Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Marlowe's Travesty of Virgil: Dido and Elizabethan Dreams of Empire

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Marlowe's Travesty of Virgil: Dido and Elizabethan Dreams of Empire

Article excerpt

Several recent studies(1) of Christopher Marlowe's Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage, have focused on its relation to the development of English imperialism. Since the play represents a female ruler from North Africa who is brought down by her love for a male voyager intent on founding an imperial dynasty, the play invites studies of the politics of gender, nationality, and race. Lurking in the background, however, is also a political agenda of a more specific sort. As William Godshalk has suggested, Queen Elizabeth's abortive marriage negotiations with the Duke of Anjou in the years 1579-81 seem to have been on the playwright's mind, though their precise relation to the details of the play has never been worked out.(2) It seems to me that recognizing allusions to the French Marriage is crucial in understanding Marlowe's position on the expansionist sentiment that was gathering strength in England in his day. The Queen's courtship of Anjou was a major turning point in Elizabethan foreign policy, one that set in motion England's sustained and ultimately successful attempt to project military power against Spain in the Low Countries, the New World, and beyond. For that reason, if for no other, the negotiations deserve more attention in studies of the play than they have so far received.

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In considering possible connections between Dido and the French Marriage, it is helpful to begin with the literary context in which the play was written. As founder of an empire that rivaled that of ancient Rome, Dido was a convenient analogue for Elizabeth in her challenge to the sixteenth-century Roman imperium controlled by the Pope and his powerful allies in France and Spain. Interest in the myth at the English court appears as early as 1564, when Edward Halliwell staged a Latin play entitled Dido (now lost) before the Queen at Cambridge.(3) The myth attracted later writers of Elizabethan panegyric for various reasons, the most important of which are made plain in William Gager's Latin play of the same name, which was performed at Oxford during a royal visit in 1583. In the Epilogue, where the author attempts to "reckon up" the good to be derived from his work, he stresses three parallels between the two queens, saying, "Dido, one woman surpasses you by far: our virgin queen. In her piety, how many reversals has she endured! What kingdoms has she founded! To what foreigners has she plighted her trust!"(4) The lines call to mind Dido's sufferings at the hands of her brother Pygmalion, who forced her and her followers to flee from Tyre and settle in Libya; her subsequent achievement in founding the kingdom of Carthage; and her peaceable dealings with surrounding peoples. The Epilogue also mentions her "trust and aid to the wretched," evidently an allusion to the assistance that she gave Aeneas and his storm-tossed men. As Gager's Epilogue suggests, Elizabeth's life followed a similar pattern, beginning with her "piety" amid sufferings caused by her sister Mary, proceeding through "reversals" inflicted by her Catholic enemies, and ending with the "founding of her kingdom" as the trusted ally of Protestant "foreigners" on the Continent.

Other works of the period also compare Elizabeth with Dido because of her generosity toward the needy, her piety in the face of adversity, and her attainments as the founder of an empire, though other qualities such as courage and love of her people are also important. In a passage in James Aske's 1588 poem "Elizabeth Triumphans," which was written to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the author exalts the English queen as "the only Empress that on earth hath lived." He calls her a "Goddesse" who accompanies her troops into battle, a "Generall" who promises "the meanest man" and the greatest an equal share of honor and reward.(5)

Comparisons between Elizabeth and Dido were, however, not always so favorable. In the period 1579-81, when Protestants rose up in opposition to the Queen's marriage negotiations with Anjou, writers and artists placed more stress on the self-destructive desires that led to Dido's fall. …

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