Pious Aeneas, False Aeneas: Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and the Gift of Death
Mathew Martin, "Pious Aeneas, False Aeneas: Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and the Gift of Death."EMLS 16.1 (2012)]: 1 http://purl.org/emls/16-1/dido.htm
To these [the Roman nation] I set no bounds, either in space or time;Jupiter continues his prophecy up to Julius Caesar, after whose death and apotheosis “shall the age of violence be mellowing into peace: / Venerable Faith, and the Home, with Romulus and Remus, / Shall make the laws” (I.291-293). The poem concludes with the prophesied reconciliation of Jupiter and Juno, a reiteration of the destiny of Rome, which will “[surpass] all men, nay even the gods, in godliness” (XII.839), and the death of Turnus, the last obstacle in the way of the Trojan conquest of Latium. Though in proper epic fashion it begins in the middle of things, then, the Aeneid has a definite beginning and end.
Unlimited power I give them. Even the spiteful Juno,
Who in her fear now troubles the earth, the sea and the sky,
Shall think better of this and join me in fostering
The cause of the Romans, the lords of creation, the togaed people.
Thus it is written. (I.278-283)
if strong right handsHector here addresses Aeneas as the bearer of the universal, the preserver of the Trojan piety that will ultimately constitute the foundation of Roman religion and law. The sacrifices Aeneas makes, here as he flees the impious destruction of Troy and elsewhere, he makes for the universal he bears. Virgil’s Aeneas, then, is a tragic hero, the moral hero of whom Sidney and Spenser speak, a pious man heroically confronting external impiety. Indeed, Hector and later Venus ensure that Aeneas does not experience his departure from Troy as ethical paradox or contradiction, contradiction between Aeneas’ duty to stay and defend Troy and his duty to leave and preserve its gods. Before Aeneas has the chance to buckle on his armour, Hector has informed him that his attempts to fulfill his duty and defend Troy will be futile. Similarly, in order to prevent Aeneas from continuing to fight against the Greeks, Venus shows him the gods, the “shapes of / Heaven’s transcendent will” (II.622-3), at work destroying Troy and tells him that “Jove supplies fresh courage and a victorious strength / To the Greeks, inciting the gods against the Trojan cause. / Escape then, while you may, my son, and end this ordeal” (II.617-619). Personal as well as political loss threatens to prevent Aeneas from leaving, especially the loss of his wife Creusa in the rush to escape the burning city. Yet here too Virgil’s Aeneas is preserved from experiencing the loss and his flight as an ethically contradictory sacrifice: as he is frantically searching for her, the ghost of Creusa appears to Aeneas to tell him that “These happenings are part of the divine / Purpose. It was not written that you should bring Creusa / Away with you; the great ruler of heaven does not allow it” (II.778-80). She then briefly sketches his future in “Hesperia” (II.782) where “a kingdom, a royal bride / Await you” (II.784-5). Like Hector, Creusa announces Aeneas’ election and foretells his ultimate triumph, if not over the devil and death then certainly over hostile gods and the slaughter that they have created in Troy. Because he is made to share the poem’s teleological perspective and because he is made fully aware of the presence of the gods in human history, then, Aeneas is able to negotiate the conflicting ethical demands imposed upon him. He is able to explain himself, to justify his actions—and this is precisely what he is doing in Books II and III of the Aeneid as he provides for Dido an account of Troy’s fall and his role in that fall.
Could save our town, this hand of mine would have saved it long ago.
