Howdy everyone. This week we bring you Christopher Marlowe’s play Dido, Queen of Carthage, though Thomas Nashe may have written some of it.
You may remember Marlowe as basically humorless Shakespeare. And he liked to run his mouth and got stabbed in the forehead for his trouble. He is still considered one of the “greats” of English theatre.
This plot summary comes straight from The Royal Shakespeare Company.
The goddess Venus complains that Jupiter has been neglecting her son Aeneas, who has been lost in a storm on his way to found a new Troy in Italy. Jupiter calms the storm, allowing Aeneas to land safely on the North African coast.
Aeneas meets with other surviving Trojans who have been receiving hospitality from Dido, Queen of Carthage. When Aeneas meets Dido, she agrees to supply his ships and he tells her about the fall of Troy.
A NEW LOVE
Dido is attached to Iarbas but Venus sends Cupid to make her fall in love with Aeneas instead, believing this will help keep him safe. Dido rejects Iarbas, which pleases her sister Anna who is in love with him.
Venus and Juno come together to create a storm, forcing Dido and Aeneas into a cave together. There, they declare their feelings for each other and consummate their love.
Meanwhile, preparations are made for the Trojans to depart for Italy. Dido removes the sails from the ships so that they cannot go, although Aeneas denies intending to leave. Dido announces that he will be king of Carthage and they decide to found the new Troy there instead.
Translation: Super-duper lonely Dido meets Mr. Johnny McBadass Hero Stud Aeneas and is totally into him.
Hermes informs Aeneas that he has no choice but to leave as his destiny is in Italy. Aeneas reluctantly agrees and goes to tell Dido. She is horrified and burns everything that reminds her of him. Heartbroken, Dido takes fate into her own hands and, with a single act of protestation, changes the lives of everyone around her.
Translation: Aeneas is a dirty dog and Dido loses it.
Yeah, the play doesn’t end well for Dido. The entire story of course is taken from Virgil’s Aeneid , which took about 10 years to write because apparently publishers lacked deadlines in ancient Rome. Snark.
Dido really, really feels her emotions.
The monologue is below:
DIDO: Speaks not Æneas like a conqueror?
O blessed tempests that did drive him in!
O happy sand that made him run aground!
Henceforth you shall be our Carthage gods.
Ay, but it may be, he will leave my love,
And seek a foreign land call’d Italy:
O that I had a charm to keep the winds
Within the closure of a golden ball;
Or that the Tyrrhene sea were in mine arms,
That he might suffer shipwreck on my breast,
As oft as he attempts to hoist up sail!
I must prevent him; wishing will not serve.–
Go bid my nurse take young Ascanius,
And bear him in the country to her house;
Æneas will not go without his son;
Yet, lest he should, for I am full of fear,
Bring me his oars, his tackling, and his sails.
What if I sink his ships? O, he will frown!
Better he frown than I should die of grief.
I cannot see him frown; it may not be:
Armies of foes resolv’d to win this town,
Or impious traitors vow’d to have my life,
Affright me not; only Æneas frown
Is that which terrifies poor Dido’s heart:
Not bloody spears, appearing in the air,
Presage the downfall of my empery,
Nor blazing comets threaten Dido’s death;
It is Æneas’ 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.
You can also find the monologue here.
Before we bring you the two videos of this monologue, I reached out to Devon Ellington, who is much more familiar with the play and brings a unique perspective as someone with a lengthy theatre background as well as an author. Here’s what she said:
On the face of it, this monologue is a woman terrified that the man she loves will leave her and do everything in her power to keep him “shipwrecked at her breast.” She is willing to steal his son and sabotage his ships, perhaps even sink them, because she would rather face his “frown” than his departure.
The first response is “here we go again.” Because, after all, it’s an overused trope that a woman is willing to die for love (which Dido does when Aeneas leaves; she kills herself). It’s difficult, from our modern viewpoint, not to get impatient with her. It’s sometimes hard to remember that is was first published in 1594. Boys would have played the women’s roles then, and that can add more layers, depending on the production’s interpretation.
[Editor’s note: even beyond this custom, according to the title page of the first publication, it was first performed by the Children of the Chapel, which means ALL the roles were performed by boys in the initial production]
But look at the monologue in the context of the play, and, if you choose to work on it, you can find more. Venus has her son Cupid shoot one of his arrows into Dido to force her fall in love with Aeneas, because Venus wanted Aeneas to stay on Carthage, post-Trojan war, so he would be safe. She hoped Dido’s love would keep him there.
In other words, when working on this monologue, one can think in terms of layers. How much of Dido’s overwrought feelings of love – willing to express it in toxic terms to try to make her lover stay instead of letting him stay – are actually hers? What kind of subtext can be played in this piece if a part of Dido realizes something’s not quite right? She might not know she’s under enchantment, via Cupid’s arrow, but what if she starts feeling that something within her is off? What if not only the text is played, but what’s below it?
The text is a ranting plan by a desperate woman to keep a lover who might or might not love her in return. But what if she has a moment of lucidity, where she doesn’t actually break free, but realizes that she is not completely in control? That she is behaving out of character, and not as a queen should, but can’t stop herself? It’s more than the emotion of love sweeping everything else away in her life, and creating this wild need. It doesn’t come from within her. It’s a poison that was put into her by Cupid. This monologue shows that love can be a poison that destroys. This is a queen, a leader of her people. In her legend, she proved her cleverness by outsmarting the people with whom she bartered land for a bull’s hide – which she then cut up and placed to encompass the kingdom. Yet she’s willing to throw it all away for a man, and haven’t we as women lived with THAT trope since it was created?
But what if, in this passage:
“Not bloody spears, appearing in the air,
Presage the downfall of my empery,
Nor blazing comets threaten Dido’s death;
It is Æneas’ frown that ends my days.”
What if here, there is a moment where she realizes that she’s not in control? That, no matter what she does, he will leave, and she will lose her kingdom? That she can’t break free of the enchantment and stop it? She can’t flush this poisonous love from her system. What if this is where she realizes she is doomed? What if needing him to stay is not just about her own personal need, created by Venus’s manipulation and Cupid’s enchantment, but the only way to hold Carthage? And that part of her knows it won’t happen, and death is inevitable?
In an overall production, how does Venus willingness to hurt another woman play out? Common, in legends of Venus. She caused a lot of pain. How much of it is a male interpretation of “women who can’t get along” that we’ve seen over the centuries, and how much of it is a mother willing to burn down the world to protect her child? Those choices would also affect how this monologue is interpreted.
For a modern performer, it certainly gives more to work with than just a terrified woman plotting to keep her lover. One of the reasons we keep exploring and performing plays by Marlowe, Shakespeare, and all the other classics, is the chance to layer on new interpretations as our frames of reference grows, and we understand the contexts of earlier productions.
Taking some of Ms. Ellington’s words to heart will definitely help an actor using this monologue.
Devon Ellington publishes under half a dozen names in fiction and non-fiction, and is an
internationally-produced playwright and radio writer. The bulk of her career was spent working in theatre, including years working backstage on Broadway.
Let’s take a look at two incarnations of Dido’s monologue:
Join us next week for more fun monologues!!!