Note: The talk below was a pre-concert introduction to Henry Purcell's early English baroque opera, Dido and AeneasReferences to "slides" indicate slides in this PowerPoint presentation.  If you open the PP in a separate window, resize it and this browser window, you can read along and see the PP images when appropriate.

The History of “Dido and Aeneas”

Arnold Sanders, Associate Professor of English, Goucher College, 12/6-7/2012

            In all surviving examples of the Dido and Aeneas narrative, their characters explore emotional conflicts of duty which beset people in positions of authority.  [DIDO SLIDE]  Dido enters the historical record as a separate mythic character with a destiny unrelated to Aeneas, playing the role of a faithful and independent widow.  [AENEAS SLIDE]  Aeneas’ myth illustrated the ideal duties of a son, father, and husband.  When their narratives become connected, they begin to reveal the most familiar conflicts in couples’ lives: the struggle to balance work and home, duty and love, rationality and emotion.  [AENEAS (AND DIDO) SLIDE]  Aeneas initially had the patriarchal starring role in their duet—he obeys the gods, rescues his family, and when his destiny is challenged by a demanding woman’s love, he correctly ignores her so that his descendants can found a mighty empire.  Before couples fought about careers, there was Rome.  [DIDO AND AENEAS SLIDE] Curiously, though, in the same generation in which Dido and Aeneas were first brought together, with Aeneas as the protagonist, a pro-Dido backlash broke out.  The queen’s side of the story foregrounded women’s experiences in love and marriage, including seduction and abandonment by faithless men who claim obedience to higher authorities.  Our opera this evening presents one of the most radical pro-Dido plots.  [DIDO (and AENEAS) SLIDE]  It reduces Aeneas to one of those nice guys whose women wind up doing almost everything themselves.  But if men have lost a patriarchal hero in this exchange, English women on the verge of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment gained a representative voice in an era in which men were increasing their legal advantages in marriage and divorce.  It is unlikely that Dido’s story ever would have survived had it not been spread to the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire in the Latin tale of Aeneas, though it finally overtook his narrative in the end.

            Dido’s story began about 800 years before the Current Era as a tale of the Phoenician queen, Elissa, who ruled Carthage after her brother murdered her husband.  Audiences of Homer’s epics knew an entirely separate tale of Aeneas, who escaped with his family from the fall of Troy, but this refugee Trojan never troubled Elissa’s reign.  Elissa’s neighbor, a warlord named Iarbus, thought he could force the widowed young queen to marry him.  Queen Elissa violently rejected him by stabbing herself to death with her sword upon a funeral pyre.  For her heroism, Elissa was renamed “Dido,” or “warrior woman.”

            Aeneas was known to the Greeks as the son of Venus by a mortal Trojan father.  The Iliad describes Aeneas fighting valiantly during the war, daring to oppose even Achilles before Poseidon whisks him away from the battle.  In art, however, Aeneas was far more famous for fleeing the city’s destruction carrying his aged and infirm father on his back (VASE PAINTING 1).  Rather than being the hero who deserted Dido, Aeneas was viewed by the ancient world as a dutiful son.  Later vase paintings expand the iconography of this quintessential family man: led from the burning city by the god Hermes, walking beside his son, and followed at a respectful distance by his wife, Creusa (VASE PAINTING 2).  His burden grows in the next iconographic evolution where he carries not only his father, but his household gods on his back, still following the god and leading his son and wife (CAPITALINE ‘TABULA ITALICA’)  Perhaps even some of you in tonight’s audience might identify with this symbol of Roman fatherhood.  A few minor Roman authors tried to link Aeneas to the founding of Rome, but at this point, Dido and Aeneas have never met.  Even the geographic settings of their stories remained apart until after the three Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage between 264 and 146 BCE.  You remember Hannibal crossing the Alps with those elephants, of course.  Generations later, it took a great poet commanded by a famous emperor to join Queen Dido and our Trojan family man to explain why the Carthaginians were destined to hate Rome and why they had to be destroyed.

            A century after Roman armies utterly leveled the walls of Carthage, emperor Caesar Augustus appears to have made Publius Vergilius Maro “an offer he couldn’t refuse”: write Us an epic poem to explain Rome’s destiny to its people [AUGUSTUS BUST / VIRGIL BUST].   Because Virgil was an astute reader of implications, the emperor probably did not have to add “and make Us look good while you’re at it.”  It took the last ten years of the poet’s life to write an epic that audaciously attempted to out-do Homer.  He reworked themes from the twenty-four books of the Iliad and the twenty-four books of the Odyssey into a single poem that tells of the hero’s return in the first six books and the fight for the city in the last six.  So an emperor’s unusual literary taste and a great author’s skill finally brought Dido and Aeneas together in the first four books of the Aeneid where their disastrous love affair would connect Rome’s imperial destiny to the will of the gods.  In addition to defining the “epic” for a thousand years, the Aeneid gave us the basic plot of the opera you will hear tonight. 

