Pious Aeneas, False Aeneas: Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and the Gift of Death

Mathew Martin
Brock University

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

  1. “A man more memorable for kindness, suffering, and sorrow than for martial action,” Reuben Brower observes in his study Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Greco-Roman Tradition, “Aeneas is almost the only hero in ancient epic we might be tempted to call a saint” (85). According to Brower, “the prevailing view of heroic poetry among Renaissance critics was Virgilian, and the true epic hero was without question an Aeneas” (85). Sidney and Spenser bear Brower out in an English context. For both writers, Aeneas is the paradigmatic moral hero. “[I]n the most excellent determination of goodness, what philosopher’s counsel can so readily direct…a virtuous man in all fortunes, as Aeneas in Virgil?” (439-441). Sidney asks in The Defence of Poesy. No one, Spenser might answer, as he tells us in the letter to Ralegh prefixed to the first edition of The Faerie Queene that he has modeled his own moral hero, King Arthur, on “the person of Aeneas” (15) in whom Virgil had combined the examples of “a good gouernour and a vertuous man” (15) that Homer had separated out into the figures of Agamemnon and Ulysses. As Sidney concedes, however, Virgil’s moral hero was not the only version of Aeneas circulating in the Renaissance. Arguing that poetry is morally more efficacious than history, Sidney tells his reader that “if the question be for your own use and learning, whether it be better to have it set down as it should be, or as it was, then certainly is more doctrinable… the feigned Aeneas in Virgil than the right Aeneas in Dares Phrygius” (488-492), whose account of the Trojan war, accepted as history by writers like Chaucer and Lydgate, informed the medieval tradition of Aeneas as a traitor and coward. As previous studies of Marlowe’s play have shown, Marlowe too acknowledges both traditions.[1]  Unlike Sidney, however, Marlowe does not attempt to distinguish fiction from fact, the poet’s Aeneas from the historian’s Aeneas, Aeneas as he should have been from Aeneas as he was. Marlowe privileges neither the former, the heroic Aeneas, nor the latter, a potentially satirical version of Aeneas. Marlowe’s Aeneas is at once pious and false, and through this paradoxical figure Marlowe’s play explores the structure of faith as Derrida describes it in The Gift of Death. Opposed to but not canceling the force of piety conceived of as adherence to tradition and universalizing ethics, such faith must constantly be renewed through traumatic repetition, yet at the same time it functions as the foundational moment of a people, a nation, an empire and a tradition of piety or ethics of precisely the kind to which it is opposed. Virgil’s epic proceeds from the perspective of empire and ethics. Marlowe’s play proceeds from the perspective of the moment of faith, with all its risks and uncertainties, and thus explores an experience analogous to the experience Calvin and others claimed to be at the heart of Christian faith: responding to God’s call without mediation in order to work out one’s salvation in fear and trembling.

  2. In The Gift of Death, Derrida’s analysis of the structure of faith takes the form of a meditation on the relationship between history and responsibility. History, Derrida writes, “is tied to responsibility, to faith, and to the gift. To responsibility in the experience of absolute decisions made outside of knowledge or given norms, made therefore through the very ordeal of the undecidable; to religious faith through a form of involvement with the other that is a venture into absolute risk, beyond knowledge and certainty; to the gift and to the gift of death that puts me into relation with the transcendence of the other, with God as selfless goodness, and that gives me what it gives me through a new experience of death” (5-6). The subject of faith is called or “roused” into responsibility by an absolute, inscrutable Other—God—who sees without being seen and commands without explanation, simply demanding that the subject respond (31). “God is himself absent, hidden and silent, separate, secret, at the moment he has to be obeyed,” Derrida writes, “God doesn’t give his reasons…  Otherwise he wouldn’t be God, we wouldn’t be dealing with the Other as God or with God as wholly other” (57). This relationship with the absolutely Other is possible, Derrida argues, only because of the uniqueness death confers on each and every human being: “Death is very much that which nobody else can undergo or confront in my place. My irreplaceability is therefore conferred, delivered, ‘given,’ one can say, by death…  It is from the site of death as the place of my irreplaceability, that is, of my singularity, that I feel called to responsibility. In this sense only a mortal can be responsible” (41). The call of the absolutely Other is addressed to the individual in her or his singularity: to you and not anyone else. This singularity is bestowed by death: it is only because the individual is mortal, will die and can willingly die, that this particular individual is unique, and it is only by offering this gift of death in response to the call of the absolutely Other that the individual becomes absolutely responsible. Following St. Paul and Kierkegaard, Derrida characterizes the relationship of faith enabled by the gift of death as one full of fear and trembling: “We fear and tremble because we are already in the hands and under the gaze of God, whom we don’t see and whose will we cannot know, no more than the decisions he will hand down, nor his reasons for wanting this or that, our life or death, our salvation or perdition. We fear and tremble before the inaccessible secret of a God who decides for us although we remain responsible, that is, free to decide, to work, to assume our life and our death” (56).

