Drydens Art of Characterization: Absalom and Achitophel

Question: Comment on Dryden’s Art of Characterization: Absalom and Achitophel. Drydens Art of Characterization: Absalom and Achitophel


A groundbreaking literary work is Absalom and Achitophel by John Dryden (1631-1700). The highest merit of Absalom and Achitophel is undoubtedly contained in the great gallery of satirical depictions of characters. Dryden’s portraits shine with careful detail and all such descriptions do not violate the limits of restraint. He tries to be fair and avoids high-flowing language. Although he is not above being sometimes rude and obscene, as a rule, he is as tolerant as Chaucer.

Comparative style

By comparing human characters such as Shaftsbury and Monmouth with biblical characters Absalom and Akitophel, Dryden succeeds in exposing the smallness and dishonesty of Shaftsbury and Monmouth. The treatment, in other words, is ironic. The last statement compares Shaftsbury and Monmouth to Achitophel and Absalom mock-heroically- with which the current editor disagrees. The use of biblical metaphors does not necessarily mean consistent satire, but similarly affects Charles II and Shaftsbury. We have already seen that the comparison of Charles II with King David was now an established literary tradition that was not necessarily ironic. The parts of Absalom and Acitophel are certainly ironic, as at the beginning of the poem. Similarly, there are certain satirical touches in the sketches of Zimri, Shimei, Corah, which Dryden himself has qualified as a Varronian. But to classify the whole of Absalom and Acitophel as satire, one can assume that one part is equal to the whole.

Humorous, not resentful

Another noteworthy thing about Dryden is that he has never taken unfair advantage of his enemies. In Lowell’s words, “He knocks them down and there is an end.” Dryden himself tells us that he does not call a man a villain, but shows him as a fool or a native without using any of these epithets. It is a sense of well-humorous ridicule that he has supported and which he introduces for the first time in English satire. He does not shrink from bestowing praise where it is due. Before he became a conspirator in the rebellion, Achitophel was a judge. What he was as a judge, Dryden has described:

“Yet fame deserved no enemy can grudge; The statesman we abhor, but praise that judge.”

This recognition of the good with the bad has added beauty to the variety in Dryden’s portrait. In addition, he is constantly moving from special to general, from person to general. His Achitophel is Shaftsbury, a distinct conspirator, and yet, abstractly, he is a kind of truth at all times and in climates. His portrait of Zimri is unique in English literature. He is simultaneously Buckingham and the inactive Grand Noble who experiments politics playfully. The secret of Dryden’s satire’s popularity lies in the fact that even today when personalities are ridiculed by the writers, they follow the path of Dryden.

Characterization based on universal tendency

In the poem “Absalom and Achitophel”, Dryden shows the whimsical and fickle-minded English people who always complained about their king because they were not satisfied with the king.  After the death of Oliver Cromwell, they made his foolish son Richard the Lord Protector but soon they were dissatisfied with him and dethroned him. They called Charles who was living in exile and made him the king of England. But soon they were motivated to build the Republic destroyed Monarchy. Thus, Dryden satirizes the English people.

Schemers and plotters

The author narrates the beginning and progress of the assumed conspiracy that the Whigs had planned to dishonor the King’s position. Each eminent Whig leader is subjected to ridicule, in order to undermine his reputation.

“Infected with this public lunacy, / And share the madness of rebellious crimes, / To murder monarchs for imagined crimes”

Even though biblical names were used, readers can still identify each object of his satiric shoves.


The portraits of Dryden, thus, become a living specimen of everyday life and have been presented in a less satirical way, not as a monster or a god. Nowhere in the poem, he influences moral resentment, for he knew that moral resentment is unbearable in political satire. He treats his victims with cool contempt and without a touch of bad humor.

SR Sarker
SR Sarker
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