Ironically, the way in which this motif permeates the poem gives rise to nearly all of the stages of the story. This essay will argue that the father-son motif in Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel demonstrates the implicit vulnerability of all patriarchal relationships; more particularly, this essay will explain how Dryden employs the father-son motif in order to highlight the danger of a patriarch loving uncritically, the danger of a patriarch offering mercy and restraint to enemies, and the painful burdens that patriarchal figures must endure if they are to survive in such a role.
The poem begins almost as an apology; it is apologetic because patriarchs and fathers are forgiven in advance for the miseries to be encountered in the current age. This reference to simpler times is introduced in the first few lines, when Dryden offers that, "In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin, Before polygamy was made a sin; When man on many multiplied his kind, Ere one to one was cursedly confined; When nature prompted, and no law denied, Promiscuous use of concubine and bride;" (1-6). The implication is that there was a time when fatherhood implied no predominant obligation; indeed, this reference to pious times views the father-son relationship without the imposition of certain conditions or risks. Having a generalized duty to many people, being promiscuous and without the curse of being confined, the father may pursue his life freely. The patriarch, in short, may interact with others when nature prompts, he may choose and discard his relationships arbitrarily, and he will not be judged a legitimate or illegitimate father by others. The pious times, in effect, were without negative consequences. These pious times, on the other hand, are at an end. The father-son motif, particularly with the birth of Absalom, demonstrates the most immediate vulnerability of patriarchy.
Patriarchal consequences arise and vest most forebodingly with the birth of Absalom. The indifference notable in pious times is notably absent; quite the contrary, King David, was borne a son described as "So beautiful, so brave,Whether inspired by some diviner lust, His father got him with a greater gust; Or that his conscious destiny made way, By manly beauty, to imperial sway" (18-22). The "imperial sway" language is particularly significant; it is significant because King David is creating a special place in his heart and in his monarchy for Absalom. There is no longer any indifference; more interesting, the son has been elevated to a position higher than that enjoyed by either King David's other children or by King David's subjects. It is easy to ascribe the villainy to come to Achitophel, and yet the first sign of a faction is created by the father himself. To be more precise, rather than maintaining a strictly patriarchal relation to all men, King David instead elevated the son whom would later become his enemy and the cause of much sadness. Thus, if Achitophel might be blamed for taking advantage of this father-son relationship, then King David must accept responsibility for having given so much favor to Absalom in the