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“An Ungrateful Soyl”: The Sexual Politics of Absalom and Achitophel.
by Mary Jones (C)2001

John Dryden’s poem Absalom and Achitophel has long been celebrated as a piece of political satire, as well as a work of historical parallelism. The poet rather neatly makes an analogy between the problems surrounding the reign of Charles II with that of the biblical King David, as both had their problems with a sexually libertine lifestyle which lead to a crisis regarding illegitimate heirs; this then is the focus of Dryden’s poem, namely the rebellion of Charles II’s illegitimate son James, Duke of Monmouth, who Dryden identifies with David’s illegitimate, rebelling son Absalom. The issue of issue cannot be understated here—if anything, it forms the basis of Dryden’s subject matter, and his treatment of this subject matter, namely the demonization of the rebelling factions of James/Absalom through a feminization of the enemy in opposition to the masculinization and deification of the patriarchal system which Charles II/David represents.

This feminization of the enemy rests on three pillars: the barrenness of the queen, the parallel Dryden infers between Absalom’s temptation and sin and that of Milton’s Eve, and the reference to the rebellion as a “Mother Plot;” the resulting parallel lies in that as Queen Michal is physically sterile, while Absalom is morally impotent. Meanwhile, the term “Mother Plot” is one which can refer to a host of feminine subjects—the “Ungrateful Soyl” of Queen Michal; the creation of Absalom as Eve (and thus Mother of the rebellious factions); the plot of land which is the Mother Country, home to the rebellious Israelites, “Unsatiate as the barren Womb or Grave” (l.886-7); and finally the plot against Charles II/David. The way Dryden pursues this is through the emphasis on David’s masculinity and thus godhood while feminizing Absalom and his supporters instead of addressing the real roots of the problem of succession—both Charles II/David’s philandering (which made the birth of James/Absalom possible), and the patriarchal system of dynastic monarchy. This pursuit leads to Dryden’s discarding of facts and logic in order to support this system of Divine Right, upon which Charles II’s rule depended. The poem works as an apology for Charles II excesses, but more than that, it works as an argument in favor of the restoration of the Divine Right of Kings in the post-Commonwealth era of the restored Stuart monarchy. This argument for absolute monarchy comes in the wake of and opposition to a growing belief that power comes from the populace, and not from the patriarchal system of dynastic absolute monarchy, or from God who, according to the principles of Divine Right, set this patriarchal system in place; the poet, we shall see later, sees fit to place such democratic ideals as the inspiration of Satan. The poem then acts as Dryden’s response to James, Duke of Monmouth’s claims to the throne, which threatened to send the Britons into yet another civil war. In essence, Absalom and Achitophel attempts to show how a rebellion against the king is a rebellion against the patriarchal system, and hence a rebellion against God; this rebellion is emphasized then through a feminization of the rebelling factions.

Patriarchy is—-for all intents and purposes—-a system where men have “domination over women, and… domination {over} younger males by older males. Patriarchal power is thus sex- and age-specific” (Murray 7). In the theory of the Divine Right of Kings, it is also dependent upon the questions of succession and the origin of power: namely, that the successor must be the legitimate offspring of the king; as the king derives his power from God, this power is then passed on to the succeeding generations through virtue of birth. Moreover, the subject of the king’s body—and body, particularly its sexual and gendered use, is integral to the poem—is also important, for the king is both man and state. From medieval times, it was held that, as the crown lawyers of Edward VI say, “the King has in him two Bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic. His Body natural… is a Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident… {but} what the King does in his Body politic, cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any Disability in his natural Body” (qtd. in Kantorowicz 7). “The body politic of kingship appears as a likeness of the ‘holy sprites and angels,’ because it represents, like the angles, the Immutable within Time. It has been raised to angelic heights” (8-9). In other words, what the king does with his physical body—even sexual hedonism—can not and should not have a bearing on what he does with his political body, even though the former will logically have consequences for the latter, which we see in Charles II/David’s producing of James/Absalom through one of his many sexual dalliances.

