A Comparative Study of the Dido-Aeneas Episode in Virgil's Aeneid and Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queene of Carthage

By du Plessis, Donatella | Akroterion, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

A Comparative Study of the Dido-Aeneas Episode in Virgil's Aeneid and Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queene of Carthage


du Plessis, Donatella, Akroterion


The paper judged to be the best student essay submitted to Akroterion by November 30, preceding publication of the volume for that specific year, is published annually as the CASA / KVSA Essay. The competition, which is sponsored by the Classical Association of South Africa, is open to undergraduate students every year and to Honours students in even-numbered years. The winner receives a cash prize of R500.

The Dido-Aeneas episode in Virgil's Aeneid is one of the most celebrated stories ever written. It has inspired countless artists in the fields of art, music and of course, literature. Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queene of Carthage is an obscure, early work that no one seems to pay much attention to except Marlowe scholars, who prefer to occasionally study what makes Marlowe's first attempt at writing for the stage a very bad play, a reputation it thoroughly deserves.

It is strange, however, that Marlowe, the genius responsible for The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus and Tamberlaine, could have produced something that is considered on the one hand bad and on the other an adaptation of Virgil, whose work has commanded nothing but the highest respect since ancient times. While Virgil was undoubtedly Marlowe's primary source, (1) one should keep in mind that Virgil and Marlowe wrote for different reasons. Many of Virgil's intentions were political. Virgil glorified the politics of Augustus and encouraged the Roman people to take pride in their roots. Marlowe wrote this play at university and his audience would have been students who knew Virgil well. In transforming Aeneas into an obtuse, pathetic kind of "pet" of a domineering and oddly masculine Dido, Marlowe strips the story of nobility and adds a prominent ridiculous and comic element that strongly suggests that he is parodying rather than re-writing Virgil for the amusement of his fellow students. It should also be mentioned that Marlowe's play was premiered by a children's company, (2) and the notion of a little boy Dido pleading with a little boy Aeneas, (3) on top of Marlowe's comic script must have made for hilarious viewing.

Dido in the Aeneid is a fascinating character, a wise and respectable ruler of a great civilization. (4) She is also sympathetic, three-dimensional and deeply human, the victim of forces beyond her control; in stark contrast to a rather uninteresting, overly sensitive Aeneas whose great destiny to found Rome does not save him from a negative reaction from the reader when he leaves Dido to pursue his destiny. (5)

When Book 4 opens, Dido can "get no peace from love's disquiet" (Aen. 4.5). She acknowledges her feelings to Anna, but is reluctant to act upon them, out of respect for Sychaeus (4.15-16) and the gods (4.25-27). (6) Despite multiple sacrifices divine approval is refused, and Dido's indecision eventually brings the construction of the city to a halt, (7) her degradation intensifying to the extent that it transcends the personal into the political (Quinn 1965:19). Soon hereafter the cave scene is depicted, which Virgil aptly describes as follows:

   That day was doom's first birthday and that first day was the cause
   of Evils: Dido reckoned nothing for appearance or reputation:
   The love she had brooded on now has a secret love no longer;
   Marriage she called it, drawing the word to veil her sin (Aen.
   4.169-172).

Dido's calling this incident a marriage represents "one more step from reality into self-deception" (Quinn 1965:20), and embodies Dido's unstable state of mind in the rest of the book. When Aeneas decides to leave, Dido is described as "raving / Like some Bacchante driven wild" (Aen. 4.300-301). She calls Aeneas "unfaithful" and "heartless"; she blames him for the loss of her reputation (4.320-323) and scorns his protests that he leaves by the god's will and not his own (4.379-380). (8) The reader's sympathy is once again evoked when Dido at last realizes that Aeneas will not stay with her and she then decides to die:

   Hapless Dido, frightened out of her wits by her destiny
   Prayed for death: she would gaze no more on the dome of daylight
   (Aen. … 

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