  3. Obedience to the call of God was a basic tenet of Reformation theology. One of the seven major Renaissance habits of thought listed by Deborah Shuger in her Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance is “Both ethical and theoretical concerns are subordinate to the need for intimate contact with God. There is thus little emphasis on morality or natural theology” (12). This intimacy is constructed through the gift of the individual believer’s life and death in obedience to God: “We are not our own; therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours. On the other hand, we are God’s; let us, therefore, live and die to him” (2.7), writes Jean Calvin in the Institutes. Even so, Calvin would not have completely agreed with Derrida’s description of faith. However other God may be and however much He may demand obedience, faith for Calvin is based on knowledge, certainty and a perception of God’s presence. “We shall now have a full definition of faith,” asserts Calvin, “if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favour toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit” (2.475). “No man,” Calvin adds, “is a believer but he who, trusting to the security of his salvation, confidently triumphs over the devil and death” (2.484). Thus when Calvin discusses Paul’s injunction in Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12), he minimizes both, arguing that “the fear he [Paul] speaks of is that which renders us more cautious, not that which produces despondency” (2.489). Nonetheless, as Calvin himself admits, such certainty and confidence were not every believer’s lot. Indeed, the Calvinist doctrines of predestination and election, so influential upon early modern English Protestant thought, could produce extreme uncertainty and feelings of alienation from God. Such feelings would have been a familiar part of Marlowe’s cultural milieu. David Webb writes that “Extended debate about Calvinism and Salvation was a feature of life in Cambridge when Marlowe was a student” (33), and David Riggs argues that the doctrines of predestination and election led English educational institutions such as Cambridge to teach their pupils that “most of them were predestined to sin and therefore could not experience the ecstatic ‘renning of the spirit’ that assured the fortunate few of their place among the elect” (25). Richard Hooker, a theologian more understanding of human weakness than Calvin, addresses these anxieties by arguing that faith is inevitably “mingled with fear and wavering” (1.2). Hooker’s subject of faith, then, is not the supremely confident believer described by Calvin but rather the believer who “striveth with himself to hope against all reason of believing, being settled with Job upon this unmoveable resolution, ‘Though God kill me, I will not give over trusting in him’” (1.3).

  4. This subject of faith who offers the gift of her or his death in response to the call of the transcendent Other is not, Derrida argues, the subject of universalizing ethical codes, or the law. While the call of the Other is addressed to the individual in her or his particularity, ethical codes treat all subjects as identical and substitutable (62-63). The difference between the two results not only in conflict but ultimately in paradox. Derrida’s example is Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith,” Abraham. Called by God to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah, Abraham must become a murderer, in intention if not in actual fact, in order to respond faithfully to God. Following Kierkegaard, Derrida argues that at this moment Abraham experiences the ethical as a “temptation” (61), as a way to avoid the address of the Other. Yet even though Abraham resists this temptation, he can in no way suspend or mitigate the force of the ethical: “Abraham must assume absolute responsibility for sacrificing his son by sacrificing ethics,” Derrida writes, “but in order for there to be a sacrifice, the ethical must retain all its value; the love for his son must remain intact, and the order of human duty must continue to insist on its rights” (66). Consequently, “Abraham is thus at the same time the most moral and the most immoral, the most responsible and the most irresponsible of men” (72). Difficult though the subject of faith’s position may be, however, she or he is not a tragic hero. Kierkegaard makes this point more clearly and more emphatically than Derrida. “The genuine tragic hero sacrifices himself and all that is his for the universal” (122), Kierkegaard writes, while the subject of faith sacrifices the universal for the absolute. Crucially, because tragic heroes sacrifice themselves (and / or others) to preserve the universal, they can explain themselves: their actions are undertaken on behalf of general principles that can become the topoi of persuasive discourse. In contrast, the subject of faith’s actions resist generalization, explanation, even speech. “If [Abraham] were able to speak a common or translatable language,” Derrida comments, “if he were to become intelligible by giving his reasons in a convincing manner, he would be giving in to the temptation of ethical generality…  He wouldn’t be Abraham any more, the unique Abraham in a singular relation with the unique God” (74). Although Derrida later suggests that faith “must be started over by each generation” and therefore “describes the nonhistory of absolute beginnings,” the paradox, of course, is that through his insistence on his singularity Abraham becomes a historical figure, the father of a nation and a written ethical and religious tradition, precisely the forces opposed to the singularity and absolute responsibility of the subject of faith (80).