Her holy things, her home-gods Troy commends to your keeping:
Take these as partners in your fate, for these search out
The walls you are destined to build after long roaming the seaways. (II.291-295)
But bright Ascanius, beauty’s better work,Yet even from this Olympian perspective the play allows its audience some room to question the firmness of Aeneas’ fate. “How may I credit these thy flattering terms” (109), Venus asks immediately after Jupiter has concluded his prophecy, and the question seems not impertinent, if only because earlier in the scene we have witnessed Jupiter offer nothing less than “proud fate” and “the thread of time” (29) to Ganymede “if thou wilt be my love” (49). Indeed, at least up until the final scene the inevitability of Jupiter’s prophecy of Aeneas’ imperial destiny is subject to interrogation and contestation even among the immortals. Having put into action her plan to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas, in 2.1 Venus envisages for her son a future that is open to multiple possibilities: if out of love for Aeneas Dido repairs his ships, he might “at last depart to Italy, / Or else in Carthage make his kingly throne” (330-331). Juno in 3.2 plots to murder Ascanius in order to “take another order now, / And raze th’eternal register of time” (6-7), although by the scene’s end it appears that she and Venus have agreed to join forces to keep Aeneas in Carthage. Only in 5.1 does Jupiter’s prophecy re-enter the play explicitly and with full force, as Hermes reminds Aeneas of “Ascanius’ prophecy” (38) and “young Iulus’ more than thousand years” (39).
Who with the sun divides one radiant shape,
Shall build his throne amidst those starry towers
That earth-born Atlas groaning underprops;
No bounds but heaven shall bound his empery,
Whose azured gates, enchased with his name,
Shall make the morning haste her grey uprise
To feed her eyes with his engraven fame.
Thus in stout Hector’s race three hundred years
The Roman sceptre royal shall remain,
Till that a princess-priest, conceived by Mars,
Shall yield to dignity a double birth,
Who will eternise Troy in their attempts. (1.1.96-108)
Then speak, Aeneas, with Achilles’ tongue,As Timothy Crowley observes, the tale itself “alters the Aeneid’s account by amplifying the suffering of helpless individuals” (417). Alan Shepard concludes that “Within the narration, while Aeneas is sometimes made to marshal a heroic bravado, more often he exhibits symptoms of what would now be called post-traumatic stress” (59). Significantly, although Aeneas is reluctant to begin his narration, once he has begun he has difficulty stopping. Dido interrupts the narrative as Aeneas is recounting Pyrrhus’ dismemberment of Priam: “O end, Aeneas! I can hear no more” (2.1.243), she implores him. As if to emphasize the extent to which Aeneas has truly acquired the Myrmidons’ harsh ears, deaf to all imprecation, the violent thread of Aeneas’ narrative continues without pause with a relative clause that introduces the pathos of Hecuba attempting to save her husband from Pyrrhus’ sword: “At which the frantic queen leaped on his face, / And in his eyelids hanging by the nails, / A little while prolonged her husband’s life” (244-246). Only when “sorrow hath tired me quite” (293) does Aeneas cease.
And, Dido, and you Carthaginian peers,
Hear me, but yet with Myrmidons’ harsh ears,
Daily inured to broils and massacres,
Lest you be moved too much with my sad tale. (2.1.121-125)
[M]ought I live to see him [Ascanius, his son] sack rich Thebes,Moreover, Dido does not offer Aeneas the opportunity to work through the trauma but seeks instead to erase the moment out of which the trauma was born. Although in 2.1 Dido urges Aeneas to “Remember who thou art” (100), in 3.4 she renames him as she takes him for her husband, after having offered him in 3.1 “sails of folded lawn, where shall be wrought / The wars of Troy, but not Troy’s overthrow” (123-124). Aeneas’ existence, then, is suspended in what Derrida calls “the nonhistory of absolute beginnings” (80), the Kierkegaardian instant at which Abraham’s knife meets Isaac’s throat. The impious piety to which Aeneas’ response to the call of the Other leads him holds his existence in the moment of his sacrifice, keeps him from the solace offered by either death or Dido in order to hold him in a moment in which past and future alike are obliterated.
