Printer Friendly

Aborting the "mother plot": politics and generation in 'Absalom and Achitophel.'

Although critics have discussed the connections between fatherhood and kingship in Absalom and Achitophel, nobody has yet attended to the poem's less obvious, but equally important and politically-charged representations of maternity.(1) Absalom and Achitophel begins and ends with references to mothers: the opening describes how, despite the queen's infertility, the lustful David has still managed to create "several Mothers" (13), and the poem concludes with David's' stunning image of a "Viper-like" destruction of the "Mother Plot" against him (1013). Indeed, the shift between these framing images of maternity is a central mechanism in the poem's royalist resolution. For if the text initially suggests that David has so actively turned women into mothers that he bears at least some responsibility for the birth of the rebel son, it ends by transferring the blame for the insurrection onto the Mother Plot, as if only the female power of generation threatens familial and political order and must be suppressed. The shift works because by the time David redeems himself in his speech, the poem's emphasis on his promiscuity has been effaced by increasing references to a feminine sexual desire and productivity so dangerous that the king appears politically reliable by contrast.(2)

Before considering the poem closely it is useful to review the cultural - and specifically political and medical - context for its familial and sexual details. Much has been written about the way the king was viewed as the ultimate patriarch of a family of subjects. But to appreciate Dryden's attack on maternity, it is also important to recognize that the most popular patriarchal political theory of the period - best articulated in Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha (1680) - was fundamentally structured around the erasure of the mother? In trying to prove that "the first kings were fathers of families" and that "kings now are the fathers of their people," for instance, Filmer points out that "the law which enjoins obedience to kings is delivered in the terms of 'honour thy father' . . . as if all power were originally in the father."(4)

As Locke later suggests time and again in his Two Treatises of Government (1690), Filmer is clearly manipulative here, "for God [actually] says, Honour thy Father and Mother; but our Author . . . leaves out thy Mother quite, as little serviceable to his purpose."(5) Locke here is neither especially interested in biblical accuracy nor in the question of women's rights but rather in the dynamics of political rhetoric. Arguing against unconditional and exclusive monarchal authority, he understands that in general the paternal argument can work only if the role of the mother is denied, because to acknowledge her would suggest that the father-king does not have an inherent right to unilateral control. It thus logically follows that to introduce the idea of mother is to disrupt the patriarchal justification of kingship:

It will but very ill serve the turn of those Men who contend so much for the Absolute Power and Authority of the Fatherhood . . . that the Mother should have any share in it. And it would have but ill supported the Monarchy they contend for, when by the very name it appeared that the Fundamental Authority from whence they would derive their Government of a single Person only, was not plac'd in one, but two Persons joyntly.(6)

Critics have pointed out that this is hardly a feminist argument since Locke "uses the mother's 'equal Title' as a reductio ad absurdum to refute the derivation of political from parental authority."(7) That is, he uses her to prove the inherent separateness of parenthood and state. Nevertheless, it is worth noting how, by concentrating on the threat maternity poses to any conservative understanding of monarchy, Locke ironically demonstrates the mother's political utility.(8)

The Two Treatises, composed during the 1680s but published anonymously nearly a decade after Absalom and Achitophel, did not have a direct influence on the poem. But, as Steven Zwicker suggests, Locke's and Dryden's texts are usefully read in relation to each other (as well as to Filmer's Patriarcha) "as contemporary rhetorical and political events, as competing interpretations of the origins of government, the nature of royal authority, and the political meaning of paternity and patriarchy."(9) Locke is particularly useful in the context of the present discussion about maternity because he articulates an implicit tension in patriarchal theory that was already long evident, clarifying one position about motherhood in an ongoing debate about the relationship between political and familial power. In both De Cive (1642) and Leviathan (1651), for instance, Hobbes had already implied that fatherhood could not be the ultimate grounds upon which sovereignty is based because "the originall Dominion over children belongs to the Mother. . . . The birth followes the belly."(10) If in many political systems the father acquired control over the mother and young, that was simply the consequence of "Civill Law[s]" that privileged him, resulting from the fact that "for the most part Commonwealths have been erected by the Fathers, not by the Mothers of families."(11) Thus, paternal power was a sign of conquest but not unquestionable governmental entitlement. Fully understanding that any successful argument about the mother's natural authority could dismantle his defense of monarchy, Filmer challenged Hobbes in his Observations Concerning the Originall of Government (1652) by countering: "But we know that God at the creation gave the sovereignty to the man over the woman, as being the nobler and principal agent in generation."(12)

Significantly, Filmer here promotes not just the idea of paternal power, but also a specific theory of conception, maintaining that the father plays the more active role in generation and refusing "any acknowledgement of the capacity and creativity that is unique to women."(13) Hobbes was not alone in deconstructing such arguments by suggesting that the mother was the more important creator. John Hall in his Of Government and Obedience as They Stand Directed and Determined by Scripture and Reason (1654) reminds his readers that the mother "hath part of her own substance imployed in nourishment of the young whilst it is within her."(14) And Locke is even more explicit:

For no body can deny but that the Woman hath an equal share, if not the greater as nourishing the Child a long time in her own Body out of her own Substance. There it is fashion'd, and from her it receives the Materials and Principles of its Constitution; And it is so hard to imagine the rational Soul should presently Inhabit the yet unformed Embrio, as soon as the Father has done his part in the Act of Generation, that if it must be supposed to derive any thing from the Parents, it must certainly owe most to the Mother.(15)

There is something else at stake here in addition to the problem of governmental succession. Whether or not the authors were deliberately referring to specific medical theories (and Locke, originally trained in medicine, may well have been), the contrast between their accounts of generation is also characteristic of contemporary scientific debates. Filmer's emphasis on paternal agency evokes the then still popular Aristotelian notion that the female contributes the matter or passive principle in conception and the male the efficient or active one that creates the movement necessary for the embryo to develop.(16) Like a sculptor "the male model[s] or mould[s] this [female] material into a form like itself."(17) Aristotle himself explains: "the female always provides the material, the male that which fashions it. . . . While the body is from the female, it is the soul that is from the male."(18)

In his pathbreaking De Generatione Animalium (1651), William Harvey challenged Aristotle's emphasis on female subordination and argued that both the mother and father provided the efficient cause of generation.(19) It is unclear exactly how much influence he believed the female primordium had, but Harvey did argue that the material carried by the mother contained its own "power to develop," that was then ignited by the semen (by contagion, not direct contact).(20) Harvey also suggested that the womb functioned as a kind of brain that "conceived" the fetus like an idea, but this was not necessarily evidence of maternal power since Harvey considered the uterus an independent organism and also believed that the fetus's life did not depend on the mother's.(21) Those scientists who, unlike Harvey, favored preformation theory (believing that the offspring existed fully formed at conception) were much more willing to credit a single parent with the power to shape the child, insisting that "only one sex could donate the true embryo."(21) By the end of the seventeenth century there were two competing groups in this category of thinkers: the ovists, who argued that the whole embryo existed preformed in the ovary, and the animalculists, who claimed the same for the sperm.(23)

Locke's account of generation blends and revises a number of these medical theories. He never questions the Aristotelian idea that the woman supplies the matter for the embryo, but Locke does insist that it is primarily the work of pregnancy - and not the act of the sperm - that fashions the female material into a child. Contesting both the notion that the father gives the soul, and those who had begun to claim that the embryo exists fully formed in either the sperm or the egg, Locke emphasizes the process of development, reasoning that because the embryo grows in the mother, she most influences the child's outcome.(24)

Despite their very different scientific assumptions, both Filmer and Locke, like Hobbes and Hall, assume that discourses about the body and state overlap, and they recognize that any representation of conception is thus a political act. This sense of integration was obviously influenced by their own system of government, figured in the body of a ruler who passed his power through genetic descent. At the same time, though, recent historical events - most importantly the execution of Charles I - had proved that the royal succession could be broken.(25) The classic seventeenth-century patriarchalism that linked monarchal and paternal procreative power would not endure. As Carole Pateman explains, "Filmer's father . . . stands at the end of a very long history of traditional patriarchal argument in which the creation of political society has been seen as a masculine act of birth."(26) In challenging the logic of a political theory based on paternal procreation, Locke's arguments articulate and anticipate permanent changes in the understanding of the origin of government.

