by Kirk Freeman
Dido as Ovid portrays her in Heroides 7 is quite different from the widely known Dido of Vergil’s Aeneid. The differences arise from many sources including both the content and the basic nature and structure of the two works. Some people argue that these differences stem from the fact that Ovid’s portrayal is more feminine while Vergil’s portrayal is more masculine. There may be some validity to this claim, but an argument such as this implies that there are innate differences between the emotions and reactions of the genders—beyond those that are socially constructed. This, of course, breaches a topic which is loaded with controversy and debate—one which cannot be adequately dealt with in a paper such as this. However, the assumption that there have traditionally been differences between the genders—whether socially constructed or not—is an important one, for it is the cause of most of the differences between the two portrayals of Dido.
The first, most obvious difference between the texts is their narrative voice. The Aeneid is told from the vantage point of a 3rd person, somewhat restricted, narrator in the meter of epic poetry, dactylic hexameter. On the other hand, Heroides 7 is written in the first person voice of the despairing Dido, in the meter of love poetry, elegiac couplets. The different narrative vantage points, as well as the different meters are interesting sources of comparison.
While elementary, it is necessary to elucidate the important differences between a 1st and 3rd person restricted point of view. By writing Heroides 7 from the 1st person perspective of Dido, Ovid allows himself the opportunity to explore his character in a very personal and intimate way. Compare this to Vergil’s 3rd person restricted narration. By writing from this perspective, Vergil limits his narration to merely the dialogue and actions of his characters, with only some description of their emotions. He does not allow himself the opportunity to deeply explore the character’s inner motivations or concerns. Because of this difference in vantage points, some scholars argue that Ovid’s Dido expresses more feminine characteristics than Vergil’s.
It is also important to understand the differences between Vergil’s dactylic hexameter and Ovid’s elegiac couplets. (A detailed explanation of elegiacs can be found here. An in-depth study of dactylic hexameter can be found at here. For an example of these and several other classical meters in English poetry, see here. Here is a brief history of elegy.) Technicalities aside, the important difference between the meters—at least as they pertain to this discussion—is the manner in which they have traditionally been used. Dactylic hexameter is the meter of Epic Poetry—which makes it the obvious choice for the Aeneid, and this style also lends itself to a rather masculine/patriarchal tone without excessive emotion. Elegiac couplets tends to be the meter of virtually everything that is not epic poetry, but it lends itself especially well to love poetry—which is especially interesting in light of the fact that Heroides 7 is a suicide note laced with love.
Vergil’s Dido, is flawed in a number of ways when compared to the standards of the time period in which she was created. Her most basic flaw is the fact that she is biologically a woman. What’s worse, she’s achieved a station in life which the Romans would reserve exclusively for men—she is the ruler of a kingdom and she wages war. And her most dreadful flaw—she betrays the memory of her deceased husband and her duty as a widow, and by doing so, she delays the illustrious founder of Rome from his destined path.
The court of Augustus commissioned Vergil’s Aenied, in part to validate itself. For this reason, it is not all that surprising that this portrayal of Dido seems to be filled with pity for a woman who should have known better, but at the same time since she is merely a woman she could not have known better, than to interfere with fates or to assume that she could avert the hero Aeneas from his fate. There’s also a sense of pity for her because she is so tormented by the furies, but pity is certainly different than compassion—Dido did, according to traditional Roman values, bring all of her pain and her ultimate suicide upon herself because she stepped above the appropriate position of women, and she violated the honor of her deceased husband. Perhaps in an attempt to protect herself from her own guilt, or perhaps in a way that is typically “feminine” Dido believes her encounter with Aeneas in the cave was much more than what it was for him, “For Dido calls it marriage, and with this name she covers up her fault.” (4.172) Dido’s actions and reactions throughout this episode of the Aeneid are in line with the general attitudes toward women from that time—she is merely an obstacle in Aeneas’ path to glory.
Perhaps Vergil felt pressure due to the commission of the Augustan court, or maybe his work simply reflects his own values. Regardless, Vergil’s Dido represents the Roman values that devalue women and put the pursuit of destiny and the State above all else. These values are woven throughout the Aeneid, not just in the story of Dido. In an equally famous selection from the Aeneid, Aeneas flees his burning homeland carrying his aging father on his shoulders and leading his young son by the hand all while leaving his wife, Cruesa, follow behind. He does not realize that she is lost behind them until after she is gone. As Desmond describes in her When Dido Reads Virgil, “…and although Aeneas indulges in a long rhetorical expression of his loss (2.745-709) he does not blame himself for the decisions which led to Cruesa’s death.” (pg. 60) This passage from the Aeneid is the prime example of heroism in Roman epics—defending one’s elders, protecting the future of one’s bloodline, and choosing Fate and State over the insignificant woman to whom one is wed. It is not out of line to then assert that Vergil’s portrayal of the Dido tragedy is “masculinized”, but this “masculinization” may be no more than the result of context and style within which this the Aeneid was written.