And load his spear with Grecian princes’ heads,
Then would I wish me with Anchises’ tomb,
And dead to honour that hath brought me up. (3.3.42-45)
Whose golden fortunes, clogged with courtly ease,There is no sense here that Aeneas is risking anything by leaving, and here more than anywhere else in the play he displays the confidence that comes from knowing not only where he is going but also that his going is part of the gods’ plans. Moreover, like Virgil’s Aeneas, Marlowe’s Aeneas here attempts to justify his departure by appealing to conventional ethical codes. He balances his departure’s violation of “all laws of love” (48) against the “female drudgery” (55) of staying, the violation of the code of masculine honour governing such soldiers as himself and his fellows that he would commit by remaining in Carthage. Furthermore, in this scene Aeneas gives no indication that he is leaving anything of value behind in Carthage: “I fain would go, yet beauty draws me back” (46), he says, but beauty only nine lines later becomes “female drudgery.” Aeneas in this scene is acting like the Virgilian epic hero. He is more self-assertive and willing to leave here than at any other point in the play. As it turns out, however, he is the least ready to leave. And he does not. He has opened himself up to persuasive discourse, and in the next scene Dido persuades him to stay. More precisely, he has opened himself up to the demand for an explanation, a demand before which he quails and to which he responds with a comic evasiveness that leads him to refigure the tragic text of his future: “Swell, raging seas, frown, wayward Destinies; / Blow winds, threaten, ye rocks and sandy shelves! / This [Carthage] is the harbour that Aeneas seeks” (4.4.57-9).
Cannot ascend to fame’s immortal house
Or banquet in bright honour’s burnished hall,
Till he hath furrowed Neptune’s glassy fields
And cut a passage through his topless hills. (8-12)
O, no, the gods weigh not what lovers do;More radically, she tells Aeneas that “Thy mother was no goddess, perjured man, / Nor Dardanus the author of thy stock” (156-157). Having thus questioned the extent of divine intervention in history, Dido continues with an assertion of the necessary intervention of her own political power in the shaping of Aeneas’ history:
It is Aeneas calls Aeneas hence,
And woeful Dido, by these blubbered cheeks,
By this right hand and by our spousal rites
Desires Aeneas to remain with her. (131-135)
Wast thou not wracked upon this Libyan shore,The contingency suggested by “wracked” opens up the possibility for Dido to imagine an alternative, rather un-Virgilian ending to Aeneas’ story:
And cam’st to Dido like a fisher swain?
Repaired not I thy ships, made thee a king,
And all thy needy followers noblemen? (161-164)
Go, go, and spare not. Seek out Italy;The trauma of Aeneas’ departure proves too much for Dido to sustain this position. Like Aeneas before the statue of Priam in 2.1, she falls into fantasies of Aeneas’ returned presence, from which Anna must recall her just as Achates had to recall Aeneas. “Remember who you are” (5.1.263), Anna chides her. And Dido, unlike Aeneas, does remember who she is: “Dido I am, unless I be deceived: / And must I rave thus for a runagate?” (264-265). If the sceptical self-assertion of Dido’s impassioned speeches before Aeneas leaves might be dismissed as mere rhetoric, her recovery and renewed self-assertion at this point can be dismissed less easily. Significantly, her assertion of identity is once again followed by an assertion of her shaping power over Aeneas’ history: Aeneas is a “runagate” (265), and it is she, tragically, who made “the ships for him to sail away” (266). One might argue that Dido is indeed deceived: undeniably she has aided the runagate under the influence of the gods, specifically Venus, Cupid, and to a minor extent Juno. Yet, as we saw earlier, Venus herself has a very flexible and open-ended view of Aeneas’ destiny, and love’s effects on Dido are unpredictable rather than mono-causal: Dido may have repaired Aeneas’ ships, for example, but in 4.4 she confiscates their tackling, a lack that Iarbus not Dido makes good in order to enable Aeneas to set sail for Hesperia. Although it is limited by other forces, human as well as divine, Dido is not deceived in her assertion of agency, however tragic that agency may be. Dido’s self-immolation also balances limits with defiance: “I intend a private sacrifice / To cure my mind that melts for unkind love” (286-287), she informs Iarbus, a suicidal sacrifice, then, that is at once an acknowledgement of the limits of her agency and a radical assertion of that agency. Dido cannot cure herself of her debilitating love for Aeneas except by death, yet by death, which she chooses, she can cure herself of this love. Dido counterpoises the singularity of her death against the universal, against the Virgilian epic narrative of Aeneas’ destiny in which she is merely a victim.
