We begin only with the simplest parts of the story—Dido was queen, and she killed herself. The rest is filler and open to interpretation. Virgil alters, adapts, and comments on earlier Dido myths, using the Dido figure as a base on which to build his own poem, and, in turn, uses this poem to comment on Roman values. The remarkable quality of Dido’s story is not just that it lasts, or even that we continue to analyze and reinterpret it, but instead that authors choose to rewrite Virgil over and over again. Authors and societies accept the canonization of the poem and, somewhat subconsciously, its effect on their own cultural and literary values, but they also rework the piece and the figure to reflect their own contemporary values, creating a dialogue between the Dido figure and her reader and writer.
Giovanni Boccaccio , Geoffrey Chaucer, Christopher Marlowe , and an anonymous 12th century French poet all adapted Virgil’s version of the Dido myth. These adaptations all show both their contemporary values regarding gender and their reactions to Virgil’s version of the Dido myth. These works rely on The Aeneid’s status in the cannon of Western literature while trying to build and define a cannon, gender roles, and morality.
Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women makes use of the Dido myth in the chapter “The Legend of Dido” . The narrator, forced to retell stories of women that demonstrate greatness, recounts an altered version of the story of Dido, presenting her as a victim. The narrator immediately places the blame for Dido’s death on Aeneas, “ I shall, as best I can, / Follow your guiding lantern as I say/ How false Aeneas did Dido betray” (McMillan 94). The narrator then acknowledges both Virgil and Ovid as his sources, showing regard for The Aeneid, which is more detached and sympathetic with Aeneas, and for “Heroides VII”, which is more personal and accusatory towards Aeneas. Chaucer sets up a contrast between the narrator, Virgil’s, and Ovid’s tales, and dialogues between the narrator and Cupid, and himself and the earlier Roman poets. This construction established the means with which Chaucer expresses his views about women, and, though I question the narrator’s sincerity, his praise and the contrast between the three stories show a marked difference between cultural values, especially regarding gender. Like Virgil, Chaucer’s narrator praises both Dido’s generosity and beauty; however, unlike Virgil, he does not praise her ability to rule. Dido here plays the part of a slighted lover without acting as a masculine ruler. Aeneas victimizes here the extremely feminine Dido, whom the narrator holds less responsible for her actions because of her feminine weakness. Knowing that Virgil used Dido to illustrate Roman anxieties about foreigners and women, Chaucer perhaps shows ways that he can exonerate the Dido figure. He changes the plot to enhance his message about feminine virtue. He cements the relationship between Dido and Aeneas, making them clearly married, and telling of Dido’s pregnancy (McMillan 103). Proclaiming Dido’s innocence , the narrator further contrasts his ideal Dido with Virgil’s clearly flawed Dido. We could believe that the Virgilian Dido was a true victim if only she was really married, did not fully understand Aeneas’ intentions, and was going to be a mother.
The Roman d’ Eneas, a 12th century French romance inspired by The Aeneid, alters both the character and content of Virgil’s story of Dido. Here the poet places her ability as a ruler in the forefront. When we first meet Dido, the poet praises her ruling, “Lady Dido ruled the country better than any count of marquis would have ruled it. No domain or realm was ever thereafter better governed by a woman”(Yunck 63). This praise does not just serve to lavish praise on Dido and glorify her; instead it serves to contrast her character before and after Aeneas, and also, to instruct its readers on how to view historic women, particularly rulers. The romance sets up a clear distinction between the achievement of historic women and what contemporary women should aspire to. When the poet states that Dido was the greatest female ruler ever, he reconciles the powerful female Dido with his own disapproval of powerful women by severing her from his present. He thus clearly instructs women not to aspire to rule. The poet also presents an evolutionary model of Dido; she grows more feminine with love and completely ignores her duties. The poet gives evidence of his disapproval when he states, “She who should protect her domain has abandoned all for her love”(Yunck 85). He further chastises Dido for betraying her promise to her dead husband, Sychaeus(Yunck 87). Simply put, Roman d’Eneas presents a Dido first respected for her masculine traits—being a responsible ruler—and later condemned for succumbing to negative feminine traits and desires. The epitaph at the end of the Dido episode in Eneas best illustrates the poet’s attitude towards the Dido figure:
Here lies Dido,
Yet, despite offering such bold words of strong praise and criticism, the poet treats the Dido myth as secondary and as a prelude to the true romance with Lavinia.
Christopher Marlowe’s play “The Tragedy of Dido Queen of Carthage” presents a Dido full of contradictions, using the Dido myth as a means to comment on love and power. Marlowe’s Dido displays generosity, but also, an impulsive and flirtatious character. She does not become sick with love, but rather, she becomes silly and desires to give up her entire kingdom in order to keep Aeneas, but to no avail. She urges him, “ Speake of no other land, this land is thine,/ Dido is thine, henceforth Ile call thee Lord.”(Act IV, Scene II) She is desperate, irrational and almost ridiculous in parts, yet she does not exhibit the violence and anger of Virgil’s Dido. Marlowe receives Dido, takes her story, familiar to his audience, and changes it slightly, making her more comical and less insane than either Ovid’s or Virgil’s Dido. Dido provides a way for his play to operate on multiple levels and to appeal to many different kinds of people by telling a story we already know, but altering it to comment on different themes (the play was recently performed in New York City, here is a review of the performance).
Giovanni Boccaccio drastically alters Dido’s story in his Concerning Famous Women to illustrate his own views about the morality of women. He praises her and holds her up as an example of virtue in widowhood, but he completely omits her encounter with Aeneas. Instead he uses only her name, title, location, and suicide as bases for his moral lesson. After telling of her escape from Phoenicia, Boccaccio comments, “She cast aside womanly weakness and hardened her spirit to manly strength, and for this she later deserved being called Dido, which in Phoenician means ‘heroi.’”(Guarino 87). Boccaccio praises Dido unlike Marlowe, the author of Eneas, or Chaucer, but he also edits out basically everything incident in her story that he finds objectionable. He purifies Dido for the purpose of using her as an example for Christian widows, setting up a rather peculiar paradox. He contrasts his purified Dido with other women who have acted like the most famous version of Dido and instructs them to act more like Dido when they already have. His readers would certainly know the difference between his own version and Virgil’s Aeneid, and thus, the reasons for his adaptation become unclear. Does he alter the Dido of whom he disapproves in order to show how she could be redeemed? If so, he presents a rather formidable path to redemption— the gods cannot exist, and the (unmentioned) Aeneas and Dido’s fates must be completely altered. Dido must exist in a semi-Christian sphere—though he acknowledges her pagan traditions, unlike the other authors, he does not acknowledge her pagan gods as having any power in her life. Thus, Boccaccio can redeem Dido only by dissolving fate, and subsequently, Rome, which would in turn dissolve Boccaccio’s own culture and values. Thus, Boccaccio’s purification of the classics is an act of cultural subversion and, also, an attempt to reconcile the Classic with his own culture.
playwrights, composers, and modern musicians have all adapted the figure
of Dido. The way in which s/he has taken Dido’s story illustrates many
of her/his contemporary societal views of marriage, fidelity, gender, and
fate, etc., and also clearly shows how the idea of the Classic continues
to affect our culture.
Guarino, Guido A. (translation) Giovanni Boccaccio, Concerning Famous