282. Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe (c. 1587-1593)

When you pick up an early work by a playwright who was subsequently eclipsed by Shakespeare, and perhaps better known for his lifestyle and mysterious demise, you don’t expect too much. In this case I didn’t even have the novelty of a new story as the tale of Dido and Aeneas has already been covered in Virgil’s Aeneid. So it was with a certain amount of impatience that I started Dido at the beginning of Marlowe’s Complete Plays (Penguin, 1969), instead of heading straight for his more well-known plays. And of course, I was surprised and delighted. The promise found in the poetry of Wyatt and Howard had now started to be met in Marlowe’s first play. In fact, I have taken a lot of time to start this post as I read the play twice, the second time referring to the occasional footnote at http://elizabethandrama.org

For those unfamiliar with The Aeneid, we have Aeneas, accompanied by his young son Ascanius, and his loyal men, who having escaped the horrors of the sack of Troy, are now wrecked on the African coast near Carthage, on their way to make a new home for themselves in Italy. Dido, the Queen of Carthage, has rejected numerous suitors, including the latest : Iarbus, King of Gaetulia, but now quite literally pricked by Cupid’s darts (disguised as Ascanius), has fallen passionately and irredeemably in love with Aeneas.

Again, the Gods are meddling in the affairs of mortals, and the actions driven by Venus to reward Aeneas to be the founder of a new civilization will bring tragedy to those caught in the wake of his destiny. Threatened by Jupiter to continue his quest to seek out Italy, Aeneas must leave Carthage and renege on his vows of love, leaving Dido, who cannot bear to live without him. Iarbas, still in love with Dido, throws himself on her pyre, as does Dido’s sister Anna, who has been suffering in unrequited love for Iarbas.

My thoughts particularly dwelt on Iarbas, who could have just been portrayed as a stock villain, but instead we see him as more human; confused and hurt by Dido’s sudden and confusingly arbitrary rejection; cursing Aeneas and Dido in his pain as he discovers their tryst; threatening privately to retaliate; using his pretended concern to hasten Aeneas’s departure in the hope to eventually regain his position in Dido’s affection, and finally following his love to his death.

Dido’s rejection of many previous noble and regal suitors from other lands, and her fall in the opinion of the world when she chooses the penniless Aeneas, may have been a comment on the strength of Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen and her strategies in England’s relationships with her European neighbours.

Favourite quotes/scenes:

The irony in poor Anna asking why Dido has rejected Iarbas:

Dido: Because his loathsome sight offends mine eye,

And in my thoughts is shrin’d another love.

O Anna, didst thou know how sweet love were,

Full soon wouldst thou abjure this single life!

Anna (aside) : Poor soul, I know too well the sour of love:

O, that Iarbas could but fancy me!

Act 3, Scene 1, lines 57-62

And Dido’s uncertainty about Aeneas’s plans to stay in Carthage first emerging:

Dido:  …. Not bloody spears, appearing in the air,

Presage the downfall of my empery,

Nor blazing comets threaten’s Dido’s death;

It is Aeneas’ frown that ends my days.

If he forsake me not, I never die;

For in his looks I see eternity,

And he’ll make me immortal with a kiss”

Act 4, Scene 4, lines 117-123

Those last two lines alone should merit Marlowe’s own immortality.

Personal rating:  At least an 8/10. I suspect I may need to leave some wriggle room for the rest of his works.

Kimmy’s rating: When can we go for our walk? You’ve read that twice already!!

In the years 1561-1580:

  • A string of religious wars between the Huguenot Protestants and the Catholics in France, 1562-98, including the infamous Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572.
  • Africans taken as slaves to be sold in New World colonies 1562-
  • Bubonic plague throughout Europe, 1563
  • Mary, Queen of Scots flees to England 1568, after the deaths of her favourite, David Rizzio, and her husband Lord Darnley, and her forced abdication from the throne. She is seized and held prisoner by Elizabeth.
  • On a happier note, James Burbage obtains license to build England’s first permanent theatre, 1574. It opens in Shoreditch in 1576.
  • Sir Frances Drake completes his circumnavigation of the world in The Golden Hind, 1580.

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978

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