Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

Bookish Play: Imitation and Innovation in Dido, Queen of Carthage

Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

Bookish Play: Imitation and Innovation in Dido, Queen of Carthage

Article excerpt

Marlowe's generation inherited a mythic tradition of Dido and Aeneas that was contested by various historical, literary, and moral sources. As a work of imitatio, Dido, Queen of Carthage is generally understood to be drawing upon two dominant literary sources, Virgil and Ovid, who each portray opposing perspectives on the myth. According to Virgil, Aeneas's decision to leave Dido exem - plifies his pious duty to his wider epic mission. By contrast, in the Ovidian tradition Dido depicts Aeneas as an unfaithful lover guilty of abandoning her. Critics have usually considered Dido to be modelled upon one or both of these writers, as Virgil's Aeneid (c. 29-19 BCE) provides the raw material for the plot of Dido, and Ovid provides a model for the sensuousness of the gods and the humans who are subject to their wishes. Sara Munson Deats has long noted that Dido contains these "contradictory intertextual materials," which ultimately resist any attempt at synthesis. For Deats, the play, "both valorizes and deflates romantic passion . . . both affirms and interrogates heroic duty."1 Timothy Crowley challenges this "merely 'eclectic'" or "noncommittal," reading of the play by asserting that it exhibits "compound, critical imitatio" that "consistently critiques the Aeneid and deploys Ovid for its unique parody of Virgil."2 Crowley is right to note the critical application of imitatio in the play, but I would contest the claim that critical imitatio necessarily privileges any source against another. I find Deats's study into the ambivalence of the play's source material to be more persuasive than Crowley allows, as ultimately no synthesis is reached between the competing value systems of romantic passion and heroic duty. However, perhaps this is because the play is less focused upon the conflict of values than about the textual construction of these concerns. The play represents Dido and Aeneas always in relation to the tradition that they come from, and this bookish awareness almost trivializes grand concepts such as passion and duty. Instead, I read characters that grapple for their own identity against an ever-present mythic backdrop.

Michel de Montaigne's reflections on schoolmasters' learning express his frustration when learning leads to a kind of parroting of other people's words as a form of elegant ornamentation. For Montaigne it seems that recalling the knowledge of others must not replace an individual's own process of thinking:

Mais nous, que disons nous nous mesmes? que jugeons nous? que faisons nous? Autant en diroit bien un perroquet . . . Nous prenons en garde les opinions et le sçavoir d'autruy, et puis c'est tout.

(But what have we got to say? What judgements do we make? What are we doing? A parrot could talk as we do. . . All we do is to look after the opinions and learning of others: we ought to make them our own.) 3

His declaration that we should instead make learning "our own" is suggestive for the play's engagement with source material. By refusing to base his reworking of the myth on any one particular source, Marlowe makes the story his own in a very particular way. Instead of asserting any of his sources as an authority worthy of being deferred to, Marlowe's imitative work bases itself in textual conflict and therefore finds its own voice through problematizing the representations of the myth that have gone before. The play's engagement with the versioning of the myth as a subject in itself defies naturalized portrayals of Dido's doomed love, instead favoring a bookish struggle between competing textual voices. To adequately account for the innovation of this bookish play, we need to expand our assessment of its imitative focus from determining who is his "real" source, to considering how he reimagines imitation as an art form.

Critics have spent many pages detailing the deviations in the Trojan account from Virgil, though strangely Aeneas's desire to speak "with Achilles tongue" is quite often passed over. …

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