  5. Nation and ethical and religious tradition constitute the perspective from which Virgil’s epic proceeds. Looking back from the time of Octavius Caesar, Virgil frames the events he narrates as the beginning of the inexorable historical process that leads not merely to the Roman empire but more importantly to the establishment of universal Roman law and peace. In the poem’s first book, Virgil introduces only swiftly to contain the force that might disrupt Aeneas’ destiny: Juno’s wrath at the Trojans, of which we are provided with a demonstration, only to be told by Jupiter shortly thereafter that
    To these [the Roman nation] I set no bounds, either in space or time;
    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)
    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.

  6. From the beginning, as Troy is being destroyed, Aeneas is made to share the poem’s teleological perspective. On the night of Troy’s destruction, when the sounds of slaughter have not yet woken Aeneas, Hector appears to him in a dream and commands him to “save yourself from these flames” (II.289), for
                                             if strong right hands
    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)
    Hector 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.

  7. In contrast to Virgil’s epic, Marlowe’s play presents two perspectives on the events it narrates and dramatizes, acknowledging but attempting to press beneath Virgil’s epic certitudes to uncover some sense of the human risk, incertitude and sacrifice involved. If, as Elizabeth Bellamy has powerfully argued, the epic is “the narrative par excellence of the speaking subject’s inscription into the sociocultural” (23) and historical, a genre whose “emphasis on moral conscience and ethical self-fashioning for its individual heroes” renders it “the privileged narrative of the Symbolic” (23), then Marlowe’s drama resists the subject’s epic reinscription into the symbolic order sustained by the gods through its emphasis on the trauma out of which the subject of history emerges. This can be seen in the play’s representation of its eponymous tragic hero, Dido. Focusing on “Dido’s subject position, Dido’s desires, Dido’s will,” Clare Kinney contends that the play “strikingly revises the Virgilian representation of the subject of / in history” by “reconstruct[ing] a notion of individual human agency that Virgil displaces onto his divinities” (263). Kinney argues that “Marlowe’s female prince is no longer simply a victim of Aeneas’ manifest destiny and Virgil’s epic machinery: her fantasies of absolute agency intermittently threaten to rewrite imperial mythology and literary history” (262). The efficacy of those fantasies might be circumscribed by Cupid’s intervention and Dido’s concluding reinscription into the Roman imperial narrative, yet even to the very end of the play those fantasies and the notion of human agency in general are kept open as real possibilities not only by the play’s representation of Dido as a desiring (tragic) subject but also by its representation of Aeneas as the subject of faith, the subject of risk, incertitude, and sacrifice. Like Abraham, Marlowe’s Aeneas becomes the subject of history and the father of an empire through his abandonment of the historical (or, at least, history conceived as destiny) in his response to the traumatic call of the transcendent Other.

  8. The play does not ignore the imperial perspective from which Virgil’s epic proceeds. In the play’s opening scene Marlowe reminds his audience from an Olympian vantage of what they would already have known: Aeneas stands at the beginning of the historical process that leads to Rome, and his destiny is secure. “Content thee, Cytherea, in thy care” (1.1.82), Jupiter tells Venus, who is outraged that Jupiter has permitted Juno to stir up the seas against her son’s fleet, “Since thy Aeneas’ wand’ring fate is firm, / Whose weary limbs shall shortly make repose / In those fair walls I promised him of yore” (1.1.83-85). A compressed adaptation of Jupiter’s prophecy in Book I of the Aeneid follows, culminating in the promise that “poor Troy, so long suppressed, / From forth her ashes shall advance her head” (1.1.93-94) as Rome:
    But bright Ascanius, beauty’s better work,
    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)
    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).

