On the 22nd of February, 2017, I attended ‘Disrupting translatio imperii: Virgil, Marlowe and the Medieval Dido’, a research seminar hosted by UCC’s School of English. The seminar dealt with the historical and cultural context of the play Dido: Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe. This was given by Meadhbh O’Halloran, a PhD candidate in the School English. I thoroughly enjoyed the seminar, despite the fact that I have little to no knowledge of Virgil or Marlowe!
Firstly, a little bit of context: Marlowe’s play was written circa 1587, and focused on the character of Dido, queen of Carthage and lover of Aeneas. Although Marlowe’s main source for the play was the story of Dido and Aeneas from Virgil’s Aeneid, Ms O’Halloran also highlighted the medieval grounding of the story. Indeed, we learn that medieval writers such as Chaucer and Lydgate are far more sympathetic to the treatment of Dido in their work than Virgil; they chose to depict her as a wronged woman and Aeneas as unsympathetic and shallow. It becomes clear from the title of the play, Dido: Queen of Carthage, that Marlowe also views Dido as the hero of the piece. In Marlowe’s play, Dido is not even a romantic woman until she is struck by Cupid’s arrow: Marlowe therefore depicts her as a victim of the whimsy of the Gods. This is completely at odds with Virgil’s depiction of Aeneas as a morally just and heroic character who is merely fulfilling a destiny, and Dido as a clingy, neurotic girlfriend. This leads to a subversion of the classical Aeneas myth. It is worth noting, as Ms O’Halloran does, that this subversion of myth was very significant for a 16th century British audience. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain put forward the myth that Britain was founded by Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas, thereby tying the history of Britain to classical empires. Because of this so-called connection, many depictions of the Dido and Aeneas story emphasised the masculine heroism of Aeneas, the father of Britain.
The aspect of the seminar that I found the most fascinating was definitely the information about performance history and audience expectation. Rather interestingly, the first production of the play was performed by a troupe of boy actors under the age of twelve. The expectations of the audience are therefore thwarted: expecting to see an Aeneas that is strong and masculine, they are instead treated to a young child. This casting solidifies Marlowe’s representation of Aeneas as weak and cowardly, and works against the notion of the noble father of Britain. Check out the trailer for the Marlowe Society’s 2013 production below:
Embarrassing as this sounds, I knew of Dido only as a singer and literally had no clue who the character of Dido was before I attended this research seminar! However, I now feel propelled to read both Marlowe’s play and Virgil’s Aeneid due to the differing depictions of the same characters in two vastly different texts.
Title Image: Wikipedia
O’Halloran, Meadhbh. ”Disrupting translatio imperii: Virgil, Marlowe and the Medieval Dido”. Research Seminar. University College Cork, Cork. 22 Feb. 2017. Lecture.