The chief way in which Dryden sets about demonizing the enemies of Charles II/David is through the feminization of their character. As Absalom’s rebellion is against a patriarchal system dependent on a proper line of descent—a system in which Absalom cannot take part because of the manner of his conception, namely his illegitimacy—and this system is based on the patriarchal system of the Divine Right of Kings, Dryden’s response is to feminize the enemy, since what is considered feminine would ultimately be the opposite of what is considered masculine and thus a part of the patriarchal system Dryden seeks to uphold. However, unlike Susan Greenfield’s idea that Dryden “transfer{s} the blame for the insurrection onto the Mother Plot {and thus women and all that can be perceived of as feminine}, as… only the female power of generation threatens familial and political order and must be suppressed,” I believe that this emphasis on the feminine aspect of the enemy exists only as a contrast to the masculine power of the monarch, not as an independent power in and of itself (267). I do, however, feel that this leaves Dryden with an unfortunate paradox—that for a God-ordained masculine order to retain its power, its spin doctors must resort to half-truths and the demonization and feminization of its enemies as it—the system—cannot stand on its own because of the sins of its embodiment, the king.

In David, we have the figure of father and king, and in the system of the Divine Right, the king is answerable only to God, and is chosen by God; to rise up against the king is tantamount to rising up against God. The king is also father to his subjects, having what he sees as a paternal role towards the populace. Of course, David is father not only of his people, but of his illegitimate son Absalom, sired on a concubine, and not the queen. As such, Absalom cannot claim the throne. This leaves Absalom’s thwarted ambition vulnerable to the tempting of Achitophel, who convinces the duke to rise up against his father.

However, in doing so, Dryden inadvertently sets up a paradox—-if kingship is a fatherhood, and the mother contributes nothing, then this rebellion would be David’s fault, as he is the generator of the rebel Duke. It is his own self which created this monstrous son through his whoring and overindulgence. However, as the poem is a political apology for Charles II, Dryden cannot lay the blame on the king. Instead, it is laid on the queen for her barrenness, and the revolutionaries, who are feminized and demonized throughout the poem. The result is the affirmation of the power of the feminine principle through its demonization. However, in a patriarchal structure such as the one which Dryden is defending, there can be no feminine power, only masculine; there can be no mother, no influence of the mother, only that of the father, who is king and god. However, in order to sustain the position of “the God-like David,” the power of the father must be denied in the creation of Absalom, or else Charles II/David would have to take responsibility. As God is sinless, and the king’s political body must remain unaffected by his physical body, blame cannot be fixed on Charles II/David. Hence our paradox—that in order to defend the system, Dryden inadvertently subverts the system’s morality and judgment.

Charles II/David is a godlike figure, for “just as ‘godlike’ Charles-David, the ‘Godlike Prince (823), acted as a creator and ‘His Youthfull Image in his Son renewed’ (32), so God created Charles in His image (10), for ‘Kings’ are ‘the Godheads Images’ (792)” (Wilson 270). “The association between God and David is made through the witty juxtaposition of divine and human fertility” (Zwicker 88)—David’s polygamy and sexual abandon is held in the same esteem as God’s ability to create the universe; this also builds Dryden’s satire against the rebellious factions, as he plays upon their sexual difficulties, homosexuality, or deformed offspring (namely Achitophel’s son, “that unfeathere’d, two Leg’d thing” l.170). Dryden’s justification for Charles II’s lifestyle also comes from its use as an emphasis on David’s masculinity, comparing his fathering a nation to that of God creating the earth:

“In pious times, e’r Priest-craft did begin,
Before Polygamy was made a sin;
When man, on many, multiply’d his kind,
E’r on to one was, cursedly confind:
When nature prompted, and no law deny’d
Promiscuous use of Concubine and Bride;” {l.1-6}

“What Dryden did was refer to a time that never really existed except in the daydreams of masculine desires. He created an imaginary age that could account for the faults of Charles II (or David) in such a way that almost made them seem virtues” (Miner 118). We are in a type of Eden (a significant idea later), where the rules do not yet apply except for one—obedience unto the ruler of the garden, which in Eden is God and here is Charles II/David. Moreover, it completes the concept of the king as a father to his people:

“Then, Israel’s Monarch, after Heaven’s own heart,
His vigorous warmth did, variously, impart
To Wives and Slaves: And, wide as his Command,
Scatter’d his Maker’s Image through the Land.” {l.7-10}

This fecundity stands in opposition to the sterility of Queen Michal:

Michal, of Royal blood, the Crown did wear,
A Soyl ungratefull to the Tiller’s care:” {1.11-12}

This condition of infertility was not only a problem for the ancient Israelites: “There was a considerable debate whether Charles II’s marriage with sterile Queen Katherine might be annulled; whether a divorce on the grounds of infertility was permissible; and even whether polygamy was legal under ecclesiastical law” (Miner 119). What is important to note, more than this, is the concept, dating back to the ancient Greeks, that a woman had to orgasm in order to conceive; barrenness was seen as a sign of dissatisfaction or even rebellion against the husband. And so the seeds of the rebellion are sewn by a barren woman, according to the seventeenth-century view of obstetrics, leaving Queen Michal as the first member of this conspiracy against the kingdom by not providing an heir (Greenfield 274).

