structure of patriarchy.
There was a notion, the origin of which dated back to Greek times, that women had to conceive an heir and barrenness was seen as a rebellion against the husband. So the first seed of rebellion in the poem is sowed by a woman, Queen Michal, whose sterility blocked the possibility of bringing a legitimate heir to the throne. The adjective ‘ungrateful’ powerfully portrays the male anxiety of engaging a female rebellion against the patriarchy, the word enables a decisive break from the benign obedience to the male authority and thereby spells an anti-patriarchal position.
The reference to Bathsheba is also tinged with this anxiety- Bathsheba’s embrace is such that makes the king old, undoes his maleness by disengaging him from his youth. It is a dangerous embrace that in fact weakens the basis of the patriarchy. This process of endowing the women in Absalom and Achitophel with power reaches at its zenith with the poignant mention of the “Mother-Plot” at the last section of the poem. The use of the word ‘mother’ here shows that the whole scheme of the rebellion was a maternal affair, an incident that was inherently feminine.
This suggestion to the womanly quality of the rebellion underlines the power ascribed to women in Absalom and Achitophel , resisting the all-inclusive domination of the patriarchy. The poem, despite its best attempt to pattern a brilliant motif of patriarchy, manages only to devise a paradoxical situation from which emerge the figures of ‘powerful’ women threatening to revive the hidden anatomy of chaos from under the picturesque order of the Patriarchal monarchy. The femaleness proves to be at least as powerful as the patriarchy in Dryden’s poem.