Absalom and Achitophel is situated at the crossroads of this change. As he seeks to develop a pragmatic and contemporary defense of monarchal authority, Dryden appropriates and discards various procreation narratives along the way, moving from a story of paternal conception reminiscent of Filmer's, to an account of maternal creativity that anticipates Locke's. When Dryden finally abandons the model of patriarchal generation at the end of the poem, he, like Locke, marks the cultural turn against the traditional emphasis on masculine birth as well as his own wariness of the role of paternity in political argument.(27) But unlike Locke's work, Dryden's narrative is designed to support the king, and more specifically, to resolve the generative problems posed by Monmouth's bid for the throne. Because the poem recounts the details of the Exclusion C sis, which, after all, involved an illegitimate son's challenge to the promiscuous king who had conceived him, the paternal control of conception is necessarily associated, not with the king's authority, but rather with his vulnerability. David is ultimately acquitted of his role in this generative act when maternal creative power, far from signalling a Lockean need to reconsider the origin of government, emerges as the primary and most dangerous source of any challenge to the status quo. For Dryden it is the very variety and ideological flexibility of accounts of generation that make them useful, and he shapes and reshapes conception to suit his changing narrative needs.(28)

Absalom and Achitophel is centrally organized around the connection between generation and politics because the challenge to the king's authority comes from his illegitimate son. One of the main questions throughout is: who is to blame for producing the unlawful child who, in turn, helps produce the unlawful plot against David? As I have already suggested, the answer varies as Dryden moves towards an increasingly misogynistic conclusion.

At the opening, however, it seems that David has, at least in part, conceived his own problems.(29) Most obviously, because he is so "Promiscuous" (6) and has sired bastard children "through the Land" (10), David has encouraged his own destruction, illicitly producing a population that has little reason to support a system of privileges based on legitimacy and hereditary succession. As Howard Weinbrot suggests, "David makes his own rebellion by propagating his own lawlessness in his lawless son and lawless nation."(30) Absalom is especially dangerous because David has overindulged and failed to discipline him, encouraging the favored son to expect rights and opportunities he does not legally deserve.

But the problems of generation in the beginning of the poem are also specifically related to the way David makes mothers at the same time that he does children. We learn first that Michal, the royal wife, is barren because her "Soyl [is] ungratefull to the Tiller's care," but next:

Not so the rest; for several Mothers bore To Godlike David, several Sons before. But since like slaves his bed they did ascend, No True Succession could their seed attend. (13-16)

Precisely because it is confusing, this passage is enormously important as it generates a variety of ways to interpret David's culpable behavior and the problem of female desire. In many respects Dryden at first seems remarkably sensitive to the mothers, reflecting what James Winn has described as his "more than occasional insight into the hard lot of . . . women."(31) But this insight is, as Winn notes of other works, also balanced by Dryden's tendency to lapse into misogynistic conventions.(32) Ultimately, the competing readings available at the beginning of Absalom and Achitophel are telescoped, so that by the end only the standard negative implications about female sexuality persist.

Let me unpack the various angles of interpretation initially available by beginning with the "several Mothers." A quick reading suggests simply that their problematic status is the source of the trouble with "True Succession"; based on earlier lines, it seems that because the women were not brides but slaves or concubines, their children cannot be kings. But this explanation is not entirely precise. The passage specifically emphasizes the sexual moment when the several Mothers ascended David's bed "like slaves" (15; emphasis added). We are not told that the women were slaves, and a careful reading of the opening reveals that some may have actually been among David's many wives (9). Zwicker points out that "the line suggests not just a technical category but sexual slavery or slavishness."(33) Indeed, the stress is on the means by which the mothers came to bed: if they entered like slaves, perhaps they were forced to lie with the king. At best, there is no indication that the women actively wanted to be there or that David had any interest in making their experience enjoyable. From this perspective, the problem of succession has as much to do with the way the mothers were impregnated as it does with their status, the implication being that it is because the women were passive objects of David's desire and possibly even victims of rape that their children are not fit for royalty.(34)

Lest this emphasis on the importance of female desire seem anachronistic, we need only recall that until the middle of the eighteenth century, it was widely believed that female pleasure and orgasm were necessary for conception.(35) Thus, a seventeenth-century audience would likely have made a connection between the mothers' sexual experiences and their success in generation. Dryden himself need not have been concerned with the question of women's sexual rights to have been interested in the reproductive implications of female pleasure. Nevertheless, despite this medical context, the poetic reasoning at first seems illogical because even if a woman enjoyed having sex with David she could not necessarily produce a king.

But the illogic of the association does not negate the emphasis on David's disinterest in arousing female desire and on his capacity to be abusive. It is worth noting, for instance, that the reference to Absalom's murder of Amnon, which follows a few lines later (39), specifically alludes to rape; in the biblical story, Absalom kills Amnon (his half brother) for raping their sister, Tamar. The narrator in Dryden's poem condemns Absalom's behavior, but nevertheless uses the attack on the brother to foreshadow Absalom's attack on his father. This, plus the fact that Amnon was also the king's son, invites us to consider the resemblance between Amnon and David - even to wonder if Absalom, who has killed his brother for having offended his sister, may have reason to object to his father's treatment of his mother.(36)

In the context of this layered allusion to David's problem with female desire, the earlier description of how Michal's "Soyl" is "ungratefull" to David's "care" reads not simply as an account of the queen's infertility, but also as a satiric comment on her own sexual experience with the king. Michal is clearly distinguished from the "several Mothers" and Tamar, for there is no indication that she has been raped. But given David's apparent neglect of the importance of female sexual feeling, as well as his notorious philandering, she too may have little reason to be grateful in bed. Perhaps, when it comes to lovemaking, the "Tiller's care" is simply inadequate.(37) For those seventeenth-century readers who assumed that conception depended on female orgasm, such sexual insensitivity could explain Michal's infertility. In order to prevent barrenness, "the man was . . . obliged to ensure the woman's satisfaction."(38) Modern readers have assumed that the burden of infertility lies with Michal, but David's preoccupation with other women, inattention to female desire and possible willingness to employ force, suggest that it is just as likely that he has failed to perform his sexual duty to please - and thereby impregnate - his wife.

The connection between female pleasure and conception becomes much more complicated when read in relation to the "several Mothers." On the one hand, the seemingly illogical suggestion that the several Mothers have not emitted the "seed" of "True Succession" because they were brought "like slaves" to David's bed makes sense if we interpret it as another account of the relationship between female desire and successful generation. One might argue that the mothers produce incomplete children because they were not active and willing participants in the sexual experience. From this perspective, the passage anticipates the description of Achitophel's son who is born deformed because he was conceived during a particularly clumsy and inadequate act of intercourse (170-72); the quality of lovemaking marks the quality of the product.