It is interesting to note, also, that Katherine was a Catholic, and thus “held in contempt for her infertility, which contributed to the anxieties about a Protestant succession” (Dolan 152). In the poem, David is accused by Achitophel of being a Jebusite-—a Catholic-—so as to pull the Israelites’ support away from David in favor of Absalom (the Duke of Monmouth being a Protestant). The Catholic Church—-the Mother Church-—was used by Achitophel to help demonize the king, yet ironically instead demonizes Achitophel. As Dolen later notes, “anti-Catholic polemic” goes hand-in-hand with “the feminized figure who, in English Protestant imaginary, stands for the disturbing intermixture of the personal and political” (212). And let us not forget that this Divine Right upon which Charles II/David’s rule so rests is a secular version of the papal power so feared at this time; for although the infallibility of the pope was only decreed dogma in the nineteenth century, it had been assumed for centuries prior to that. There was—and even until the twentieth century still was and perhaps still is—a fear that a Catholic ruler or Catholic populace would abdicate their sense of sovereignty and Divine Right for that of papal infallibility. The demonization of the enemy through its feminization goes hand-in-hand with the Catholic reality of enemy. By trying to falsely associate David with the Jebusites, this association only serves to backfire onto Achitophel.

Luckily for Katherine/Michal, she is soon forgotten, replaced by “several Mothers who bore/to Godlike David, several Sons before/but since like slaves his bed they did ascend,/No True Succession could their seed attend” (l.13-16). Thus we are given Absalom, the illegitimate son of one of David’s concubines. Like the historical James, Duke of Monmouth, his illegitimacy makes him ineligible for the throne, but that does not thwart his ambition, once it is stoked by Achitophel. When we first meet “Warlike Absalom,” we see that he is the most favored son of David, and as such is a rather hot-tempered young man whose faults are ignored by his father. As Steven Zwicker says, “Dryden’s characterization of David emphasizes a combination of divine and human paternity. Like God, David takes joy in his creation; like God, he supplies Absalom with a pleasing bride. The serious presentation of David in his paternal joy and indulgence, seen especially against the divine model, can hardly be taken as a condemnation of the monarch. Rather, it strengthens the casual relationship between David and God established at the opening of the poem” (89). Like the question of Absalom’s conception, these indulgences—forgiving Absalom of murder as a youthful excess, for example—are never blamed as helping to weaken or damage Absalom’s character, but are seen as a heavenly attribute. Again, the truth is denied so as not to undermine Charles II/David’s God-ordained status by showing him as a ruler capable of mistakes. Moreover, Dryden the poet would certainly not want to offend Charles II by depicting his favorite son as the source of the rebellion, or as a murdering thug. By feminizing Absalom, his disobedience is made palatable by its feminine nature; when he is tempted by Achitophel, it is read as his feminine weakness, his acting as Eve, seduced, but not the originator of the sin. Dryden does the same softening with his treatment of the English Catholics mentioned earlier; he paints them—the Jebusites—as the first inhabitants of London/Jerusalem, now displaced and mistreated by the Protestants/Jews. This can no doubt be attributed to Dryden’s Catholic sympathies, but also to his sense of political savvy—Charles II was not only sympathetic to Catholicism, but his queen—she of the “Ungratefull Soyl”—was a Catholic, and would later help him make a deathbed conversion (Dolen 153).

