Writers of the Renaissance treated the literature of ancient Greece and Rome in the same way that modern pop stars treat the music of the 1960s; for Elizabethan authors, the classics were a treasure-trove of stories and characters just waiting to be plundered and plagiarised. So it was in keeping with this grand tradition that Christopher Marlowe's tragic drama, Dido, Queen of Carthage, breathed new life into characters that had begun life thousands of years before.
Over centuries the ancient Greek Dido had been demoted from her earliest form in myths as a minor goddess to a mere princess in later stories - the daughter of the King of Tyre1. In this new form, the stories told that, with the ancient world’s irreverence for familial relationships, she married her uncle, Sychaeüs. The marriage didn't last long, however, as she was widowed by her newly crowned brother, who murdered Sychaeüs for his money (clearly sharing his sister’s cavalier disregard for family ties). Sychaeüs’ ghost warned Dido to leave Tyre and she fled with her loyal followers across the sea to the Libyan coast. There, she established the city-state Carthage which prospered and grew under her rule. Being a tricky woman, she had struck a deal with the natives to buy as much land as could be encompassed by a bull’s hide. But before laying down the hide, she cunningly cut it into extremely thin strips, which when tied end to end encircled a much larger area than the natives had in mind. Naturally, they were not best pleased.
In early versions of the story, the Libyan king became alarmed at the growth of Carthage and of Dido’s power. He forced her to agree to marry him, but before the ceremony could be carried out Dido ordered a funeral pyre to be built, and threw herself upon it rather than submit. Centuries later, the Roman author Virgil transplanted Dido into the opening book of his epic poem The Aeneid, as a distraction to his hero, Aeneas. Dido’s fate, however, remained unchanged, and when Aeneas abandons her to resume his quest 2, Dido commits suicide by throwing herself onto a funeral pyre and her lover’s abandoned sword. Roman poets were never ones to go for overkill on a death scene.
Marlowe’s version of the Dido story is a tale of temptations. The opening scene (which is almost entirely of Marlowe’s invention) sees Jupiter wooing Ganymede with promises and precious gifts, before being reminded of his duty to ensure Aeneas fulfils his fate by an irate Venus. This sets a divine example that all the plot strands in the rest of the play follow. Dido woos Aeneas and showers him with presents, before an irate Hermes reminds Aeneas of his destiny. Dido further tempts Aeneas’ loyal right-hand man, Achates, with more riches, if he will sail off without his leader - thus leaving with Dido her lover. A disguised Venus tempts away Aeneas’ son, Ascanius (her own grandson) with sweets and toys, and tries to tempt her rival, Juno to join forces with her in return for a share in Venus’ divine gift of desire.
Even the old nurse, in an early example of that great Shakespearean tradition which uses such characters for comic relief, tries to lure away a disguised Cupid with promises of treats. The dialogue that she has with herself, when the mischievous love-god stirs up long dead desire, encapsulates the themes of the play: the war of the self between duty and desire, between self-denial and self-indulgence. As in the best of Shakespeare, the pathos in her speech undercuts the humour with a streak of bitter melancholy.
Dido, Warrior Queen
In many ways, Dido is a prototype for the strong modern woman. Marlowe’s only female protagonist, she is a powerful and wealthy queen with hordes of rejected kingly suitors. It is Dido who initiates the romance with Aeneas, and acts as his benefactor and provider throughout. She is possibly Marlowe’s most fully realised female character - passionate and intensely sympathetic in her anguish over Aeneas’ desertion, but with that characteristically Marlovian hint of ruthlessness and cruelty in her determination to see Aeneas accepted by the people of Carthage:
Those that dislike what Dido gives in charge,
Command my guard to slay for their offence.
Shall vulgar peasants storm at what I do?
Dido - Act IV, scene iv, 71-73
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra (or Marlowe's Tamburlaine) could not have put it better. This ruthlessness does not detract from her tragic stature in the play, and she is (as in Virgil’s version) a much nobler figure than Aeneas at this point in his career. Indeed, it is often difficult to say what it is that tempts Aeneas more - the promise of Dido herself, or the wealth and power she offers him:
Each word she says will then contain a crown,
And every speech be ended with a kiss.
Aeneas - Act IV, scene iii, 53-54
When Dido catches Aeneas in the act of abandoning her, he lies and pretends that he was merely wishing his friends farewell. When Hermes warns Aeneas that he must leave Carthage immediately or risk Jupiter’s wrath, Aeneas has to rely on Iarbas (a rival for Dido’s affections) to replace the sails and oars Dido had confiscated from his ships. In fact, Aeneas’ only heroic exploits in the play are those that he recounts in his description of the fall of Troy to Dido’s court, which perhaps accounts for Marlowe’s need to explain Dido’s infatuation by means of Cupid’s arrows and the machinations of the gods. Aeneas repeatedly blames his desertion of Dido on the will of the gods, rather than his own desire, but Dido claims that:
The gods weigh not what lovers do:
It is Aeneas calls Aeneas hence.
Dido - Act V, scene i, 131-132
This certainly appears to be true for some of the gods (Venus and Juno both seem content that Aeneas should remain at Carthage), but the will of Jupiter is unalterable; and though he is too busy frolicking with Ganymede to make any further appearances in the play himself, Hermes sternly reminds Aeneas of his duty. When the Trojans have departed, however, the gods also make themselves scarce. Dido on her own holds no interest for them, and they abandon her as soon as Aeneas sails away. Unlike Virgil, whose ending for Dido sees Juno, moved by her suffering, helping Dido to an easier death, Marlowe’s queen dies alone and calling for vengeance from absent gods.
Scholars are in disagreement as to when Marlowe wrote his version of the tale and how much of a contribution, if any, his credited co-writer Thomas Nashe made. It seems likely that it was a fairly early play, perhaps even written and performed whilst Marlowe was still at college. The play was certainly well known - Shakespeare parodied3 Aeneas’ description of the death of Priam, King of Troy, in the speech that Hamlet requests from the Player-King. Marlowe himself re-used verbatim one of Dido’s lines in Doctor Faustus
If He forsake me not, I never die;
For in his looks I see eternity,
And he’ll make me immortal with a kiss.
Dido - Act IV, scene V, 121-123
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Faustus - Act V, scene ii, 97-99
While Dido is seldom counted as one of Marlowe’s greatest works, it has a poetic lyricism in its lines, and an emotional heart in its female protagonist, that endure to this day.
Read about Henry Purcell's operatic version of Dido and Aeneas
Gary Taylor discusses The Allure of Dido in The Guardian newspaper.
Have a look at other pages from 'Christopher Marlowe's life and Works' already completed or also in progress:
- Dido, Queen of Carthage
- Edward II
- The Jew of Malta
- Tamburlaine the Great
- A Biography of Christopher Marlowe
- Conspiracy Theories and Christopher Marlowe
- What is Blank Verse?
or go to
Marlowe: The Complete Texts
for online editions of Marlowe's plays and poems.