  9. Even less so than Venus and Juno does Marlowe’s Aeneas share Jupiter’s and Virgil’s Olympian perspective. His response to his calling is mingled with fear, wavering, and despondency. For most of the play Aeneas shows little of the teleological knowledge possessed by his Virgilian counterpart. In response to his mother’s questioning in the play’s opening scene he states that he has “Put sails to sea to seek out Italy, / And my divine descent from sceptred Jove” (1.1.218-219), but significantly he makes no mention of his imperial destiny in his narration to Dido of Troy’s fall (2.1.114-288) or in his acceptance of her marriage proposal (3.4.40-50), in which he swears “Never to like or love any but her [Dido]” (50) by “this sword that saved me from the Greeks” (47). This sword, not the gods. Moreover, although the gods are present in the world of the play’s mortals they are largely absent from the mortals’ perspective. The play reinforces this disjunction between the immortal and mortal realms and their perspectives by a contrast in tone. The scenes involving the gods are comic: the gods prove their immortality through their irresponsibility.[2]  Conversely, the harshness of mortal responsibility is not ameliorated by the intrusion of either divine knowledge or divine presence into the mortal realm. Significantly, though Marlowe minimizes Venus’ presence to Aeneas as Troy falls, he gives full play to the moment the goddess leaves her son on the shores of Carthage. Aeneas here recognizes his mother not only as she is leaving but also only because she is leaving: “I know her by the movings of her feet” (1.1.241). This knowledge is not comforting: “Too cruel, why wilt thou forsake me thus?” (243) he calls after her. Aeneas encounters the gods—or, more precisely, the messenger of the gods—on two other occasions, at the end of the play: in 4.3, Aeneas recounts that Hermes had appeared to him in a dream to pass on Jupiter’s command that he leave Carthage, and then in the play’s final scene Hermes appears in the waking world to follow up Jupiter’s command with the threat that Aeneas will “abide the wrath of frowning Jove” (5.1.54) should he not leave. This is the face the gods show Aeneas in this play: demanding, insisting, unforgiving, and always on the verge of vanishing.

  10. The play’s bifurcation of perspective transforms Aeneas from a tragic hero into the subject of faith, with all the accompanying ambivalence. Particularly telling are Marlowe’s modifications to Aeneas’ account of Troy’s fall. In the play, Hector appears to Aeneas after Aeneas has put his armour on and merely shouts “‘Aeneas, fly! / Troy is a-fire, the Grecians have the town!’” (2.1.207-208). Hector makes no mention of Aeneas’ role as preserver of the Trojans’ gods, and elsewhere in his account of Troy’s destruction neither does Aeneas. Moreover, Venus does not show Aeneas the gods at work destroying Troy; she merely ensures his safe escape from the thick of battle: “My mother, Venus, jealous of my health, / Conveyed me from their crooked nets and bands; / So I escaped the furious Pyrrhus’ wrath” (2.1.221-223). No ghost of Creusa appears to him to assuage any sense of guilt he might feel for having abandoned her and to reiterate his destiny. “O there I lost my wife” (2.1.270) is all Marlowe’s Aeneas can say. As he flees Troy, then, Marlowe’s Aeneas is not a tragic hero. Richard Martin has argued that “in fulfilling the epic expectations of his character, Marlowe’s Aeneas remains painfully aware of the culpability of his behavior” (63), but that culpability remains painful precisely to the extent that Marlowe minimizes the presence of properly epic expectations. The sacrifices Aeneas makes on his way out of Troy, his gift of others’ deaths—Priam’s, Creusa’s, Cassandra’s, Polyxena’s—are made in response to an unexplained command addressed from beyond the grave to him in his singularity, not to him as the bearer of the universal. Consequently, he has no grounds on which to exculpate himself from his failure to perform his duty to defend Troy. He is not able to negotiate his conflicting responsibilities: his obedience to the call of the Other is at the same time cowardice, and his narration to Dido of Troy’s fall and his role in it is not a justification but a guilt-ridden confession. The best he can do is tell Dido that “manhood would not serve” (2.1.272), a circumlocution that all too obviously both displaces blame and obfuscates Aeneas’ motivations.