            The gods are everywhere in Virgil’s poem.  In the opening four books set in Carthage, we see them driving Aeneas into a fateful entanglement with the queen of Rome’s future enemies and making Dido helpless to resist him.  Virgil’s Aeneas is shipwrecked on the coast of Africa by the wrath of Juno, queen of the gods, who hates Troy and its people for many reasons, each of which would have been enough to infuriate a goddess.  After Juno places Aeneas and his followers in Carthage, at Dido’s mercy, Venus immediately begins to look out for her boy by arranging his favorable reception with those skills for which she is famous.  This leads to the plot’s tragic love with Rome’s fate hanging in the balance.  Aeneas follows Venus to the Carthaginian court, where she replaces Aeneas’ son with her other son, Cupid in disguise, who has been told to infect the queen with helpless passion for Aeneas.  The still young but childless queen dandles Cupid on her lap while listening to Aeneas tell stirring tales of Troy’s fall and the refugees’ flight from the city, an escape during which Aeneas’ wife was lost forever.  Getting “Mrs. Aeneas” out of the way removes a crucial obstacle to Dido’s love, but Virgil also exploits the queen’s maternal instincts.  The famous, now-single Aeneas, and the changeling child’s divine eroticism, prove irresistible.  In the father, she sees a protector from neighboring warlords like Iarbus, and in his son, she sees the hope of children her husband’s early death denied her.  As if that were not enough, Virgil gives Dido a sister and confidant, Anna, who urges the queen to seize life and love while she is still young enough to enjoy them. 

            Virgil’s deities leave nothing to chance.  During a hunt, Juno and Venus send a storm to separate Aeneas and Dido from the rest of the court.  The lovers take shelter in a cave where Virgil says divine music plays their wedding song to sanctify the union.  [LOW HAM MOSAIC FULL]  The mosaic artists who created this floor for a Roman bath in the distant colony of Britannia present viewers with a rather boldly naked Dido coming on to the armored and fully dressed Aeneas [LOW HAM MOSAIC BOTTOM], perhaps urging him to change into something more comfortable.  The scene may have been intended to warm up the colonists in this bath because it was located in the “frigidarium” or cold-water room where one therapeutically chilled after a hot soak.  In any event, it shows us the Dido and Aeneas of Virgil’s imagination, whose erotic entanglement dominates all later versions of the tale.  [CLOSE UP OF CENTRAL IMAGE]  The outcome is always tragic for Dido, and extremely awkward for Aeneas.  Venus’ location in the central square of the mosaic is enhanced by twin Cupids who bear the symbolic upturned torch of Aeneas, who will live, and the downward turned torch for Dido, who will die. 

            Having created love by supernatural means, Virgil invents yet another god, “Fama” or Rumor, to hasten Aeneas’ departure and Dido’s destruction.  Rumor flies through the night with a million feathers on each wing and a blabbing mouth for each feather, spreading news of the queen’s affair to the city and her jealous neighbor, Iarbas.  Iarbus prays to Jupiter for justice and the king of the gods sends Mercury to order love-sick Aeneas to snap out of it.  Virgil’s hero visits the queen to explain his sudden need to sail away, but Dido believes none of it.  After a second visit from Mercury, Aeneas steals away in the early morning without even a goodbye.  Book IV of the poem ends with Aeneas watching the ominous smoke of Dido’s funeral pyre, only guessing what it means, after readers have heard her harrowing death speech in which she reminds us what she had done to save Aeneas, curses him, and predicts eternal war between his descendants and the people of Carthage.

Virgil’s justification of Dido’s rage shows us that he was not just a Roman propagandist.  He gives the queen ample opportunity to question the hero’s departure, and even doubts the righteousness of the gods’ involvement.  From the first lines of the poem, Virgil had asked whether Juno’s implacable anger was appropriate to a divine mind.  But the poet also undermines the legitimacy of their love by questioning whether Aeneas really believes they are married, and says explicitly that Dido fools herself into thinking an illicit affair is really sanctified wedlock.  Dido’s final appearance in the epic, during Aeneas’s journey to the Underworld, places the hero in an extremely uncomfortable position.  When Aeneas tries to explain his actions, Dido’s spirit turns wordlessly away and the walks into the darkness with the spirit of her dead husband.  Depending on your reading, Dido either returns to the role of a proper wife, or she overcomes Aeneas spiritually by reasserting the married chastity stolen from her by the hero and his meddling gods.  After Dido’s last appearance in the epic, the story turns toward six books of warfare in which Aeneas is restored to fully heroic status.

