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  • Aborting the “Mother Plot”: Politics and Generation in Absalom and Achitophel
  • Susan C. Greenfield

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. 3 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 [End Page 267]

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...

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pp. 267-293
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