Nevertheless, Absalom’s moral character is certainly weak, and thus he is easy prey for Achitophel, who seduces him with promises of power in a scene often remarked of as imitating Milton’s Paradise Lost, when Satan tempts Eve with the fruit. As said before, with Absalom set as a type of Eve, and Achitophel a type of Satan, David then is God, ruler of Eden before the Fall. What is important, though, is Dryden’s choosing of a parallel within a parallel, of drawing upon the Fall while also drawing upon the story of David; this specific parallel, while ironic in its choosing of a work by a supporter of Cromwell and thus the Commonwealth, is important, as it effeminizes the figure of Absalom by having him take on the role of both woman and the seduced figure. As Zwicker states, “Dryden forges the link between political disobedience and satanic temptation in the lines:

But, when to Sin our byast Nature leans,
The carefull Devil is still at hand with means;
And providently Pimps for ill desires:
The Good old Cause reviv’d, a Plot requires.
Plots, true or false, are necessary things,
To raise up Common-wealths, and ruin Kings. {l.79-84}” (Zwicker 85).

The use of the word “pimp” is not to be missed, either, for Absalom is later pimped by Achitophel to the plotters against King David. This not only makes Absalom a woman, and still worse an Eve, but a whore (albeit an unwitting whore), and thus the lowest of women. Still, Achitophel is held as even worse than the whore, as he is the pimp, the man who conspires to bring down his fellow man through the exploitation of desire. To Dryden’s time, it would be natural for the woman to be thought of as a seductive temptress, and thus to be held accountable for such an act; but for a man? A fellow man? Achitophel must be truly Satanic. This emphasis on the satanic element of Achitophel’s character only serves to reinforce the divinity of David, and thus Charles II, and the evil of the enemy. Moreover, Achitophel is, like the historical Earl of Shaftesbury, physically and mentally deformed: “the Pigmy Body… whose Great Wits are sure to Madness near ally’d” (l.156, 163)—in contrast with the perfect, “Godlike David,” emphasizing Achitophel’s Satanic nature.

From here, Achitophel launches into a speech which argues that kings are chosen, not made by God:

{T}he people have a Right Supreme
To make their Kings; for Kings are made for them.
All Empire is no more than Pow’r in Trust,
Which when resum’d, can be no longer Just.
Succession, for the general Good design’d,
In its own wrong a Nation cannot bind {l.409-414}

Putting these democratic words in Achitophel’s mouth, Dryden then sees fit to top this by showing how it leads to disobedience of the will of God:

The Jews well know their power: e’r Saul they Chose,
God was their King, and God they durst Depose {l.416-17}

Like Eve in the Garden, Absalom is lured by Achitophel into believing that this disobedience of God and David’s will is ultimately reasonable and for the best, as the will is an unreasonable will. By taking the question of succession into his own hands, Absalom, like Eve, threatens to destroy the Eden that is Dryden’s England, for “David has the power through God to create a political Eden, but only when the people acknowledge the divinity of his kingship” (Zwicker 100). To do otherwise is to commit an act tantamount to the introduction of Original Sin, which, of course, was (according to theologians from St. Paul to the present) brought on by a woman.

Finally, the feminization is complete when we are given the term “Mother Plot,” which occurs in line 1013 of Charles II/David’s speech:

Law they require,
let Law then shew her Face;
They could not be content to look on Grace
* * *
By their own arts ‘tis Righteously decreed,
Those dire Artificers of Death shall bleed.
Against themselves their Witnesses will Swear,
Till Viper-like their Mother Plot they tear:
And suck for Nutriment that bloody gore
Which was their Principle of Life before. {l.1006-7, 1010-15}

I quote this long passage so as to give the context of the term “Mother Plot,” and the multiple meanings such a phrase can imply in the context of such a poem where the body and its gender is an important element. First, as Susan Greenfield points out, “the description of the viper is based on popular fables about the beast… that when vipers copulate the male puts his ‘head into mouth of the female, who is so insatiable in the desire of that copulation, that when the male hat filled her with his seed-genital… she bitheth’ off his head and kills him.” However, the resulting brood of vipers turns on the mother and tears her apart, “and in destroying her body and consuming their own placenta, effectively abort themselves.” Greenfield argues that this “completes the attack on Achitophel’s manliness by associating him with a monstrous mother,” and thus completes the attack on women (284). However, there are many other meanings to be found in this passage.

First, the Mother Plot, referring to the womb of the viper, refers to the plot of land which produced the rebellious faction—specifically England, the mother land, which, thanks to the sins of James/Absalom/Eve, is no longer Eden. Secondly, this association between Absalom and Eve then leads one to believe Absalom is the mother of the vipers, as Eve is the mother of a sinful mankind; like Eve, though, he is spared the death of the viper; this is likely left for the serpent Achitophel who, as the tempter in Eden and thus the snake, is now fully feminized as the viper mother who will be torn apart by the failure of his co-conspirators, which tears at them like the vipers tearing at their “Mother Plot.”