  11. To have witnessed such atrocities—and fled!  It is not surprising that Marlowe’s Aeneas experiences his response to the call of the transcendent Other as trauma. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud suggests that trauma is the result of a “lack of any preparedness” (608) for the sudden emergence of horrific events, and as Troy is sacked Aeneas is unprepared: not unprepared to die (the first thing Marlowe’s Aeneas does after waking and seeing the slaughter under way is to buckle on his armour and draw his sword [2.1.200]), but unprepared to live. And Aeneas is not merely unprepared to live but also unable to justify his continued existence. Why did he not die the night Troy fell?  “Ah, Troy is sacked, and Priamus is dead, / And why should poor Aeneas be alive?”  (2.1.33-34), he exclaims when confronted with Priam’s statue outside Carthage’s walls. Contrast this response to the response of Virgil’s Aeneas to the frescoes of the Trojan War adorning the temple that Dido is erecting in Juno’s honour. Although he weeps, Virgil’s Aeneas tells his companion Achates to “Look!—Priam. Here too we find virtue somehow rewarded, / Tears in the nature of things, hearts touched by human transience. / Then cast off fear; the fame of our deeds will ensure your welfare” (I.461-3). Virgil’s Aeneas turns trauma into a moral exemplum that substantiates rather than ruptures ethics and provides a continuity between past and present fully in keeping with the epic’s and Aeneas’ teleological perspective. Marlowe’s version of Aeneas’ story, however, is like the trauma narratives Cathy Caruth analyzes in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, “oscillat[ing] between a crisis of death and the correlative crisis of life: between the story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the unbearable nature of its survival” (7). Hence Marlowe’s un-Virgilian representation of Aeneas’ arrival at Carthage. Though Virgil’s Aeneas is moved by the picture of the Trojan War in Dido’s temple for Juno, he recognizes it as a series of “insubstantial figures” (I.464), as a series of representations that constitute a record of the past. Upon seeing the statue of Priam outside Carthage’s walls, in contrast, Marlowe’s Aeneas collapses past and present, plunging back into and reliving the moment of Troy’s fall: “O, Priamus is left, and this is he! / Come, come aboard, pursue the hateful Greeks” (2.1.21-22). Anthony Dawson perceptively remarks that Marlowe’s statue is less an “external, visible record of the past traumatic events” than “an elusive mental image, one that tells the story not so much of a defeated Troy but of a deracinated individual” (64).

  12. Marlowe’s Aeneas is unable to let the past go, unable to work through his trauma and mourn. He is unable to articulate any identity outside his trauma, and what identity he is able to articulate is self-canceling. When he first encounters Dido, Virgil’s Aeneas, touched with his mother’s divine beauty, boldly proclaims “I am here, before you, the one you look for, / Trojan Aeneas” (I.595-6). Marlowe’s Aeneas, in contrast, is unrecognizable both to others and himself: “Sometime I was a Trojan, mighty queen. / But Troy is not. What shall I say I am?” (2.1.75-76). Virgil’s Aeneas prefaces his narrative of Troy’s destruction with an assertion of its affective power: “What Myrmidon or Thessalian, / What soldier of fell Ulysses could talk about such events / And keep from tears?” (II.6-8). For Marlowe’s Aeneas, however, the affective power of his trauma narrative is itself potentially traumatizing both to its narrator and to its audience; to evade this potential secondary trauma Aeneas urges a self-destructive identification with the initial trauma’s perpetrators:
    Then speak, Aeneas, with Achilles’ tongue,
    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)
    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.

  13. Dido and Carthage seem to provide some respite from the trauma. Aeneas, however, perceives this respite primarily in terms of return, Carthage as “a statelier Troy” (5.1.3) from which he will perpetuate the destructiveness of the Trojan War, “[w]ill lead an host against the hateful Greeks / And fire proud Lacedaemon o’er their heads” (4.4.91-92). His compulsion to repeat the destruction is driven in part by his desire to die, as he should have when Troy fell. He tells Dido that
    [M]ought I live to see him [Ascanius, his son] sack rich Thebes,
    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)
    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.

  14. Aeneas must leave Carthage, then. There are two ways of representing this leave-taking, as progress or as repetition. Virgil represents it as progress. In Virgil, after Mercury has appeared to Aeneas and rebuked him for remaining in Carthage, Aeneas has no more thoughts of staying. He prepares his ships, and when he takes leave of Dido he first thanks her for her help, denies that they were ever really married, then states that if it had been up to him “Old Troy would be my first choice: I would restore it, and honour / My people’s relics” (IV.342), and finally reiterates Jove’s prophecy concerning Italy, the “destined realm” (IV.355) of Ascanius. In short, Virgil’s Aeneas explains himself: he proves himself gracious, exculpates himself from any wrongdoing, and points out to Dido just how little she means to him in comparison to other things. He then leaves.

