The Marlowe Society

Marlowe's Works

Marlowe's Works
Dido Woodcut


Dido, Queen of Carthage









Dido, Queen of Carthage

Dido, Queen of Carthage


The source for Marlowe's play is predominantly Virgil's Aeneid, which tells the story of Aeneas and Dido in Books I-IV.

Publius Vergilius Maro (70BC-19B): the bust outside Virgil's tomb in Naples, Italy9.

1. Virgil

Publius Vergilius Maro (70BC-19BC) was one of the finest Classical Roman poets, and he is renowned for three major works: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and his final work the Aeneid, unfinished at his death, which tells the story of Aeneas.

After the dramatic events of 44BC which saw Julius Caesar assassinated before his followers, his adopted son Octavian Caesar (later Augustus) and Mark Antony regained power by defeating Brutus and Cassius. Virgil is thought to have become part of the circle of Maecenas, political advisor to the new emperor. The Aeneid in some respects attempts to legitimise the Julio-Claudian dynasty, tying it to Aeneas and Troy. Virgil was en route to Greece in 19BC with Augustus when he caught a fever and soon died.

2. Virgil's Aeneid

The Aeneid was written by Virgil over the last ten year's of his life. It is a complex poem written in 'heroic hexameter', and legend has it that Virgil crafted just three lines a day. Although substantially finished, Virgil still planned further work on it: some lines are incomplete, and he was perhaps unhappy with certain sections and planned rewrites. After his premature death, Augustus ordered Virgil's Aeneid be published with as few amendments as possible, contrary to the author's alleged wish that the unfinished work be burned.

The epic can be divided into two main sections:

  • Books I to VI tell the story of Aeneas' journey from Troy to Rome via Carthage, and are modeled on Homer's Odyssey;
  • Books VII to XII tell of Aeneas' battles in Italy leading to the foundation of Rome, and are modeled on Homer's Iliad.

Aeneas appears in the Iliad, but Virgil takes this wandering character and his loose association with the foundation of Rome, and built his nationalistic epic around those disparate threads.

After Marlowe, the most famous translation of the Aeneid appeared in John Dryden's The Work's of Virgil, started in 1694 and published in 1697.

3. Marlowe's Adaptation

Virgil's Aeneid provided Marlowe with the following subject matter for his dramatisation:

Book I:
  • Aeneas' arrival in Carthage following the storm at sea orchestrated by Juno;
  • Jupiter assures Venus that Aeneas will be saved in order to build Rome;
  • Venus' meeting with her son;
  • the substitution of Venus' other son Cupid for Aeneas' son Ascanius;
  • the warm welcome accorded to the Trojans by Dido.
Book II:
  • Aeneas' account of the fall of Troy.
Book IV:
  • the conspiracy of Venus and Juno that leads to the storm and the tryst between Aeneas and Dido in the cave;
  • the intervention of Jupiter after Iarbus' appeal;
  • Aeneas' leaving Dido;
  • Dido's suicide in a self-made funeral pyre.

But perhaps more interesting still for the Marlowe scholar are those elements which the dramatist has himself added. Marlowe's play is far more than a translation exercise. As well as some editing down of speeches, and rearrangements for dramatic purposes, the following plot elements are wholly Marlowe's creation:

  • the exchanges between Jupiter and Ganymede at the start of the play;
  • the sub-plot involving Anna's love of Iarbus;
  • the first attempt by Aeneas to leave Carthage without Dido's knowledge, an action that does little to enhance his character in our eyes;
  • the scene with the nurse and Cupid;
  • the suicides of Anna and Iarbus that follow Dido's own death, additions that may seem a little over-theatrical to the modern audience.

Tucker Brooke's1 summary of the Marlovian reworking contributes to his hypothesis that the play may have been born out of an initial version during Marlowe's University days with later significant amendment. "Parts of the play follow the corresponding lines of the Aeneid with schoolboy slavishness, whereas the borrowed material is elsewhere altered with a freedom and insight which evidence a mature judgement and no small dramatic skill."

4. Ovid and Homer

Ovid, of course, was a favourite of Marlowe's whose influence pervades all his works. Aeneas and Dido appear in Metamorphoses and Knutowski2 identified many incidental Ovidian influences in passages of Marlowe's Dido. Douglas Cole3 further suggested that Marlowe's sympathy for Dido owes more to Ovid's characterisation than to Virgil. Oliver4, however, disagrees, certainly to the extent that Ovid (or more specifically Arthur Golding's translation into English which was published in London in 1567) was used as a direct source.

Marlowe may well also have been familiar with Homer's Iliad. Latin translations were available to him, and also an English translation of Books I-X by Hall.

5. Contemporary Publications

The books of the Aeneid used by Marlowe were well known to Elizabethan scholars in their Latin form, for they were part of the Grammar School and University curriculum. Oliver5 cites the sixteenth century text Pub. Vergilii Maromis opera of Willich (Jodocus Willichius) as one such likely example and asserts that Marlowe's Latin would have been "more than adequate" for translating Virgil. The fact that Marlowe includes a few of Virgil's lines in their original Latin would tend to back up this hypothesis.

The English translations of the Aeneid that would have been available to Marlowe included:

  • Eneados (1513), Gawyn Douglas' Scots translation of Virgil's Aeneid;
  • Certain Bokes [Books II and IV in fact] of Virgiles Aenæis turned into English meter by the right honorable lorde, Henry Earle of Surrey (1557);
  • The first foure bookes of Virgil his Aeneis translated into English heroical verse by Richard Stanyhurst (Leiden, 1582);
  • The whole .xii. Bookes of the Æneidos of Virgill. Whereof the first .ix. and part of the tenth, were conuerted into English Meeter by Thomas Phaër Esquier, and the residue supplied, and the whole worke together newly set forth, by Thomas Twyne Gentleman (London, 1573).

Oliver's assessment6, however, is that Marlowe demonstrates no indebtedness at all to the first three, whilst he merely "could conceivably have borrowed, or remembered, one or two unimportant phrases" from Phaër.

6. Earlier Productions

There are records of two earlier productions of plays based on the story of Dido:

  • Edward Halliwell staged a play entitled Dido at Cambridge before Queen Elizabeth in 1564 which has not survived;
  • William Gager's play of the same title (and again in Latin) was likewise performed at Oxford in 15837 before the royal party.

Tucker Brooke observes8 that there is no evidence of Marlowe's play being influenced by either of these plays.

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