On the other hand, though, if the connection between female orgasm and generation is taken literally, then regardless of the means by which they came to David's bed, the several Mothers must have enjoyed themselves; otherwise they could not have proved fertile. Granted, there were medical theories that challenged the insistence on the need for female orgasm, and, as Laqueur notes, "counter-evidence must have been readily at hand that women frequently conceived without it."(39) Perhaps David's women became mothers against their will. But such a reading needs to be balanced by the fact that well into the eighteenth century, a woman's pregnancy could be used to disprove an accusation of rape, for it was still widely believed that, as Richard Burn put it in his 1756 Justice of the Peace, "a woman can not conceive unless she doth consent."(40) According to this logic, the several Mothers wanted what they got, an implication that anticipates Achitophel's oft-noted suggestion that the King, like all women, secretly longs to be raped (471-74; discussed in more detail below). Such reasoning even revises my earlier account of Michal's infertility. For using this lens, one can argue that the problem with the royal wife is that David has singled her out and treated her with too much "care." If, like the several Mothers, Michal had been abused in the way women secretly desire, perhaps she too would have conceived.(41)

The competing readings available here serve both a political and narrative purpose. The poet exposes the king and acknowledges the problem of his self-indulgent promiscuity, something necessary to gain credibility with an audience that would have been well aware of Charles's sexual faults.(42) But Dryden also protects David by leaving open the possibility that the main culpability lies elsewhere - that the production of a rebellious population, and specifically of an illicit son, was fueled primarily by maternal, not monarchal, desire. At this point, however, the balance of responsibility is unclear, and the irresolution generates useful suspense.

If anything, the case against David remains stronger. The king's apparent indifference to female desire, for instance, is highlighted by his contrasting indulgence of Absalom: "To all his wishes Nothing he deny'd, / And made the Charming Annabel his Bride" (33-34; first emphasis added). These lines continue to draw attention to the problematic objectification of women (the gift of Annabel indicates the extent to which Absalom has been spoiled), while also introducing a homoerotic twist. Pointedly contrasting with his neglect of women, the account of the king's excessive interest in pleasing his son (in this case sexually) highlights David's disorientation. He gazes at the boy with "secret joy" because in Absalom David sees "His Youthfull Image . . . renew'd" (32), and this narcissistic investment emphasizes the king's attraction to a body that is the same as his own.(43)

The stress on David's physical similarity to Absalom is important for another reason as well because it suggests that as a father he has exerted greater control over the act of conception, corroborating the argument that he is responsible for producing the political problem embodied in the son. In general, stressing what Filmer describes as the man's "principal agen[cy] in generation," the poem begins by offering an Aristotelian account of fertilization, showing how the king ignites or works on female matter to shape his progeny.(44) If he has failed effectively to heat the queen's soil, David has nevertheless fruitfully imparted his "vigorous warmth" (8) throughout the land. In keeping with later animalculist theories that suggested that the full embryo existed in the sperm, the beautiful Absalom seems to have sprung complete from his father's seed. Apparently bearing no relationship to his mother, Absalom is strictly the product of his father's great desire and activity, perhaps even "inspir'd" by David's "diviner Lust" and gotten "with a greater Gust" (19-20).

But importantly, then, in contrast to the way Filmer celebrates and links male generative and governmental control, Dryden here exposes the political problems of masculine conception. For if David has determined the development of his son, then the father is ultimately the source of the troubles that ensue.(45) As with Achitophel, David's control of procreation is a dangerous one. Granted, when we learn about Achitophel's act of fatherhood it is clear that he is considerably less successful than David; Achitophel has, in fact, failed appropriately to conceive. His son is an "unfeather'd two Leg'd thing," "born a shapeless Lump, like Anarchy" because he was "Got, while his [father's] Soul did hudled Notions try" (170-72). But, as different as their sexual acts may have been and as different as their children now appear, both David and Achitophel seem unilaterally to have begotten a political problem.

It is not until Absalom himself speaks, that this account of paternal conception begins to be redefined and the idea of the mother's participation is clearly introduced. The moment marks the point at which the poem begins to develop an increasingly more direct attack on maternal culpability. Tempted by Achitophel's call for him to seek the political privileges he is denied, Absalom memorably exclaims:

Yet oh that Fate Propitiously Enclined, Had rais'd my Birth, or had debas'd my Mind; To my large Soul, not all her Treasure lent, And then Betray'd it to a mean Descent. I find, I find my mounting Spirits Bold, And David's Part disdains my Mothers Mold. Why am I Scanted by a Niggard Birth? My Soul Disclaims the Kindred of her Earth.


On the one hand, Absalom's account of his own production repeats the earlier Aristotelian model, stressing how the mother gives the matter and the father creates action and soul. As before, the mother here is associated with "Earth" and the physicality of birth; in addition to the "Soul," the father bequeathes the "Mind" and "Spirits." Importantly, however, in contrast to the opening of the poem, this passage also rebalances the generational model in much the same way that Harvey did by suggesting that the female parent's contribution is at least as important as the male's to the development of the child: thus, "David's Part" is evenly balanced by "my Mothers Mold," the latter an arresting formulation since it suggests that the mother has the power to shape her offspring and conflicts with the way David sees the child as an image of himself. Indeed, what torments Absalom is the extent to which he sees his mother in himself - the extent to which he feels that, as one of her "Kindred," he is indelibly marked by a "mean Descent." Absalom longs to rise out of this maternal boundary but, frustratingly, cannot.(46)

In a number of ways, the narrator encourages us to agree with Absalom's account of maternal influence. We are told that, when tempted by Achitophel's promise of power, Absalom is "Half loath, and half consenting to the Ill, / (For Royal Blood within him struggled still)" (313-14), meaning that when he agrees to rebel Absalom is influenced by his ignoble part, the mother's half.(47) Such intimations would, for a seventeenth-century audience, have been strengthened by the scandalous history of Monmouth's mother, Lucy Walter, a woman rumored to have been a whore of "mean Descent." She died (perhaps of venereal disease) shortly after Charles rather forcibly removed their young son from her care. Not all of the rumors were true, but Lucy was well-known for her affairs, and she created considerable trouble for the king, which Monmouth would later compound.(48)

In addition to evoking memories of Monmouth's actual mother, the narrator reinforces Absalom's account of maternal influence by associating him with Milton's Eve throughout the seduction scene. As Frank Ellis points out, "Dryden would not forget that it is Eve whom Satan deceives" and he creates here "an androgynous Monmouth" marked by an effeminate beauty to dramatize the connection.(49) Winn makes similar associations, suggesting that Monmouth's resemblance to Eve "casts doubt on his authenticity as a hero" and that "the plot to settle the succession on [him] . . . is like [her] false dream."(50) So too, as with Satan and Eve, the serpentine Achitophel "sheds his Venome, in . . . words" (229) that ultimately flatter and provoke the initially resisting child to turn against the father and reach for the "Fruit . . . upon the Tree" (250-51). The desire Achitophel arouses in Absalom is framed as a feminine one, linked to that experienced by Milton's "general Mother." And the danger Absalom poses, intensified by the rumors that Monmouth's mother was a whore, shifts attention away from the critique of the king's sexual excesses and towards the earlier intimation that the political problem is the consequence of feminine longing.

Like the description of David's eagerness to please his son, the interaction between Absalom and Achitophel can also be read as a homoerotic one, but whereas his father once indulged him, Achitophel is seducing Absalom to satisfy his own needs.(51) Ironically oblivious to the various ways in which he has been feminized, Absalom himself is attracted by Achitophel's false promise of greater masculinity. Achitophel begins by assuring Absalom that if he dares to seize the temptress Fortune he can enjoy a kind of sexual conquest reminiscent of his father's:

Now, now she meets you, with a glorious prize, And spreads her Locks before her as she flies. Had thus Old David, from whose Loyns you spring, Not dar'd, when Fortune call'd him, to be King, At Gath an Exile he might still remain.


