Dido, Queen of Carthage
A Critical History
Could it be that one William Shakespeare was the first theatre critic to review Marlowe's play of Dido?!
Hamlet: I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted, or if it was, not above once - for the play, I remember, pleased not the million, 'twas caviare to the general. But it was, as I received it - and others whose judgments in such matters cried in the top of mine - an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning. I remember one said there were no sallets in the lines to make the matter savoury, nor no matter in the phrase that might indict the author of affectation; but called it an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine. One speech in't I chiefly loved; 'twas Æneas' tale to Dido, and thereabout of it especially where he speaks of Priam's slaughter. If it live in your memory, begin at this line - let me see, let me see...
Unfortunately, this seems highly unlikely, for although a handful of the subsequently quoted lines from the remembered speech seem to allude to Marlowe's play, most of it bears no resemblance, and Hamlet seems to be describing an imagined play which perhaps has occasional references to different sources.
Although Shakespeare may have had some memory of the play, few others did for the next two centuries. As with the staging, Dido, Queen of Carthage and The Massacre at Paris have received the least amount of critical consideration of all the plays in the Marlowe canon. As mentioned in the Textual History of the play (see section 2.1), it was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century that the Romantic poets began to revive an interest in Marlowe, and not until 1826 that a text of Dido was re-published once more by Hurst.1
For a long time, the play has not been particularly highly regarded. Some critics have incorrectly dismissed it as largely a work of translation. Anthony Trollope described it as a "burlesque on Dido's story as treated by Vergil", and thought it "pretty quaint and painful"2. Others have heavily criticised some of the weaker elements of dramatisation, in particular the triple suicide at the end, which many see as a comedic anti-climax rather than a tragic climax (Bullen described some elements of the play as "ridiculous").
Twentieth century critics have shown themselves a little more sympathetic, perhaps taking their lead from no less a poet and critic than T.S. Eliot, who described the play as "underrated" and found some merit in an otherwise workmanlike dramatisation:
"Dido appears to be a hurried play, perhaps done to order with the Aeneid in front of him. But even here there is progress. The account of the sack of Troy is in this newer style of Marlowe's, this style which secures its emphasis by always hesitating on the edge of caricature at the right moment."3
Some were still unmoved. No less a Marlowe scholar than Bakeless noted that Dido was "in itself of no more interest to modern readers than The Massacre at Paris"4, before dismissing it as "nothing but a rewriting of the first part of Virgil's Aeneid"5 But some modern commentators have taken the time to examine how Marlowe had significantly improved upon his source in many places, rather than simply performing a translation. Ethel Seaton6 cites the vivid and poetic description of the Grecians emerging from the wooden horse ("from out his entrails ... stern faces shin'd the quenchless fire ..." II.1.182-7) as a significant improvement on dry description of the Greeks sliding down a rope.
Writing at the time of Marlowe's quartercentenary in 1964, perceived that:
"Dido has remained largely where it was, read infrequently and little esteemed. This is a pity, for Marlowe put much of the best of himself into it. It has weaknesses enough to prevent a successful stage revival, and there are limitations in the enthusiasms and sympathies, the qualities of mind. But the energy and fire shine out brilliantly, in a more admirable way than in Tamburlaine and without the destructive bitterness of the other works."9
But "The play, for all its fine and interesting qualities, is not a successful tragedy".10 Whilst not believing generally that the comedy in the play was detrimental to the ultimate sense of tragedy, did think that the lack of gravitas displayed by the Gods had an impact:too found the ending flawed.
"Only an exceptionally fine fifth act could have made successful tragedy with these things working against instead of preparing for it. The last act of Dido is, in fact its greatest weakness, and the last scene quite fatal" (i.e. "the rapid succession of suicides").11
For all that, "The reading of Dido can still, however, be a great pleasure, and the weak fifth act by no means justifies the critical neglect of the whole play".12remained an admirer:
In The Revels Edition of the play, also finds much to admire in the play, whilst recognising that the novice playwright had plenty still to learn:
"In Dido, there is also fine narrative, in the long account of the fall of Troy; there are other kinds of fine poetic rhetoric; there may even be a 'melody such as English poetry had never achieved hitherto save in The Faerie Queene'; but there is as yet insufficient integration of words, melody and dramatic action."13
The new millennium has found Dido being staged much more often, and critical opinion is similarly more positive. Marlowe's most recent biographer, , believes that the playwright took account of the "limitations of boy actors", which "encouraged Marlowe to depict love, anger, and despair with restraint. Dido also gives the boy actors pretty lines to say, and calls for more attention to techniques of speech than to the feelings behind speech".14
The lines are in fact more than pretty. "What is really distinguished in Dido is the exquisite beauty of its verse as well the varying registers of its styles. The drama has the aspect of a poem, even of a courtly jeu d'esprit, but it is free from heaviness"15. Even the ending is spared criticism: "the only emphasis given to the Queen's tragic suicide, at last, is that two other unrequited lovers ... kill themselves in the flames that consume her".16
And perhaps "Dido is a lovely, amusing, and shrewd technical exercise, and it might well have suited the royal court".17captures both the essence of the play and the context of its writing best of all.
- Note 1: [Hurst] Back to Text
- Note 2: [Oliver] p.ix. Trollope recorded his criticism in notes at the end of each play in his 1850 edition of [Dyce]. Back to Text
- Note 3: [Eliot] The essay is also reproduced in [Leech] - p.16. Back to Text
- Note 4: [Bakeless-Marlowe] p.255. Back to Text
- Note 5: Bakeless, cited by [Steane] p.51. Back to Text
- Note 6: [Seaton-Reading] pp.28-9. Back to Text
- Note 7: [Steane] pp.42-3. Back to Text
- Note 8: [Ibid] p.53. Back to Text
- Note 9: [Ibid] p.29. Back to Text
- Note 10: [Ibid] p.46. Back to Text
- Note 11: [Ibid] p.48. Back to Text
- Note 12: [Ibid] p.50. Back to Text
- Note 13: [Oliver] p.xlvii. Back to Text
- Note 14: [Honan] p.100. Back to Text
- Note 15: [Ibid] p.102. Back to Text
- Note 16: [Ibid] p.102. Back to Text
- Note 17: [Ibid] p.104. Back to Text