The association of land and mother is also seen as reflecting back on Katherine/Queen Michal, whose “Ungrateful Soyl” would not produce an heir. Her “Mother Plot”—her womb—was in rebellion against Charles II/David, and so is in part the origin of the crisis, according to Dryden. Moreover, this association between queen and land hearkens back to the early British beliefs in equating the queen with the sovereignty of the land, a belief that stretched well into the time of the War of the Roses, when ballads such as “The Wedding of Sir Gawaine” were still being written (ca. 1470), dealing with the association of queen and land as one. The king, in marrying the queen, takes possession of the land, personified in the queen. However, here the land—-no longer an Eden—-is in rebellion, the queen—mother of the country—-is in rebellion, and the people—-in supporting Absalom—-are in rebellion, all against a patriarchal system of absolute monarchy set in place by God.

Moreover, the term “plot,” here refers not only to a plot of land or a womb, but to the plotting against Charles II/David. The etymology of the term “plot” refers not only to a planning or scheme, but in origin the planning or “plotting” of a piece of land; to plot is to diagram the land, to know the land, which here is identified with the barren queen, the rebellious Absalom, and the Israelites “Unsatiate as the barren Womb or Grave” (“plot”). In calling the rebellion a “Mother Plot,” Dryden completes his feminization of the enemy as a way to completely distance and demonize the enemy in light of the patriarchal system which supports Charles II/David. The “Mother Plot” which produced these vipers is the plan to overthrow the patriarchal system; in this sense, it is only natural, then, that Dryden would refer to the plot as a womb which breeds such factions, since it is overtly female, in opposition to the masculinity of the power structure.

In his feminization and emphasis on the female nature of the enemies of King David, Dryden succeeds in creating an unfortunate paradox. He seeks to bolster the support of Charles II by emphasizing his masculinity, which to Dryden is inseparable from the patriarchal system which keeps the king in power in the post-Commonwealth era. However, in doing so, he effectively dismisses the true roots of the causes of the rebellion of James, Duke of Monmouth: first, that the sexual hedonism of Charles has produced a number of illegitimate children who could challenge the peaceful succession of his brother James, Duke of York; second, that this is the result of a political system which is patently unfair and unstable (and thus must be legitimized by arguing that it derives from God); and finally, that Charles II indulged his son James to the point that the Duke of Monmouth had not the discipline to keep within this political system which denied him his ambition, something his father had not done until this time. Instead, Dryden sees fit to gloss over these facts, as they would expose the inherent problems with both the Divine Right of Kings and the reign of Charles II. Instead, he relies on the feminization of the rebellious factions of Absalom and Achitophel, who are then deemed not only effeminate but Satanic, while also emphasizing the barrenness of the queen as the cause of the lack of a suitable heir, instead of blaming Charles’ libertine lifestyle. In order to bolster his king, Dryden has the enemies born of barren wombs, instead of their true origin, in the excesses of a patriarchal system which the poet seeks to protect and defend.

Works Cited

Dolen, Frances E. Whores of Babylon: Catholicism, Gender, and Seventeenth-Century Print Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Publishing, 1999.

Dryden, John. “Absalom and Achitophel” Eighteenth Century Poetry and Prose. ed. Geoffrey Tillotson. Philadelphia: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969.

Greenfield, Susan C. “Aborting the ‘Mother Plot’: Politics and Generation in Absalom and Achitophel.” English Language Notes 62.2 (1995): 267-286.

Kantorowicz, Ernst H. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton Paperbacks, 1995.

Miner, Earl. Dryden’s Poetry. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1967.

Murray, Mary. The Law of the Father? Patriarchy in the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. NY: Routlage, 1995.

“Plot.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.

Wilson, Gayle Edward. “’Weaver’s Issue,’ ‘Princes Son’, and ‘Godheads Images’; Dryden and the Topos of Descent in Absalom and Achitophel.” Papers on Language and Literature. 28.3 (1992): 267-283.

Zwicker, Steven N. Dryden’s Political Poetry. Providence, CT: Brown University Press, 1972.

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