Reminding the son of his own debt to David's sexual fertility and invoking an image of exclusive paternal generation that has already proved problematic (Absalom springs from David's "Loyns"), Achitophel encourages Absalom to imitate his father and gain the advantage of sexual dominance. Next, he changes his strategy and puts David in Fortune's position, arguing that the King himself is the feminine figure Absalom must conquer. After twice describing David as "Naked" (280, 400) and stressing that he lacks "Manly Force" (382), Achitophel famously urges Absalom to commit "a pleasing Rape upon the Crown" (474), suggesting that the king "by Force . . . wishes to be gain'd / Like womens Leachery, to seem Constrain'd" (471-72). This description does the trick: "And this Advice above the rest, / With Absalom's Mild nature suited best" (477-78).

If the "Mild" Absalom is really moved by the idea that he will be doing what his father wants, it is notably the image of rape that persuades him to act. Evoking the opening allusion to the king's capacity to rape and Achitophel's demand that he ravish Fortune like his father before him, the passage suggests that Absalom is driven to become his father's sexual replacement, perhaps hoping that he can exert the very force against David that David has so magnificently displayed; or, that he can reverse the abusive act that injured his birth by becoming his father's abuser. In either case, rape, according to Achitophel, is productive, an implication that plays off the opening example of the prolific "several Mothers" brought like slaves to David's bed. Apparently consumed by the evidence of his father's virility, Absalom needs to imagine the king as an effeminate figure he can dominate in order to recreate himself.

But Absalom's fantasy of masculine grandeur proves simply ironic, first because the rape he and Achitophel imagine performing is pointedly homoerotic, and second, because throughout the scene Absalom is actually the one who, like Eve and the whorish Lucy Walter, is being seduced. When he thinks he will become most virile, the son is really the reverse. The contrast highlights David's genuine manliness, reminding us that Achitophel's account of the king's effeminacy is just as much a ploy as his description of Absalom's machismo, and that although David may have been too eager to please his son, he is nevertheless the man who has not only demonstrated the potential to rape, but also done so with women. So too, Achitophel's efforts to paint David as old and impotent are ironically balanced by the narrator's earlier assurance that Achitophel is actually the one who "Refuse[s] his Age the needful hours of Rest" (166). He may have an impact on Absalom, but Achitophel cannot function successfully enough in bed with a woman to generate a well-shaped child. The accumulating evidence of the sexual differences between David and these men begins to reconfigure the implications of the king's behavior; David's aggressive promiscuity with women is no longer necessarily a problem so much as a mark of his masculine authenticity. And it is in keeping with his virility that far from wishing "by Force . . . to be gain'd" (471), David ultimately proves instead that he is "not Good by Force" (950).

But if Achitophel's description of how women secretly long to be raped finally fails to define the king's position, it nevertheless is gradually validated as an accurate account of feminine sexual desire, a turn that revises the opening emphasis on women's passivity and possible victimization. Not only does Absalom demonstrate a feminine readiness to be seduced, but the crowd, which he (now playing the role of a man) in turn seduces, is lecherously interested in his overtures. Aroused by his good looks, the people open themselves to Absalom and thoroughly enjoy his penetration. As "He glides unfelt into their secret hearts" his "words" are "easy" and "fit," "slow" and "sweet" (693-97). In this context, the accounts of how "govern'd by the Moon, the giddy Jews" "By natural Instinct" often "change their Lord" (216-19) and are apt to leave themselves "Defensless, to the Sword/Of each unbounded Arbitrary Lord" (761-62) read as further evidence of the people's sexual exposure and whorish willingness to be raped.

Some of David's enemies are also marked by their capacity to be "Seduc'd" (498) and especially by their effeminacy. Zimri (standing for Buckingham who had a notorious affair with the Countess of Shrewsbury) may seem as fertile as the king, but the "ten thousand freaks that dy'd in thinking" (552) that he sires signal his failures of conception and resemble Achitophel's monstrous son. Demonstrating what Weinbrot characterizes as an "impotence of which Charles is free," Zimri may be "Stiff in Opinions" but he performs "every thing by starts, and nothing long" (547-48).(53) And like the fickle and whorish Jews, he too is influenced by the feminine "Moon" (549). Corah (Titus Oates) is just as bad. Although he stands "Erect," Corah's "Monumental Brass" only proves his masculine inauthenticity (633), especially because it was well known that Oates had been dismissed from his office as chaplain for the navy after committing sodomy while on ship.(54)

Like Monmouth, Oates was also rumored to be illegitimate and, echoing the description of Absalom's development from and desire to rise above maternal matter, Corah's "base" birth originates in "Earthy Vapours" though he seeks to "shine in Skies" (636-37). The implicit return to the problem of the maternal prepares us for the later account of Barzillai's son (the Earl of Ossory), Dryden's "conception of the ideal" male child, whose legitimate birth and noble death enable him to be free of matter in a way Absalom and Corah cannot.(55) Unlike Absalom, torn between "David's Part" and his "Mothers Mold" (368), Barzillai's child fulfills "All parts . . . of Subject and of Son" (836; emphasis added), suggesting that he reflects his father more completely than the divided Absalom. The passage as a whole, however, does not so much endorse a paternal model of generation as establish the advantages of escaping feminine origins. When Ossory dies

Now, free from Earth, thy disencumbered Soul Mounts up, and leaves behind the Clouds and Starry Pole From thence thy kindred legions mayst thou bring To aid the guardian Angel of thy King.


In echoing Absalom's earlier longing to escape his mother's influence - "I find my mounting Spirits Bold . . . / . . . My Soul Disclaims the Kindred of her Earth" (367-70) - the lines define the essential difference between the men. Where Absalom is grounded in the maternal earth, Ossory's soul can mount above it. Ultimately his "kindred" transcends the feminine.

When David reappears in the finale he seems to have reaped some of Ossory's advantages without even having to die. Demonstrating the true superiority of a Godly ruler, he is closer to heaven than ordinary mortals and suddenly free of earthly faults. Originally "inspir'd by some diviner Lust" (19) David now speaks "from his Royal Throne by Heav'n inspir'd" (936).(56) He thus bears a greater resemblance to his "Maker" than he did when he was self-indulgently scattering his own image throughout the land. Nevertheless, the difference between the legitimate Ossory and the illegitimate Absalom, and thus between the virtuous Barzillai and the promiscuous David, remains. As if recognizing the problem of his reputation, David pointedly reconfigures his history of sexual indulgence in his speech, completing the poem's attack on maternal desire and danger, and finally proving that he is not responsible for generating the child of disorder (though he may be guilty of the lesser charge of having raised Absalom "up to all the Height his Frame coud bear"[962] and thus of having given him a false sense of potency). Even as he resolves the initial problem of the poem, then, Dryden leaves open the possibility that David, like Achitophel, is simply developing a rhetorical strategy that is necessary for his own survival.

