Dryden is absolutely a multidimensional genius. He is acclaimed as a major poet, a distinguished playwright, a celebrated critic, and a satirist based on his literary works. Dryden’s remarkable poem “Absalom and Achitophel” adds a new dimension to the English classical satire.
This poem has raised English satire to the level of the great satirical literature of Rome. It has exhibited for the first time the power and plasticity of the heroic couplet in poetry, which Dryden has used in his satirical masterpiece.
Dryden himself has admitted,
“The true end of satire is the amendment of vices by correction.”John Dryden
It is generally accepted that satire is a criticism of life aiming at correction, reformation, and improvement of satirized individuals for their follies. But Dryden has deviated from his dictum in “Absalom and Achitophel.”
Dryden Exposes Corruption Through Satire in “Absalom and Achitophel”
In this poem, his main object was to defend and justify the king and his actions in the face of strong opposition from the politicians. The victims of his attack were leading politicians whom he tried to discredit, but he had little hope of reforming them by his attack. His principal objective was to expose their dishonesty, hypocrisy, and treachery.
Dryden uses these weapons generally used by a satirist in attending to the king’s opponents. They include wit, humor, irony, sarcasm, and raillery. He admitted that he wanted to laugh at human follies. He wildly succeeds in laughing at the unavoidable follies of some of his victims.
Dryden’s Attack Is More Offensive Than Humorous at Times
However, his attack is often not confused to ridicule and mockery; in some cases, they become intensely scornful, contemptuous, abusive, and damaging. He is not always genial and good-humored; often, it becomes sharp, pungent, and highly offensive.
Dryden’s portrait of the Earl of Shaftesbury has little humor or wit; it is primarily a severe attack. About a quarter of the poem is devoted to the satirical presentation of Achitophel or the Earl of Shaftesbury. It is a moral attack that Dryden launches in the heroic ‘high styles’ with little humor.
Dryden denounces the Earl as undaunted in times of a crisis and unfit. His satire becomes better when Dryden comments that the boundary between his genres and madness is fragile. Satire becomes mere pungent when references are made to Shaftesbury’s fiery soul that consumed its weak body by its very turbulence. He mentions The Earl as a traitor who was filled for secret intrigues.
Dryden Criticized And Praised Earl Openly in “Absalom and Achitophel”
Dryden maintains that he is treacherous in friendship and merciless in hatred. He is determined to either acquire high authority or destroy it. He did not hesitate to define the king’s authority as his crimes were exposed to the public.
The Earl has invested evidence in strengthening his arguments about the plot and even has tried to frame King Charles as a Roman Catholic.
However, despite his bitter condemnation of Shaftesbury, Dryden pays tribute to his magisterial qualities as being honest, incorruptible, and fair. Even after praising the Earl, Dryden criticizes him as a reckless gambler in the game of politics.
Dryden Used His Sarcasm Mostly in Depicting Zimin
Amusingly, Dryden has depicted another central character, Zimin or the Duke of Buckingham. His gifts of irony and sarcasm are nowhere employed with a better effort than here. He presents Zimin satirically as the extreme of all humanity; he is stiff in opinions and consistently wrong. He has changed not only his ideas but also his hobbies and occupations.
The Duke has shown by turns as an alchemist, a fiddler, a statesman, and a buffoon in one single month. He has shown interest in women, painting, rhyming, and drinking equally. He was a madness that has tried to employ every hour of his life with something new to enjoy.
Dryden’s usual methods are praising some while denouncing others, and in both of them, he goes extreme. Even tools could rob him of money, and having incurred the king’s displeasure; he has tried to console himself by forming parties. But his tragedy lies in the fact that he could not be the leader of any party.
It is important to note that there is very little abuse in this satirical sketch. Dryden depicts the Duke merely as a tool than as a Knave. Zimin possesses no quality like Achitophel; he is merely futile. The portrait of Zimin illustrates Dryden’s talent for raillery.
Dryden’s Satirical Contempt on Hastings, Grey, Howard, And Jones
Dryden makes his satirical attack against Hastings, Grey, Howard, and Sir William Jones. Dryden mainly stresses their dullness, talkativeness, lechery, hypocrisy, and illegality. Contempt and abuse surpassed wit and humor in the portrayal of these characters.
However, the portrait of Corah is the most scornful of all. Corah became prophetic, saw visions, and imagined obtaining a doctor’s degree as a confined liar. He is described as “monumental brass” concerning his extreme arrogance and lightness.
He is even compared to the brass serpent of Moses to save the lives of his followers from snake-bite. Dryden comments that his complexion is bright like that of Moses when he comes down from Mount Sinai. This is indeed an ironic comparison.
In Dryden’s portraiture, we find an exposure of falsehood and hypocrisy. He depicts the priests and clergymen as self-seeking, mercenary, and hypocritical.
Thus, we find that Dryden’s treatment of the poem “Absalom and Achitophel” reveals him as a great satirist. His satire appears in various forms and shapes in the poem, reflecting Dryden’s satirical genius.