Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

A Tragedy of Oversight: Visual Praxis in Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

A Tragedy of Oversight: Visual Praxis in Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage

Article excerpt

Introduction

In a recent article, Efterpi Mitsi has reflected on Aeneas' encounter with a statue of Priam in act 2 scene 1 of Christopher Marlowe's play, Dido, Queen of Carthage (written between 1585 and 1586, first performed between 1587 and 1593).1 Her main contention is twofold: "The statue functions on the one hand as a sign of [Marlowe's] ironic treatment of Virgil and on the other as his comment on ekphrasis, the verbal description of a work of art embedded into the larger context of the history of the epic poem." In regard of the latter, Mitsi claims, "The painful contemplation of the figure of Priam, an emblem of the suffering and loss caused by the Trojan War, not only refigures the tragic story of Troy in a dramatic rather than epic context but also reveals a concern with the nature of representation, the power and limits of art."2 Issues of great weight and moment are thus purported to depend on this apparently minor episode. In regard of the "ironic treatment," reading through the prism of other critics of the play Mitsi signals Marlowe's subversion of "the heroic masculinity of [Virgil's] Aeneas" and his incorporation of "Aeneas' tears from the Aeneid ('lacrimae rerum') with irreverent humour"; while the point of the irony is to show how Marlowe's Aeneas is "unable to perform his epic role" and perhaps to emphasise the "suffering at the heart of the epic project."3

One problem with this interpretation is that unless marked in some way, the detection of irony in a text is necessarily subjective. This problem is compounded when the text under scrutiny, as here Marlowe's, participates in an intertextual relationship with another, here Virgil's; for if Marlowe is to be considered as departing ironically from his source, then there must be a generally accepted, stable reading of that source which may serve as a benchmark against which to measure the extent of the irony. Yet no such reading of Virgil, more particularly of his hero, exists except, perhaps, for the con- ventional wisdom that Virgil's Aeneas is a peculiarly ambivalent epic hero, one full of misgivings and doubts about his epic mission until his confidence in the epic project is consolidated (but not then entirely) in the wake of various formative experiences, not the least of which is his sojourn in Libya and Dido's tragic finale. Indeed for many, the whole point of Virgil's Dido episode is to show the suffering at the base of all heroic endeavour (those "lacrimae rerum") and to show Aeneas' hesitant, equivocating humanity.4 In short, what Mitsi claims is Marlowe's radical subversion of a classical source may in fact be a compressed, dramatic restatement of it.

But it is Mitsi's contention that the episode at stake "reveals a concern with the nature of representation, the power and limits of art" which most concerns me here. How the play inscribes and comments on early modern dramatic representation, exploits its power and acknowledges its limits will be discussed later. That discussion will rely heavily on the role of ekphrasis in the early modern social praxis of the visual and will take as its starting point an analysis of Aeneas' encounter with the stone Priam as an exercise in ekphrasis. For that reason, it is necessary first to establish what exactly Aeneas is confronted with when he thinks he is seeing Priam. To this end, Mitsi's assumption that the "stone" of Priam is an artificial statue rather than a natural stone or rock must be questioned and Aeneas' reaction to it historicised. In consequence, Marlowe's ekphrasis and its striking employment of fictio personae will be seen to be less extravagant and more psychologically realistic on the diegetic level and, in terms of aesthetics, deeply rooted in contemporary viewing praxis and attested in accounts of real-life encounters with the ruins of Troy. That done, a reconsideration of Marlowe's tragedy will show how its heavy tropological investment in the praxis of the visual enacts on the level of theme a dialectic between heroic clarity of vision and tragic oversight and, more broadly, negotiates the suspicion of false images and visual evidence propagated in the disparate discourses of protestant antitheatre polemic and fledgling scientific materialism. …

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