Part of David's strategy is to emphasize his phallic advantage, magnified now for readers by the contrasting effeminacy of his enemies. Unlike Zimri, for instance, who is "nothing long" (548), David's "Manly [temper] can the longest bear" (948). And he is prepared to exercise his potency on the "Factious crowds" (1018) - to "rise upon 'em with redoubled might: / For Lawfull Pow'r is still Superiour found, / When long driven back, at length it stands the ground" (1023-25). David here defines governmental repression in terms of his lawful right to phallic conquest, and in so doing, reverses the opening intimation of his lawless capacity for sexual abuse.(57)

But David's defense of his phallic authority cannot, in itself, solve the problem of the conception of Absalom and the Plot. Fully to extricate himself, the king still needs to prove that the burden of desire and generation lies elsewhere. He is at an advantage with the reader because the text has increasingly emphasized the problem of the people's desire. In addition to the crowd's prostitution before Absalom discussed above, the opening describes how the Jews "led their wild desires to Woods and Caves, / And thought that all but Savages were Slaves" (55-56). At the conclusion David is finally convinced "That no Concessions from the Throne woud please" (925). And when the narrator defends hereditary succession, he specifically insists that the reason subjects should never be given the right to choose their own ruler is that "Then Kings are slaves to those whom they Command, / And Tenants to their Peoples pleasure stand" (775-76). In weighting the problem of desire with the populace, the text interestingly reconceptualizes the whole issue of slavery. If it begins by questioning David's enslavement of women, the poem subsequently stresses the savagery of a people in need of control and suggests that the king had better play the part of "Master" (938) lest he himself become a slave. Given Charles's central role in sponsoring the Royal African Company, these passages arguably serve a colonialist purpose, functioning to support England's expanding empire and role in the slave trade.(58)

But by shifting the onus of desire away from the king, the passages also prepare the reader for David's ultimate attack on maternal longing and responsibility. First David links the petitioners' pretended interest in his approval of their choice of king to the way "Esau's Hands suite ill with Jacob's Voice" (982), recalling another biblical mother who, like Eve, plotted to undermine the father. After all, Jacob deceives Isaac in Genesis 27:13 only because Rebekah urges him to do so, assuring him that "Upon me be thy curse."

Next, David insists that, as with Absalom, he has been far too indulgent with his people - and especially with his enemies in Parliament - who are "Unsatiate as the barren Womb or Grave; / God cannot Grant so much as they can Crave" (987-88). Developing a wonderful counterpart to the opening possibilities that Michal is barren either because he has neglected her needs for sexual arousal or because he has not delivered the force she secretly wants, David instead figures his subjects' ravenous longing as the result of their feminine infertility. The problem is not that he has in some way failed to satisfy feminine desire, but rather that such longing is so uncontrollable that nothing he could have done would have produced a solution. Bearing no relationship to the king's own behavior, the empty womb becomes the driving force of the revolt, reminding us that if only the queen had been fertile all might be well.

David's final maternal image completes the reconfiguration of the "several Mothers." Adopting an opposite strategy than the one above, the king now blames his problems on feminine fertility as he anticipates his enemies' self-destruction by exclaiming:

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.


Originally unrelated to the rebel son, the mother here becomes the plot against the king, her pregnant body the bloody incubator of revolt. Compared with the description of Achitophel's and Zimri's children, the birth of the vipers is the most monstrous of all, in part because here, for the first time, the mother alone provides the "Principle of Life." Having moved from a paternal to a joint parental model of generation, the poem ends, ironically, with the same emphasis on the power of pregnancy Locke would later endorse: the offspring "is fashion'd [in the mother's womb], and from her it receives the Materials and Principles of its Constitution."(59) But unlike Locke, Dryden figures maternal generation as the ultimate horror. His emphasis evokes not Harvey's or the ovists' accounts of the importance of the egg so much as an ancient and enduring myth about pregnant mothers. Mounting embryological research had done little to erode the widespread belief that a woman's mental state and desires could affect and distort the child in her womb, even turning it into a monster.(60) It was assumed that frustrated maternal longings could mark and injure the fetus, and, as one eighteenth-century gynecological textbook explained, any excessive feeling might "impress a Depravity of Nature upon the Infant's Mind, and Deformity on its Body."(61) Suggesting that the development and birth of the vipers is the result of a Mother Plot, Dryden's image exonerates the father by emphasizing the gestatory danger of a certain kind of intensive maternal thinking.(62)

Moreover, according to ancient lore about vipers and in keeping with theories about monstrous births, the progeny here is specifically the product of the mother's excessive desire. As Swedenberg points out, in addition to recalling Spenser's Error and Milton's Sin, the description of the viper is based on popular fables about the beast itself. One mid seventeenth-century account explains that when vipers copulate the male puts his "head into the mouth of the female, who is so insatiable in the desire of that copulation, that when the male hath filled her with his seed-genital . . . she biteth" off his head and kills him. As a result, the young she conceives, "in revenge of their fathers death, do likewise destroy their mother, for they eate out her belly, and by an unnatural issue come forth."(63) If there were any question at the beginning, the answer is now unmistakable: the female not only wants sex, she is utterly voracious, and the offspring that result are marked by her hunger. The depiction of the viper completes David's acquittal, dramatizing the uncontrollable danger of maternal sexuality and his own victimization as father.(64) Far from producing the plot, David has fallen prey to it. The comfort, however, lies in the certain knowledge that he will be avenged when his rebels turn against their mother, and, in destroying her body and consuming their own placenta, effectively abort themselves. Beautifully, even these vipers will participate in the father's defense.

Because it recalls the way he developed the plot by shedding words of "Venome" (229), the image of the viper also completes the attack on Achitophel's manliness by associating him with a monstrous mother. Now the earlier description of his "shapeless Lump" (172) of a son has a different ring. Swedenberg suggests that the word Lump refers "to the soulless body or to the primordial matter of chaos."(65) Perhaps, then, Achitophel has not simply failed in his paternal mission to shape his progeny and give it a soul; perhaps the child remains a form of chaotic maternal material because that is actually all he has to offer.(66)

Tearing out of their mother's belly, the vipers are the last in a series of images suggesting that those associated with the plot have grown too large for the containment of the body. From the opening, the plot itself is a raging fever, boiling the blood so that it "bubbles o'r" (136-39) and "Foam[s]" (141) out of physical boundaries. Similarly, Absalom's "warm excesses . . . / Were constru'd Youth that purg'd by boyling o'r" (37-38). And Achitophel cannot stay inside himself, for his "fiery Soul . . . working out its way, / Fretted the Pigmy Body to decay" (156-57). It is in keeping with such details that, at the end of the poem, David finally recognizes the way the people, bearing the "Wound" of a "foment[ing] . . . Disease" (924-26) cannot be placated or restrained. The recurring ideas of blood, disease and interior pressure, concluding in the final description of the viper birth, construe the revolt itself as the inevitable rupture of a swelling pregnancy.(67) And the discussions of how the "Plot [that] is made" (751) is designed to persuade people that they "have a Right Supreme / To make their Kings" (409-10; see also 795) read in this context as warnings about the danger of offering the subjects any kind of gestatory power. If the populace believes that Kings are made, not designated - if it assumes the right to create a ruler - then like the mother viper, it too will become the breeder of chaos.

Dryden's dismissal of the theory of patriarchal procreation reflects a larger political trend. Pateman suggests "the classic patriarchalism of the seventeenth century was the last time that masculine political creativity appeared as a paternal power or that political right was seen as father-right"; Dryden's poem might then be read as marking the end of an ideal, the moment when the generative father-king is no longer a viable image.(68) So too, the attack on maternity anticipates the misogynist implications that, according to Pateman, shaped the contractual body born out of the impotent father - the "body of the 'individual'" whose form is "very different from women's bodies. His body is tightly enclosed within boundaries, but women's bodies are permeable, their countours change shape and they are subject to cyclical processes. All these differences are summed up in the natural bodily process of birth."(69) Among other things, Dryden's explosive mother viper proves that the female cannot contain political rights.

