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Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
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Absalom and Achitophel

John Dryden

Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of the unit, the learners will be able to:

  1. acquire a general insight into John Dryden as a Restoration poet
  2. explain some of the characteristics of satirical poetry
  3. describe some of the stylistic elements in the selected text
  4. detail some of the major themes in the selected text


The Restoration Era in English literature was dominated by John Dryden (1631-1700). A versatile writer, he gained fame as a poet, dramatist, critic, translator and a satirist. He is considered a pioneer of modern prose writing in English as well as one of the first significant literary critics in the language.

Dryden’s writings mark a transition towards the neoclassical in theme and style. The ancient Greek and Roman writers were put forward as models by him. His works showcase the intellectual faculty over imagination, and reason over emotion. He made his works a conduit for argument, controversy, personal and political satire, rather than ‘self-expression’ in the romantic model.

He has produced extensive critical scholarship on a wide range of literary topics. He has presented theories on epic, tragedy, comedy, drama and satire. Further, his critical works have presented comparisons between ancient and modern writers, as well as an under-standing of the nature of poetry and translation.

Dryden can be considered a spokesperson of his period. In his writings, he brought in a critical and realistic appraisal of the times, handling themes that had a direct influence on his society. Absalom and Achitophel is representative of this unique ability of Dryden. In this satiric narrative poem, Dryden uses a biblical allegory to discuss the political events of his time. It openly mocks the opponents of the King and establishes the poet’s support for royal rule.

Key Words

Satire, Lampooning, Allegory, Foolishness, Allusion


The political satire, Absalom and Achitophel, which first appeared in 1681, is based on events that took place under Charles II of England. James was proposed as the heir to the throne since King Charles II did not have a legal heir. However, James had a stronger affinity for Roman Catholicism, and this made him unpopular. John, the Duke of Monmouth started to rebel against his father King Charles II because the King did not want his illegitimate son to succeed him. Since Dryden was not able to openly write about these matters, he encoded them in the form of biblical events that took place during the reign of King David. In the poem, Monmouth is portrayed as Absalom, and Shaftesbury, the helper of Monmouth, as Achitophel. The revolt of Monmouth against the king, incited by Shaftesbury, is presented as Absalom’s revolt against King David, provoked by Achitophel. The Duke of Buckingham is presented as Zimri in the poem. It is his favouritism to King Charles II that makes Dryden satirise Monmouth and his benefactors.

4.4.1 Summary

Some princes from the royal families served as the top figures who opposed the government. The person who stood first among them was Zimri. He was an exceptional kind of man. He was a man who could be considered as an epitome of various talents. He had a fascination for many things. He seemed an expert in many fields He was stern in opinions, though always wrong. He used to try all sorts of occupations, but never succeeded in any. To add to the woe, he was not able to hold on to any job for long. So, in one lunar month, he would work as a chemist, a fiddler, a politician, and a fool. As a fool, he used to spend all his time flirting with ladies, painting, reciting poems, or heavy drinking. Moreover, he too belongs to the ten thousand fools who died trying to think wisely.

Critical Analysis

Absalom and Achitophel is a satire composed by John Dryden. It is patterned in a heroic couplet format. The overall thematic thread of the poem is a rebellion led by Absalom and Achitophel against King David of Israel. It narrates the story of England during the seventeenth century. In the poem, Dryden considers Monmouth as Absalom, the beloved child and Shaftesbury as Achitophel. Charles is introduced as King David and Buckingham, the old enemy of Dryden, is introduced as Zimri. Zimri appears in the poem as a disloyal servant.

The story alludes to the Bible where Absalom is a favourite son of King David and his false friend Achitophel, who inspires King David’s son to be rebellious against his own father. The poem is distinctive for its satirical rendition of its characters. The poem, written in a mock-heroic fashion, provides allegories to describe the political events.

This section of the poem is part of descriptions on mean and corrupt people who express their solidarity with Absalom and Achitophel in order to bring down David. Dryden’s main allegation against them is that they think very little but speak excessively. The first in his list of mockery is Zimri who is lampooned for his wrong opinions. Zimri represents the Duke of Buckingham, who is already a subject of ridicule in Dryden’s The Rehearsal.

As the poem is written during the political turmoil, it adopts an allegorical and mock-heroic narrative style to lampoon the personal and political matters. Dryden, seemingly in the form of praise, employs the dramatic language in order to shower his criticism on Zimri or Duke of Buckingham. Though Zimri is intelligent, he is inconsistent and extravagant. Dryden sheds light on the various personal traits of Zimri such as his likes and dislikes, attitude and lifestyle.