  15. Marlowe’s representation of Aeneas’ departure from Carthage is much more complex. Within the play, Marlowe’s Aeneas must repeat his attempt to leave Dido and Carthage, and his second, successful, leave-taking repeats the trauma of leaving Troy. Aeneas’ first attempt to leave occurs in 4.3, after “Hermes this night, descending in a dream, / Hath summoned me to fruitful Italy” (3-4). If in 2.1 Aeneas does not know who he is, in 4.3 he knows both his identity and destination. He is Aeneas,
    Whose golden fortunes, clogged with courtly ease,
    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)
    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).

  16. Contrast this with 5.1, the scene in which Aeneas finally does leave. Here Aeneas is at his least Virgilian and most Derridean. Like Hooker’s Job or Kierkegaard’s Abraham, Aeneas sacrifices all he holds dear to obey the call of the transcendent Other. He has been warned by Hermes a second time, in no uncertain terms, that he must leave. But he offers no grandiose speeches about his destiny. He does not explain to Dido why he must leave beyond simply that “I am commanded by immortal Jove / To leave this town and pass to Italy, / And therefore must of force” (99-101). Dido states that “These words proceed not from Aeneas’ heart” (102), not from that most intimate part of himself, the core of his self. Aeneas agrees: “Not from my heart, for I can hardly go. / And yet I may not stay” (103-104). By leaving Dido Aeneas is leaving himself. The reversal of Aeneas’ attitude in 4.3 continues when Dido suspects that a decline in her beauty has caused Aeneas to leave: “O Queen of Carthage,” Aeneas replies, “wert thou ugly-black, / Aeneas could not choose but hold thee dear. / Yet must he not gainsay the gods’ behest” (125-127). Aeneas must sacrifice something much dearer than beauty: love, and it is significant that Marlowe’s Aeneas does not deny the validity of the “plighted mutual faith” (122) between the two of them. In his final leave-taking, then, Aeneas abandons himself, does not attempt to explain the gods’ command, is making a considerable sacrifice, and does not attempt to excuse himself from breaking his vows to Dido. To heed Jove’s call Aeneas has sacrificed himself in a number of ways, has sacrificed Dido, and has sacrificed the ethical for the absolute. His impious piety is truly a “gift of death,” a repetition of the sacrifices he made as he fled Troy. Responding once again to the call of the Other, in this scene Aeneas is least willing but most ready to be the agent of history, not epic history but history as the traumatic repetition of the moment of faith.

  17. If in this reading of the play’s conclusion Marlowe’s Aeneas is less than, or other than, a tragic hero, conversely Dido is more than a powerful but humiliated Siren figure or tragic female victim like Iphigenia sacrificed for the sake of (eventual) Roman imperium. Certainly, throughout the concluding scene Marlowe heightens the pathos of Dido’s heart-rending abandonment through her extended attempts to persuade Aeneas to stay, followed by her fantasies of his return and then her self-immolation. Here Marlowe’s representation of Dido most clearly shows the influence of Ovid’s anti-Virgilian letter from Dido to Aeneas in the Heroides. Yet the play’s representation of Dido, especially her suicide, is radically ambivalent: the tragic pathos of a sacrificial victim is accompanied by the defiance of a queen. Dido continues in this scene to assert her desire through her attempts to rework Virgil’s epic narrative. Before Aeneas leaves, Dido calls the narrative into question:
    O, no, the gods weigh not what lovers do;
    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)
    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:
    Wast thou not wracked upon this Libyan shore,
    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)
    The contingency suggested by “wracked” opens up the possibility for Dido to imagine an alternative, rather un-Virgilian ending to Aeneas’ story:
    Go, go, and spare not. Seek out Italy;
    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)
    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.

  18. Marlowe’s Dido works against epic closure not only through her assertion of agency. Although she intends her suicide to “make Aeneas famous through the world / For perjury and slaughter of a queen” (293-294), before she jumps onto the burning pyre she once again articulates a vision that troubles Aeneas’ imperial destiny:
    And now, ye gods that guide the starry frame,
    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)
    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.

Works Cited


[1] 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.

[2] 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).