Within decades, however, another Roman poet produced a “Dido-centric” response to this plot.  [OVID/HEROIDES SLIDE]  Virgil’s contemporary, Ovid, was a subject of the same emperor who supported Virgil, so this might have been a little like a poetic boxing match.  In the Heroides, Ovid composes letters from famous classical heroines betrayed by their heroes, and perhaps none is better argued than Dido’s.  She asks Aeneas what really happened to Creusa, the first woman he had abandoned to her death.  She tells him that, even worse than abandoning her after she had given up everything to save him, he was also abandoning his own unborn son.  Dido reveals her pregnancy even as she prepares to kill herself and the child.  English poets at first seem to have taken their cue from Ovid’s version of the plot, in which Aeneas is a coward and sexual opportunist.  [CHAUCER SLIDE]

Geoffrey Chaucer is the first English poet to take up Dido’s cause in The Legend of Good Women.  He faithfully translates Virgil from Latin to Middle English until he gets to the actions of the gods, especially Venus.  There he reports only what “that text” says and implies the pagans must be mistaken.  The gods take a giant step back into mere metaphors for love or jealousy, and the queen strides forth into an open relationship with Aeneas as her husband.  Chaucer’s Aeneas formally proposes to Dido and accepts her as his wife.  In Chaucer’s day, a common-law marriage, sworn before God and witnesses, would be recognized as legitimate, and Chaucer hints that witnesses might have been present.  Readers familiar with the “Miller’s Tale” might be surprised to learn that this poem does not describe the precise nature of the “joy” the lovers take in the cave, making it seem more like a sanctified wedding night than a secular affair.  Chaucer’s narrator also specifically calls Aeneas a man skilled in deception, quick to tire of his royal conquest, and faithless in his flight.  Chaucer’s Dido, like Ovid’s, tells Aeneas that she is pregnant and will die as his wife. 

Dido’s next appearance in English literature deserves to be far more famous than it is.  [SURREY SLIDE]  When Henry Howard, earl of Surrey and one of the co-inventors of the English sonnet, began to translate Books II and IV of the Aeneid, he transformed Virgil’s Latin hexameter or six-foot lines to a verse form his publisher called “strange meter,” what we now call “blank verse.”  Those of you who remember your literary education can probably answer tonight’s quiz question: what is “blank verse”?  [Unrhymed iambic pentameter!]  Congratulations!  Even more important for tonight’s opera, Surrey translates only Books II and IV, where Aeneas meets Dido and where he leaves her.  This shift in narrative balance makes Dido fully as important as Aeneas.  [MARLOWE/DIDO SLIDE]

Surrey’s translation may have had something to do with Christopher Marlowe’s decision to write The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage in blank verse, and to make the queen the protagonist of the plot.  Aeneas has become a supporting role.  The ex-hero again is denounced by a suicidal queen who says, “Now Dido . . . burn thyself, / And make Aeneas famous through the world / For perjury and slaughter of a queen” (V.i.293).   The gods still unite the lovers and force them apart, even appearing on stage but, like Surrey, Marlowe downplays the destiny of Rome to pursue his fascination with extreme states of emotion and ambition.  The violent force of Dido’s passion is so great that the play ends in a triple suicide.  After she dies, her spurned lover, Iarbus, stabs himself, and her sister, Anna, who had loved Iarbus as he loved Dido, kills herself as well.  Fortunately, Henry Pucell and his librettist, Nahum Tate, will not subject you to Marlowe’s ending, having removed Iarbus from the picture entirely.  However, Marlowe may have given Tate the idea to replace the meddling gods with jealous mortal witches.  After the sudden storm brings the lovers together during the hunt, Iarbus suspects “some fell enchantress dwelleth here / That can call [storms] forth whenas she please” (IV.i.3-4). 

Nahum Tate first took up the Dido plot for his stage play, Brutus and Alba: or the Enchanted Lovers, before working with Purcell.  He changes the names of the lovers to Brutus the Trojan, and the nameless “Queen of Syracuse,” aided by her friend, Amarante, who replaces the queen’s sister as her confidante.  Tate’s villain is Ragusa, a conniving witch and her four assistants, who replace the destiny-driving gods.  Rather than having the witches cause the lovers’ attraction, which happens by the usual natural means, Tate’s witches subject the lovers to a spell which causes a reputation-destroying London scandal to drive them apart.  Today Tate probably would have made it a tabloid photograph or a leaked email.  With the emergence of the rational individual as the center of London’s “world,” the most supernatural power on stage has become the city’s envious voice with its power to shame and to destroy reputations as the ancient gods once would smite mortal heroes.  [PURCELL SLIDE]

.           When Tate and Purcell collaborated on tonight’s opera, their much tighter focus on Dido and gentler treatment of Aeneas reflect the growing influence of women readers and writers in an audience interested in the rights of wives oppressed by husbands or treacherous suitors.  The plot encourages new ethical perceptions of women’s relationships.  “Dido’s friend” replacing her “sister” suggests that women were beginning to see one another as members of an interdependent social class rather than as competitors who only trusted sisters as allies.  The “witches” still do to Purcell’s lovers what “Rumor” and the gods did to Virgil’s, so our bad behavior still creates misfortune, but the “god” is a magical deception.  There is nothing divine or destined about the spirit impersonating “Mercury.”  Virgil’s question about whether gods could be responsible for humanity’s bad behavior has been answered—we do it to ourselves.  Through it all, Dido’s rise to prominence has come at Aeneas’ expense.  No longer do we see him trudging away from burning Troy bearing his father and the gods upon his back.  Now, he supports Dido, and enables us to hear her voice tonight.