Dryden Teaches Us The Rules Of Satire And The Role Of Ridiculing Bante…

Dryden Teaches Us The Rules Of Satire And The Role Of Ridiculing Bante…

In Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden uses the well-known Old Testament story of David-Absalom-Achitophel as the allegorical framework for his poem. The story relates how the Duke of Monmouth (Absalom), the favourite though illegitimate son of Charles II (David) had, in opposition to the will of his royal father, allied himself with the famous Earl of Shaftesbury (Achitophel) and the infamous Duke of Buckingham (Zimri) with the intention of excluding the Duke of York, the King’s brother, from series to the throne. Here, as in epic or heroic play, “the plot, the characters, the wit, the passions, the descriptions are all exalted above the level of shared converse with proportion to verisimility”. And the happy choice of allegory combined with the predominantly elevated tone gives Dryden’s party poem an air of universal philosophic truth.

The historical setting of Dryden’s poem Absalom and Achitophel was the arrest of the Earl of Shaftesbury in 1681 on a charge of high treason, ‘for conspiring the death of the king and the subversion of the Government’. Charles II had no authentic children, so that the heir to the throne was a Roman Catholic, James, Duke of York, brother of the King. The Whigs, led by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, who nursed a bitter hatred against the King’s brother for causing him to lose the Lord Chancellorship, wanted to exclude James from the throne in favour of the Duke of Monmouth, Charles’ illegitimate son, who was a Protestant.

The ousted Lord Chancellor, Anthony Cooper (Achitophel), sought to adventure this situation of the resultant popular excitement of the anti-Catholicism wave that ran very high, especially after Titus Oates’ allegations in 1678 of the existence of a Popish plot against the King, and with this end in view – that of preventing the Duke of York from ascending the throne – their party introduced the Exclusion Bill. The House of Lords, however, rejected the Bill in 1680 and the next Parliament was dissolved almost closest. The excitement then led to a reaction in favour of the King so that Charles imprisoned Shaftesbury on a charge of high treason. A week before the trial, on 17th November 1681, Dryden’s poem appeared, ridiculing the members of Shaftesbury’s party and prophesying their downfall.

This greatest political satire in English has many elements besides the satiric. The heroic background of epic manner and the allegorical narrative lifts the poem above the pettiness of party strife

In Absalom and Achitophel, satire appears not in the form of angry abuse but of ridiculing banter. Dryden declared that “the nicest and most delicate touches of satire consist in fine raillery”. Achitophel is the villain of the piece, “for close designs and crooked counsels fit”. He had won his way to great strength and in the eyes of his opponents appeared to be “resolved to ruin or to rule the state”. But then he must have his merits, for only then would the portrait become credible. Shaftesbury had been a good Lord Chancellor. Here Dryden was already willing to praise at the same time as he satirized, and inserted a passage in the revised edition of the poem praising Shaftesbury as a estimate.

The statesman we abhor, but praise the estimate

Unbribed, unsought, the wretched to redress

rapid of despatch, and easy of access.

In other situations Dryden has only laughed at their follies instead of denouncing their vices. Among the members of Shaftesbury’s party, Sir Slingsby Bethel (Shemei) and Titus Oates (Corah) are drawn so contemptuously as to be almost comic characters. And, certainly, his fine raillery is best seen in the picture of Zimri. Zimri’s character was so unstable that

….during one revolving moon

Was chemist, fiddler, statesman and buffoon;

Then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking

Besides ten thousand freaks that died in thinking

Dryden lampoons Shemei, a cantankerous and a thin bellyless man, saying,

“Cool was his kitchen though his brains were hot”

All of these portraits delight us at once with the shrewdness of wit, their bouncing humour and their truth to human character.

Lest these characters appear much too personal, Dryden makes them represent both individuals and types. The details of their lives are generalized, given without any local and permanent references that might embarrass or offend anyone. The poem is a portrait gallery of the political personalities of the time. If Achitophel is a kind of a crafty politician, he nevertheless remains an individual, neglect details, and the politicians in the poem might be politicians of all times.

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