I hope that that which love forbids me do,
The rocks and sea-gulfs will perform at large,
And thou shalt perish in the billows’ ways
To whom poor Dido doth bequeath revenge. (169-173)
And now, ye gods that guide the starry frame,Condensing lines 606 to 628 of Book Four of the Aeneid, these lines bring Dido’s tragedy firmly within Virgil’s epic framework. The vision of Roman destiny they articulate is consequently all the more dangerous than Dido’s earlier enraged fantasy of a truncated, shipwrecked fate for Aeneas recalled by the direct quotation from Virgil in lines 310-31l. Looking beyond Aeneas’ individual fate, the lines maintain the open-endedness of Rome’s imperial destiny. Forecasting the advent of Hannibal and the Punic Wars, Dido’s imprecation to the gods intimates that Rome is destined to be perpetually “tormented with unrest,” to be perpetually besieged, to be merely another repetition of Troy. The Aeneid’s Augustan telos forecloses this intimation, but the “high dispose” of the “gods that guide the starry frame” has proven to be far less certain in the here and now of Marlowe’s tragedy. Marlowe himself knew that alternative narratives of Roman history could be told. He translated the first book of Lucan’s epic Pharsalia or Civil War, in which Lucan presents an alternative version of Rome’s imperial destiny: the civil war between Caesar and Pompey repeats the Punic Wars and prepares the way not for Augustus and universal peace but for the tyranny of Nero. “But if for Nero (then unborn) the Fates / Would find no other means” (33-34), writes Lucan in Marlowe’s translation, then “We plain not heavens, but gladly bear these evils / For Nero’s sake: Pharsalia groan with slaughter, / And Carthage souls be glutted with our bloods” (37-39). Arguing that Lucan’s epic constitutes one of the play’s major intertexts, Patrick Cheney comments that “At the end of Dido, when the queen prophesies the ‘revenge’ of Hannibal against Rome, Marlowe re-routes republican discourse, using the anti-imperial general to critique not simply the imperial Virgil but also imperial England (with its myth of Roman origin) and finally Elizabethan England’s Virgilian epicist, Spenser” (96). Unsettling not only Virgilian but also Elizabethan triumphalist narratives of the origins and development of empire, Dido’s concluding prophecy would have reminded Marlowe’s Elizabethan audience that Augustan Rome was only one moment in, not the end point of, a history that included the Punic Wars, the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, and multiple sackings, the latest by Charles V in 1527. For Marlowe’s Aeneas, if not for Virgil’s, translatio imperii is the transmission of trauma; the call of the Other provides no guarantees.
And order all things at your high dispose,
Grant, though the traitors land in Italy,
They may be still tormented with unrest,
And from mine ashes let a conqueror rise,
That may revenge this treason to a queen
By ploughing up his countries with the sword!