But the familial images in Absalom and Achitophel are also specifically related to the particular details of the Exclusion Crisis and Dryden's determination to support the king. Given the nature of Monmouth's role, Dryden could not have depended on traditional patriarchal theory to defend the monarch even if he had wanted to, because it appeared in part to be Charles's act of fatherhood that threatened his position as king as well as the endurance of royal succession. To emphasize Filmer's conception of how a ruler, especially one who promiscuously generated a rebellious son, "had, by right of fatherhood, royal authority over [his] children" and subjects would simply have highlighted the irony of the situation.(70)

The poem's attack on maternity instead enables the king to rise by virtue of contrast. Locke's debate with Filmer suggests that, whether or not it was explicitly acknowledged, the fatherly model of kingship was sustained by denying the role of motherhood in the family. "That the Mother too hath her Title" Locke cautions, "destroys the Sovereignty of one Supream Monarch."(71) Dryden clearly capitalizes on this rhetorical tension between motherhood and monarchy, though for political reasons much different from Locke's. Unable to rely on David's paternity as proof of his right to govern, he turns to the other parent and proves her worse. Demonstrating that to introduce the mother into the governmental model is to invite disaster and effectively "Physick [the] Disease into a worse" (810), Dryden argues that the mother must be erased for a stable kingship to be maintained and in so doing upholds one of the most basic premises of patriarchal theory.(72)

By insisting on the mother's primary role in conception, the poem can end by disposing of the notion that David (or Charles) was sexually responsible for making his own chaos. Maternal productivity, the consequence of a feminine desire that far outstrips David's own, is the ultimate danger. And David's virtue is marked by his removal from all aspects of the process of generation. The king proves stable both because he suggests that his blood did not create the child of blood, and because he rises above average mortals, becoming someone who is not (and should never be) bred or made by them, someone whose origins are fundamentally dissociated from the feminine earth.

But perhaps what is in the end most compelling about the politics of generation in Absalom and Achitophel is the variety of narratives about sexuality and the family that emerge before this conclusion.(73) Dryden develops a model of maternal generation in order to defend the royalist tradition as best he can under the circumstances, but because he has adopted and discarded other models along the way, the work ultimately reflects the ideological flexibility of a familial political theory that could be shaped to suit various purposes. At a time when the traditional emphasis on patriarchal procreation was on the wane, when the inevitability of royal succession had long been subject to doubt, and when there was no uniform scientific account of the creation of the human body, any political defense that depended on the image of governmental generation was necessarily unstable and open to rhetorical play. If Dryden ends with an account of maternal monstrosity and a non-procreative monarchy that solves the problem with which his poem began, he also proves in the process the ease with which his own structure could be dismantled - especially because the questions of who comes next and how are still unresolved.

Fordham University


I am grateful to Carol Barash, Mary Erler, Judith Greenfield, Eve Keller, and Ellen Pollak, all of whom read earlier versions of this paper and offered valuable suggestions.

1 John Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel, in The Works of John Dryden: Poems 1681-1684, ed. H. T. Swedenberg, Jr., 20 vols. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972), 2:2-36. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text. For discussions of fatherhood and kingship see especially Larry Carver, "Absalom and Achitophel and the Father Hero," in The English Hero, 1660-1800, ed. Robert Folkenflik (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1982), 35-45; Jerome Donnelly, "Fathers and Sons: The Normative Basis of Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel," Papers on Language and Literature 17 (1981): 363-80; Howard D. Weinbrot, "'Nature's Holy Bands' in Absalom and Achitophel: Fathers and Sons, Satire and Change," Modern Philology 85 (1988): 373-92; Gayle Edward Wilson, "'Weavers Issue,' 'Princes Son,' and 'Godheads Images': Dryden and the Topos of Descent in Absalom and Achitophel," Papers on Language and Literature 28 (1992): 267-82.

2 Michael McKeon has persuasively argued that the poem defends patriarchal succession not on "ethical or spiritual grounds," but rather because of its value as a "known rather than an unknown quantity" ("Historicizing Absalom and Achitophel," in The New Eighteenth Century, ed. Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown [New York: Methuen, 1987], 32). It is, I would argue, partly the emphasis on the alternative threat of maternal disorder that proves the safety of the king.

3 Filmer may have written Patriarcha as early as 1631 (or even earlier), but it was not published during his lifetime. For a discussion of the problem of dating the manuscript see Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Writings, ed. Johann P. Sommerville (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), xxxii-iv. Although it was not written during the Exclusion Crisis, when Patriarcha was published the relevance of Filmer's arguments "to the Exclusion debate was immediately recognized by participants on both sides" (Richard Ashcraft, Locke's Two Treatises of Government [London: Allen and Unwin, 1987], 29). For more on the way Filmer's theory shaped debates about Exclusion see Steven N. Zwicker, Lines of Authority: Politics and English Literary Culture, 1649-1689 (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993), 132 and 161.

4 Filmer (note 3), 1, 10, 11-12.

5 John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (New York: New American Library, 1965), 1.[section]6. Gordon J. Schochet also notes Locke's attention to Filmer's erasure of the mother, Patriarchalism in Political Thought: The Authoritarian Family and Political Speculation and Attitudes Especially in Seventeenth-Century England (New York: Basic Books, 1975), 248-49.

6 Locke (note 5), 2.[section]53.

7 Susan Moller Okin, Women in Western Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), 200.

8 I am interested here in the way, despite other sexist implications, the idea of the mother is pivotal in Locke's attack on the patriarchal justification of kingship. Scholars have long noted the problems with Locke's thinking about women. As Schochet (note 5) points out, even after insisting on the centrality of maternal authority and the need to acknowledge the duality of "'Parental Power,'" Locke soon forgets "his own injunction" and continues to use the phrase "'Paternal Power.'" Locke also rarely questions the husband's position as "the superior mate" (249). In this respect, Carole Pateman explains, he is no different than Filmer: "Both sides agreed . . . that women (wives) . . . were born and remained naturally subject to men (husbands); and . . . that the right of men over women was not political" (The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism and Political Theory [Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1989], 39). Indeed, "Locke's separation of what he calls paternal power from political power" is predicated on the assumption of woman's inherent inequality (Pateman, The Sexual Contract [Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1988], 91 and 93). Pateman's feminist analysis of the problems with Locke and the contract theorists is indispensible. See especially The Sexual Contract, 21-25, 52-53, 91-97 and The Disorder of Women, 33-57.

9 Steven N. Zwicker, Lines of Authority (note 3), 130. In Locke and Dryden, Zwicker writes, "Filmer had found his shrewdest exegetes" (132).

10 Thomas Hobbes, De Cive, The English Version, ed. Howard Warrender (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 123; also see the rest of Chapter 9 and Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson (London: Penguin, 1985), 253-54 (part II, chapter 20).

11 Leviathan (note 10), 253. As Okin (note 7) notes, Hobbes is inconsistent (198-99). He also maintains, for instance, that men tend to make better rulers because they "are naturally fitter than women, for actions of labour and danger" (Leviathan, 250). Still, as Pateman (note 8) suggests, of all the contract theorists, only Hobbes "proclaims that in the natural condition women are men's equals and enjoy the same freedom" (The Disorder of Women, 5; see also 20, and The Sexual Contract, 41 and 44).