Perhaps it is inappropriate to try to classify these works along the lines of a masculine-feminine spectrum. Certainly Vergil created his Dido according to values of the Augustan court which was ruled by men. Does the fact that Ovid wrote from the view of Dido and allowed his character to express emotions make his character more feminine? Whether or not his portrayal is more feminine, Ovid’s Dido is allowed to explore her emotions and to reflect upon her downfall in the moments before she commits the act of suicide. Instead of arguing that Ovid’s Dido is more feminine, it should be argued that Ovid’s portrayal is more compassionate—more human—than Vergil’s.
Dido of Heroides 7 is not reduced to a woman madly raving through the town,
instead she is aware of the mistakes she made, and she is reacting in a
much more human respect. Her emotions alter several times through
out her epistle as she struggles with her plight.
Aeneas always clings to my eyes at all waking hours,
Dido knows that she will never be able to convince Aeneas to stay with her, given his unyielding sense of duty. Perhaps, Desmond suggests, Ovid’s Dido also recalls Aeneas’ oration in which he told of his escape from Troy when he left his wife to her death without any hint of regret. She also certainly is aware of her foolishness—caused by her love for Aeneas—which will not allow her to emotionally let go of Aeneas and which will ultimately cause her to kill herself.
Ovid’s Dido certainly does love more bitterly—her love turns to hatred. Perhaps this is the nature of woman. Maybe Mercury was correct in his speech to Aeneas in the Aeneid, “Always fickle and inconstant is woman.” (4.569-570) Or perhaps this is the nature of all humans—such extreme emotions as love and hate are not that far from each other, and the passion engaged by both stems from the same part of our psyche.
Because of her hatred she begins to make idle threats and pleas to his honor, as though she can sway him from his path honoring his gods.
Yet neither do you bear them with you, nor, faithless one,
Dido accuses Aeneas of lying and claims that his honor—which he proudly declares through stories of symbolically baring weight for his gods, as well as physically baring the weight of his father out of their burning homeland—is false. She also claims that she is just the next person in a series of many people who have suffered due by him—most notably his first wife, Caseus.
Dido even further challenges his honor, while at the same time she expresses an almost twisted desire:
And perhaps you, wickedly, leave pregnant Dido and may a part from my body
Not only does Ovid’s Dido allude to Vergil’s Aeneid (4.327) in that she believes that if she were to be pregnant that Aeneas would stay with her, but she also challenges his honor as the father of a son. She warns Aeneas that if she is indeed pregnant, his departure will not only cause her take her own life but that of his child’s, and that he is the cause of both deaths.
Ovid’s Dido also foreshadows—albeit in a retrospective way—the meeting of Dido and Aeneas in Book 6 of the Aeneid.
The shade of your deceived wife will stand before your eyes
What is of such consequence that you would then say "I merit it; forgive
Ovid’s Dido at least believes that someday Aeneas will realize the pain, which he has inflicted upon her, and he will be truly sorry. Dido seems to find some solace in this belief.
The modern reader, armed with knowledge of traditional Roman values could perhaps interpret her bitter reactions as an expression of guilt—her defensive posturing and her challenges to his honor. Indeed she does express her feelings of guilt for her betrayal of her dead husband’s honor:
Exact the punishment, oh my broken chastity and violated laws
Dido is aware that she has betrayed her duty as a proper woman. Perhaps this leads her to her bitter reactions toward Aeneas.
Dido certainly is not without the desire to go out of her way to convince Aeneas to stay—she is aware of the divine influence over the departure of Aeneas, but she will do anything it takes to hold onto her true love. As in the Aeneid, Ovid’s Dido offers Carthage to Aeneas, hoping that he can use Carthage as his Rome in order to fulfill his destiny. She even offers to resist if that will help satisfy the wishes of his gods:
Happily transfer Troy into the Tyrian city
…that you only be sparing, I pray, to the house which has surrendered itself
Dido is willing to give up all that she has struggled to achieve in order to simply keep Aeneas near her—even if he is unwilling to have her as his wife.
Vergil’s representation of Dido does not express very many emotions.
She is a raving woman who is overcome by her feelings of guilt and abandonment
and who represents a great obstacle to the Vergil’s mighty hero’s destiny—she
is two dimensional, and she serves her purpose as an important element
of an epic poem designed to please an emperor. Ovid allows Dido to
express a whole spectrum of emotions. She shows love, hatred, guilt,
and despair among many others. She may or may not be a more feminine
portrayal, but she is certainly a more human portrayal. This is evidence
that that Ovid was not concerned with maintaining social norms, but was
instead only concerned with exploring the artistic beauty he could find
in the tragic story of Dido. The differences between these texts
should not be seen as limiting one or the other, or as something which
disallows a reader from enjoying both texts. Instead, as modern readers,
we should read both texts and explore the wonderful interplay which exists
between two texts which are intimately related, but which are so different.