Betwixt this land and that be never league;
Litora litoribus contraria, fluctibus undas
Imprecor; arma armis; pungent ipsique nepotes:
Live, false Aeneas! Truest Dido dies;
Sic, sic iuvat ire sub umbras. (302-313)
 For an outline of the medieval tradition of Aeneas as traitor and a brief discussion of Marlowe’s use of that tradition in Dido, see Ethel Seaton’s “Marlowe’s Light Reading,” in Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies Presented to Frank Percy Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1957), 17-35. See also Brian Gibbons’ “Unstable Proteus: Marlowe’s The Tragedy of Dido Queen of Carthage,” in Mermaid Critical Commentaries: Christopher Marlowe, ed. Brian Morris (London: Ernest Benn, 1968), 27-46; and Mary E. Smith, “ Marlowe and Italian Dido Drama,” Italica 53 (1976): 223-35. Gibbons argues that “by interweaving Virgil and Lydgate Marlowe fuses contradictory attitudes to Aeneas, and Aeneas himself is radically unstable, Protean: a hero, a wretched and impotent coward, a tragic victim of destiny” (41). Smith suggests that Marlowe’s play is influenced by earlier Italian Dido drama, which itself was influenced by the medieval tradition concerning Aeneas. In “Marlowe’s Virgil: Dido Queene of Carthage,” Review of English Studies 28 (1977): 141-155, Roma Gill notes the influence of the medieval tradition and argues that Aeneas is an anti-hero, “the man-in-the street, who was never meant for noble action, but nevertheless finds himself, accidentally, at the centre of one” (150). Similarly, in “‘By Shallow Riuers’: A Study of Marlowe’s Dido Queen of Carthage,” in Studies in Medieval, Renaissance, (and) American Literature, ed. Betsy F. Colquitt (Fort Worth: Texas Christian UP, 1971), 73-94, John Cutts argues that Marlowe’s Aeneas is unheroic: “He does not think nor act like a Trojan prince with a divine mission to found an empire, but like a shattered being who cannot restore his self-respect, against whom all occasions contrive to show him in worse lights” (77). Gibbons’ argument comes closest to my own in its emphasis on the play’s fusion of the two traditions. Most critics, however, tend to view Marlowe’s Aeneas as wholly unheroic or parodic. Focusing on the play’s gender inversions, in “The Subversion of Gender Hierarchies in Dido, Queene of Carthage,” in Marlowe, History, and Sexuality: New Critical Essays on Christopher Marlowe, ed. Paul Whitfield White (New York: AMS Press, 1998), 163-178, Sara Munson Deats concludes that both Dido and Aeneas are not parodic but rather “androgynous characters” (171) whose instability is rooted in a number of traditions on which Marlowe drew: “both Aeneas and Dido can be seen as either multifaceted characters, demonstrating the complexity and ambiguity traditionally associated with tragic figures, as the fragmented, discontinuous subjects of the medieval drama, or as rhetorical constructs in the gender debate in which the playtext engages” (171). I agree with Deats’ analysis but would extend its argument that “Dido exemplifies a type of interrogative drama” (163) with my own argument that what the play interrogates most emphatically is the nature of religious faith and that the strain of this interrogation as much as the pressure of gender inversion accounts for the un-Virgilian nature of Marlowe’s representation of Aeneas. See Marilyn Desmond’s Reading Dido: Gender, Textuality, and the Medieval Aeneid (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994) for a book-length account of the various traditions of the Dido story from antiquity to the Middle Ages, and Don Cameron Allen, “Marlowe’s Dido and the Tradition,” in Essays on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed Richard Hosley, 55-60, for a brief history of the Dido story from antiquity to the Renaissance.
 The comic nature of the scenes involving the gods is a critical commonplace. Critics like Allen and Gill describe these scenes as Lucianic. In his influential essay, “Marlowe’s Dido and the Titillating Children,” English Literary Renaissance 4 (1974): 315-25, Jackson I. Cope argues that the play oscillates between comic farce (the gods) and serious romance and that the play is not a travesty. In “Marlowe’s Travesty of Virgil: Dido and Elizabethan Dreams of Empire,” Comparative Drama 34, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 79-107, Donald Stump disagrees, arguing that the satire is pervasive: “While tragedy and comedy can certainly coexist in a single work, the same cannot be said of tragedy and sustained deflation. When Marlowe undercuts the high seriousness of Virgil, he can hardly help robbing the characters of their tragic dignity and their pathos” (87). From the Derridean perspective of this argument, however, deflationary satire is not the necessary consequence of a departure from epic high seriousness. Cope, I argue, is right to distinguish between the comedy of the scenes with the gods and more serious scenes involving the mortals. My contention is that the generic distinction reflects an ontological one, one on which Robert E. Wood, in “The Dignity of Mortality: Marlowe’s Dido and Shakespeare’s Troilus,” Shakespeare Studies 11 (1978): 95-106, comments from a different perspective when he writes that “the gods are dramatically subordinate to men in tragedy because they cannot die. They are incapable of serious commitment to human life” (103).
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editors at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2012-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).