12 Filmer (note 3), 192.

13 Pateman, The Sexual Contract (note 8), 88.

14 Quoted in Schochet (note 5), 165.

15 Locke (note 5), 1.[section]55.

16 For useful discussions of Aristotle's theories see Elizabeth B. Gasking, Investigations into Generation, 1651-1828 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1967), 27-30; Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990), 30-59; Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature (San Francisco: Harper, 1980), 157-62. For an especially good and brief summary of general trends and debates in theories of generation from Aristotle to the eighteenth century see Marie-Helene Huet, Monstrous Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993), 37-45.

17 Gasking (note 16), 29.

18 Quoted in Laqueur (note 16), 30.

19 Dryden (note 1) praises Harvey's work on circulation in "To My Honored Friend, Dr. Charleton" (1:43-44). But he makes no explicit reference that I know of to Harvey's work on generation.

20 Gasking (note 16), 28.

21 My summary of Harvey is based on Gasking, 16-36, Laqueur (note 16), 142-47, Merchant (note 16), 155-63, and Walter Pagel, William Harvey's Biological Ideas: Selected Aspects and Historical Background (New York: Basel, 1967), 270-82, 316, 320-21. For discussions of important contemporary theories other than Harvey's, see Audrey Eccles, Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Tudor and Stuart England (Kent: Kent State Univ. Press, 1982), 37-42, and Joseph Needham, A History of Embryology (New York: Arno Press, 1975), 115-229.

22 Gasking, 55.

23 Gasking describes how the early preformationists were all ovists (48), but beginning with Leeuwenhoek in 1683 animalculists became increasingly popular (56). It was not, however, until the beginning of the eighteenth century that there was a well-established division between them. For more on preformation theory see Needham (note 21), 163, 168-70, 175, 205-11.

24 Like Harvey, Locke here favors the theory of epigenesis over that of preformation. It was Harvey who coined the term "epigenesis" to discount the idea that there was what he called "immediate pre-existing material" that produced the fetus. Instead, as Gasking explains, "Harvey's account of development is of a simultaneous process of growth and differentiation" (30).

25 For a lucid discussion of the events leading to the "crisis in the theory of royal sovereignty" and of the way this crisis shaped Absalom and Achitophel, see McKeon (note 2), 29-34.

26 The Sexual Contract (note 8), 89; emphasis added.

27 Zwicker's explanation of Dryden's suspicion about patriarchal theory is very helpful. Dryden, he argues, "was happy to bathe the king in the warm glow of patriarchal indeterminacy; he sought the authority of that argument; he toyed with its plausibility. He was also aware, however, of the less happy associations that might be excited from the patriarchal model of governance, and those are buffered at every point" (Lines of Authority [note 3], 134-35).

28 In his most recent work on Dryden, James Anderson Winn suggests that this kind of flexibility is typical of the poet ("When Beauty Fires the Blood": Love and the Arts in the Age of Dryden [Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1992], 36). Winn's book offers a rich analysis of the way Dryden associates the artistic imagination with sexual energy and conception, see especially 61, 76 and 349 for discussions of the generation of poetry. In Absalom and Achitophel, Winn argues, "there are no sharp lines between the politics of the arts, the politics of sexuality, and the politics of the succession" (249).

29 There is considerable disagreement about the extent to which Dryden opens by blaming David - or Charles - for his sexual behavior. Howard Weinbrot (note 1) offers a good summary of those who believe Dryden is initially critical of the king (373). Although I am obviously hoping to add more details to this tradition of analysis, I believe that the poem is complex enough to generate multiple and conflicting interpretations. Steven Zwicker, for instance, has consistently and articulately argued that Dryden defends the king from the outset. In his first study, Zwicker maintains that "throughout the poem Charles reflects the godhead" (Dryden's Political Poetry: The Typology of King and Nation [Providence: Brown Univ. Press, 1972], 89). In his later Politics and Language in Dryden's Poetry: The Arts of Disguise (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984), Zwicker argues that "the narrator admits the king's sexual indulgence, but answers the criticism by asserting that in David's sexual excess is evidence of God's creative bounty" (93; see also 26 and 39). Most recently he has insisted on the defense of the king implicit in the poem's opening lines in Lines of Authority (note 3), 132 and 138. Wilson (note 1) also argues for David's consistent divinity (270-74).

30 Weinbrot (note 1), 379.

31 Winn (note 28), 26.

32 See Winn, 26, 36, 101, and 378.

33 Zwicker, Lines of Authority (note 3), 138. Zwicker goes on to argue that the line is designed to make a "crude joke" out of the word slavery (138). Similarly, he views the comment about Michal's infertility, which I discuss below, as simply a joke. Part of my aim in this essay is to argue otherwise. With reference to the slavish mothers, for instance, I would stress that at other points in the poem, the word "slave" connotes a form of serious and humiliating subservience: Adriel is not "a Slave of State" (879) and kings should not be "slaves to those whom they Command" (775). Zwicker, on the other hand, argues that most of the references to slavery are designed to debunk the term, especially when it is used in Exclusionist and liberal arguments "as a way of denominating the loss of natural rights and political liberty" (Lines of Authority, 133-40).

34 This is not, of course, to say that Dryden thought Charles II was a rapist, but rather that he found it poetically useful to imply that David, the character, may have been one.

35 Thomas Laqueur discusses the assumed importance of female pleasure in his influential Making Sex (note 16), arguing that it was not until the end of the Enlightenment that "medical science and those who relied on it ceased to regard the female orgasm as relevant to generation" (3).

36 The biblical description of Amnon's act is similar to the description of David in the poem: Amnon "forced her [Tamar], and lay with her" in his bed; see 2 Samuel 13:5 and 13:14. At the same time, it is worth remembering that the biblical Absalom is also no model of sexual propriety as he acts on Achitophel's suggestion that he humiliate his father by making incestuous use of David's concubines (2 Samuel 16:20-23). See relevant discussions of Absalom's sexual behavior in Donnelly (note 1), 374 and Weinbrot (note 1), 381.

37 Again, I do not mean to make historical claims here - in this case about Catherine of Braganza's sexual experience. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that Catherine was troubled by Charles's behavior with his mistresses and by his decision to name the illegitimate James as Duke of Monmouth. See Antonia Fraser, Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration (New York: Dell, 1979), 210-14, and 258-60, and Ronald Hutton, Charles the Second: King of England, Scotland, and Ireland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 187-89. For an alternative analysis of how Dryden's overriding concern is not David's sexual excess but the general problem of "ingratitude" see Steven Zwicker and Derek Hirst, "Rhetoric and Disguise: Political Language and Political Argument in Absalom and Achitophel," Journal of British Studies 21 (1981): 39-55.

38 Eccles (note 21), 36; also see 34-35, and Laqueur (note 16), 102.

39 Laqueur (note 16), 99. Harvey "accepted the stories of women who maintained to have conceived without . . . orgasm" (Pagel [note 21], 319; see also Eccles, 35).

40 Quoted in Laqueur, 162.

41 My reading of David's relationship with Michal and the "several Mothers" owes a great deal to Eve Keller, who commented on an earlier version of this essay and influenced my understanding of the problem of female pleasure in the poem.

42 As Anne K. Krook notes, "On being called father of his people, [even] Charles supposedly once responded, 'Well, I believe that I am, of a good number of them!'" ("Satire and the Constitution of Theocracy in Absalom and Achitophel," Studies in Philology 91 [1994]: 345n).

43 For an interesting and detailed analysis of the poem's continuing emphasis on David's similarity to Absalom see Krook, (note 42).

44 Filmer (note 3), 192.

45 Both Donnelly (note 1), 366-67 and Krook (note 42), 344-54 suggest that the king's similarities with his son implicate him in Absalom's rebellion.