This section of Absalom and Achitophel starts disclosing that Zimri is one of the leaders who takes his position against the royal court/government. Zimri is introduced in the poem as a leading rebellious leader of high position, who is an icon of multiple talents and tastes. With a mix of humour and sarcasm, Dryden announces that he always seems stern in his opinions, but his views always prove to be wrong. He initiates multiple tasks in a single moment but fails in executing any of them.

Dryden excels in his sarcastic balancing of Zimri’s expertise and failure, but both contribute ironically to laughing at him. The brilliant balancing of positives and negatives are strikingly done in lines such as “chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon” and “chemist, a violinist, a politician and a fool’s fool”. In these lines, the list of positive qualities comes to an end in a negative attribute. In both these lines quoted above, Zimri is sketched in terms of his skills in science, musical instruments, and governance but all these positive attributes are negated by the last qualification ‘buffoon’ which signifies that he is a ‘fool’. Extending this ridicule to its extreme, Dryden names him as a ‘fool’s fool’.

Dryden calls him a luxurious and extravagant man who spends his time flirting with women, but also drinking heavily, and engaging in creative works like painting and composing rhythmic poems. The vehement attack from the part of Dryden is that Zimiri is an unquestionable leader of the crowd who died of trying to think.

One of the leading preoccupations of the poem is the connection between kingship and fatherhood. Employing biblical allusions, Dryden introduces the present fatherhood and royal responsibilities with the help of ancient fatherhood and royal powers. The poem is distinguished for its brilliant blend of fatherhood and kingship.


  • A satire composed in a verse form by John Dryden
  • Patterned in a heroic couplet format
  • Rebellion led by Absalom and Achitophel against King David
  • The story of England during the seventeenth century
  • Monmouth as Absalom- Shaftesbury as Achitophel.
  • Charles is introduced as David and Buckingham as Zimri
  • Zimri or Duke of Buckingham- intelligent person- inconsistent and extravagant
  • Zimri – a leading rebellious leader of high position
  • He appears determined in his opinion- his views are always wrong
  • Dryden’s sarcastic balancing of Zimri’s expertise and failure
  • An instance of mix of positives and negatives- “chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon”
  • Luxurious and extravagant man – flirting with women,
  • Painting and composing rhythmic poems but he drinks heavily
  • Zimiri is an unquestionable leader who died of trying to think
  • Connection between kingship and fatherhood

Objective questions

  1. Mention the genre of Absalom and Achitophel?
  2. What is the overall thematic thread of Absalom and Achitophel?
  3. Who is considered Absalom?
  4. Who is considered Achitophel
  5. Who is introduced as Zimri?
  6. Why is Zimri lampooned?
  7. Who is described as a fool’s fool?
  8. Who is described as an unquestionable leader of the crowd who died of trying to think?
  9. What is the blend that makes the poem distinctive?
  10. What is the form of Absalom and Achitophel ?


  1. Satire
  2. Rebellion led by Absalom and Achitophel against the King David of Israel
  3. Monmouth
  4. Shaftesbury
  5. Buckingham, the old enemy of Dryden
  6. For his lavishness and wrong opinions 
  7. Zimri
  8. Unquestionable leader of the crowd who died of trying to think
  9. Fatherhood and kingship
  10. Heroic couplet


  1. Consider Dryden as a satirist
  2. Comment on the humour and satire in the works of Neoclassical writers
  3. Describe the allusions in Absalom and Achitophel
  4. Give a character sketch of Zimri
  5. How does Dryden lampoon Zimri?
  6. Kingship and fatherhood in Absalom and Achitophel
  7. How does Dryden sarcastically present the death of Zimri?
  8. Why is Zimri termed as a ‘fool’s fool’?
  9. Comment on the mock heroic narrative style in Absalom and Achitophel
  10. Explain the significance of allegory in Absalom and Achitophel

Suggested Readings

  1. Courthope, W.J. History of English Poetry. New York: Macmillan, 1924.
  2. Doren, Mark Van. John Dryden: A Study of His Poetry. New York: Henry Holt, 1946.
  3. Nicoll, Allardyce. Dryden and His Poetry. London: Harrap, 1923.
  4. Walker, Hugh. English Satire and Satirists. New York: Dutton, 1925.