46 For an analysis of how this passage reveals the role of fate in Absalom's birth and for a discussion of the way Absalom, because he does not descend from God, lacks the dual parentage of kings, see Wilson (note 1), 270-73.

47 In many editions "Royal Blood" reads as "Loyal Blood," muting the attack on the mother. Nevertheless, Absalom's Loyal Blood is still, arguably, the mark of his connection to his father.

48 Lucy, in fact, was not lowborn but this did not stop Monmouth's enemies from using his mother's "mean Descent" as evidence against him; see Fraser (note 37), 64. For other useful discussions of Lucy Walter see Fraser, 64-66, 154-55, 261, and Hutton (note 37), 25-26, 96-97, 125-26.

40 Frank H. Ellis, "'Legends no Histories' Part the Second: The Ending of Absalom and Achitophel," Modern Philology 85 (1988): 402.

50 Winn (note 28), 248, 249.

51 The references to homosexuality are not necessarily always straightforward attacks. As Winn points out "in some poetic situations, allusions to . . . homosexual affection were a powerful and acceptable way of indicating intense friendship" (84). Along these lines, one might argue that David's charged love for his son is a sign of its impressive strength. At the same time, though, an author might belittle "an adversary by accusing him of sodomy" (86). When they specifically refer to dangerous political bonds or threats, the homosexual innuendos in Absalom and Achitophel are designed to sting.

52 Donnelly (note 1) compares David and Absalom in discussing the motif of sexual conquest in this passage (374), but he does not analyze the passage in terms of father-son competition as I do below.

53 Weinbrot (note 1), 382.

54 Swedenberg summarizes the sexual scandal in The Works of John Dryden (note 1), 2:265-66. For good discussions of Dryden's literary treatment of Buckingham and Oates see Donnelly (note 1), 370-72 and Weinbrot, 382.

55 Donnelly, 375.

56 Weinbrot notes this shift (389).

57 For an analysis of how the poem ends by making a "sweeping recommendation of the sword" and by suggesting that a "bloody conclusion" is the only possible solution see Zwicker and Hirst (note 37), 50-53. Zwicker also stresses Dryden's final advocacy of violent revenge against the principals of Exclusion in Politics and Language (note 29), 87, 90 and Lines of Authority (note 3), 153.

58 For Charles's role in the Royal African Company, see Richard S. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1972), 231-32.

59 Locke (note 5), 1.[section]55.

60 Huet (note 16) suggests that "the question of the [power of the] mother's imagination seems to have transcended" scientific disputes; the question survived "not because of the scientific discoveries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but in spite of them" (45) and became increasingly popular during this period (5).

61 John Maubray, quoted in Julia Epstein, Altered Conditions: Disease, Medicine and Storytelling (New York: Routledge, 1995), 130. For discussions of the relationship between maternal desire and fetal deformity see Huet (note 16), 16-24 and Epstein.

62 The move is fully in keeping with the general implication of the monster myth, which, according to Paul-Gabriel Bouce, labels "the pregnant mother . . . as the great culprit, the evil scapegoat, much more so than the father. . . . She is finally made responsible for any marks or monstrous deformities of her offspring" ("Imagination, pregnant women, and monsters, in eighteenth-century England and France," in Sexual underworlds of the Enlightenment, ed. G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter [Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988], 98).

63 Edward Topsell, The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents (1658), quoted by Swedenberg in The Works of John Dryden (note 1), 2:285. The lore about the lecherousness of female vipers and the destructiveness of their offspring has a long history. John Trevisa's 1398 translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus's encyclopedia, for instance, contains a very similar description of the female viper. Bartholomaeus himself compiled his material in the thirteenth century and drew his evidence from even earlier sources. See On the Properties of Things: John Trevisa's translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum, ed. M.C. Seymour, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975-88), 2:1266-67. I would like to thank Mary Erler for pointing out this reference.

64 Both the earlier image of the barren womb and the description of the fertile viper suggest that insatiable desire originates in the female's reproductive organs. Quoting a contemporary doctor, Bouce characterizes such an association as a typical eighteenth-century sexual myth: "The Womb of a Woman is in the Number of the insatiable things mentioned in the Scriptures . . .; and I cannot tell whether there is anything in the World, its greediness may be compared unto; neither Hell fire nor the Earth being so devouring, as the Privy Parts of a Lascivious Woman" ("Some sexual beliefs and myths in eighteenth-century Britain," in Sexuality in eighteenth-century Britain, ed. Paul-Gabriel Bouce [Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982], 42).

65 Swedenberg, in The Works of John Dryden (note 1), 2:249.

66 For an analysis of how "The Medall" also satirizes Shaftesbury for his effeminacy see Winn (note 28), 339. The idea of the self-aborting beasts may also allude to Lucy Walter who had allegedly aborted two illegitimate children, neither fathered by the king; see Fraser (note 37), 154-55, and Hutton (note 37), 97. Despite the evidence of Lucy's licentiousness, some of Monmouth's supporters argued that he was a legitimate heir because Charles and Lucy had secretly been married all along. Charles vigorously denied the accusations and even asked an old Counsellor "to recall in public how Lucy was 'a whore to other people'" (quoted in Hutton, 390). By evoking an image of a lascivious mother's unnatural issue, Dryden may have intended to defend Charles's efforts to distance himself from both Lucy and Monmouth.

67 For an excellent and more general account of the image of disease in the poem and the king's role as healer see Wilson (note 1), 276-78.

68 Pateman (note 8), The Sexual Contract, 88.

69 Pateman, The Sexual Contract, 96.

70 Filmer (note 3), 6.

71 Locke (note 3), 1.[section]65. In the context of the Exclusion Crisis, it is worth remembering that Locke was, as Richard Ashcraft (note 3) explains, both Shaftesbury's "closest friend" (20) (he was a member of Shaftesbury's household for fifteen years) and his "trusted political adviser" (21). Locke's friendship with Shaftesbury may well have had a major impact on the development of his political liberalism. If it would not be entirely precise to argue that Locke learned his liberalism from Shaftesbury, "there is sufficient evidence . . . to establish the fact that, coincidentally with his association with Shaftesbury, Locke began to develop his interests in political and economic issues in a manner that identified his fundamental principles and general political perspective with Shaftesbury's publicly stated position. This was certainly the case with respect to Locke's writing of the Two Treatises of Government in the 1680s. . . . It is fair to characterize Shaftesbury's role as that of a catalyst" (22). The Second Treatise in particular "was written in the language and from the standpoint of [the] minority of radical Whigs" led by Shaftesbury (31). Locke fled England in 1675, perhaps for his hand in the publication of Shaftesbury's A Letter from a Person of Quality to His Friend in the Country, but Shaftesbury recalled him in 1679 to assist him during the Exclusion Crisis (Ashcraft, 20-34).

72 Dryden's treatment of the mother thus typifies what Zwicker describes as his general approach to the problem of patriarchal theory: "Without burdening himself with the full run of the patriarchal argument, [Dryden] places it within the poem and by implication and innuendo endorses its language and principles" (Lines of Authority, 149).

73 In focusing on the competing narratives I mean to affirm McKeon's (note 2) suggestion that a "historicized reading of Absalom and Achitophel shows that it . . . encloses a set of 'contradicting interests' within its ostensibly single-minded unity" (38).
COPYRIGHT 1995 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Greenfield, Susan C.
Date:Jun 22, 1995
Previous Article:(Dis)embodied letters and The Merchant of Venice: writing, editing, history.
Next Article:Imagining the nation in Defoe's A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |