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Dido, Queen of Carthage








Quote: Dido, Queen of Carthage, V.1.131-2

O no, the Gods weigh not what lovers do:
It is Aeneas calls Aeneas hence.
Dido, Queen of Carthage, V.1.131-2

Dido, Queen of Carthage

Dido, Queen of Carthage

Act V Scene 1


Location: Dido's Court

This lengthy scene concludes Marlowe's tragedy. It comprises three main pieces of action, but again these are not formally divided into separate scenes since at least one character stays on stage in each case. The first section has Hermes (the Gods' winged messenger, also called Mercury) deliver a stern message from Jove to Aeneas that he must leave for Italy. Next Dido confronts Aeneas about his impending departure. And once the Trojan fleet has sailed, a grief-stricken Dido commits suicide, quickly followed by Iarbus, and then Anna.

Although the action follows Virgil's poem whilst also drawing Marlowe's own sub-plot threads to a neat conclusion, there are a number of minor inconsistencies, as well as some dramatic conveniences that stretch credibility. This has also led some commentators to wonder whether these are the result of a joint authorship.

Hermes Delivers Jove's Message in Person

The scene opens with Aeneas discussing his detailed plans with Achates, Cloanthus, Sergestus and Ilioneus for the rebuilding of Carthage city as a new and "statelier Troy" (to be named Anchisaeon in honour of his father). Soon though the Gods' winged messenger Hermes (Mercury) arrives with an "angry message" from Jupiter. Why is Aeneas rebuilding Carthage "and beautifying the empire of this Queen" (V.1.28), when he should be sailing to Italy to fulfil Jove's mission?

Hermes has brought Ascanius with him too, having rescued him from the Idalian groves in Cyprus ("Ida") where Venus had planned to hide him at the end of scene III.2. Aeneas immediately deduces that Venus must have substituted his brother Cupid for Ascanius, which is perhaps a rather bold leap of logic. But this realisation is significant for the plot, and thus perhaps a dramatic economy we can forgive Marlowe. It is now clear to Aeneas what has happened: "No marvel, Dido, though thou be in love / that daily dandlest Cupid in thy arms!" (V.1.44-5). That Dido has not fallen 'naturally' in love with Aeneas gives him the extra justification he needs to finally leave her.

When Aeneas asks his son where he has been, Ascanius replies "Eating sweet comfits with Queen Dido's maid, / Who ever since hath lull'd me in her arms" (V.1.47-8). This surely is a mistake: it was Cupid disguised as Ascanius who was offered all kinds of comfits by Dido's nurse in scene IV.5, whilst the real Ascanius was hidden alone in the groves by Venus.

Aeneas Determines to Depart Once More for Italy

Aeneas instructs Sergestus to take his son to the Trojan ships for safe keeping "lest Dido, spying him, keep him for a pledge", and thus Aeneas seems once more determined to leave. He ponders how he might depart when they "have no sails nor tackling for my ships?" (V.1.56).

This is again perhaps a dramatic convenience on Marlowe's part. It might just be feasible that Aeneas should somehow already know that Dido has "ta'en away my oars and masts, and left me neither sail nor stern aboard" (V.1.60-1), but is it perhaps a little unrealistic that he should carry on happily planning to rebuild Carthage if he were aware of Dido's act of mistrust? The practical problem is anyhow solved when Iarbus now chances upon the downcast Trojans, and is of course only too happy to "furnish thee with such supplies" (V.1.72) in order to be rid of Dido's love.

Aeneas Leaving Dido, painted by Pompeo Batoni (1747)
Aeneas Leaving Dido
Pompeo Batoni (1747)

Dido Confronts Aeneas

Dido now enters to confront Aeneas. She has seen Ascanius led towards the ships by Achates, which she also knows are "new-rigg'd". Not only is this inconsistent with Aeneas leaving his son in Sergestus' charge, it is also once again an unrealistic timeline. If Aeneas had exited the stage (as some Editors amend) after Iarbus had set off to fetch the rigging etc, we would be able to imagine that sufficient time had passed to ready the ships. But as Aeneas stays on stage, we must rather suspend disbelief to imagine the ships now ready to set sail for Italy.

Unlike the dissembling that followed his previous failed attempt to flee, Aeneas is now confident enough to plainly tell Dido the reason for his departure: "I am commanded by immortal Jove / To leave this town and pass to Italy" (V.1.99-100). There follows some of the best poetry in the play, albeit translated from Virgil, as Dido desperately implores the Trojan to stay whilst Aeneas can only claim helplessness in the face of the "Gods' behest". In keeping with Marlowe's general focus on the eponymous Queen in adapting his source, Dido's speeches remain lengthy whilst Aeneas' responses in which he defends his actions are abridged to a few concise lines each time.

Marlowe even retains some original Latin lines from the Aeneid (V.1.136-140, and indeed towards the end of the scene at V.1.310-11 and 313). Some critics (Boas and Ellis-Fermor) put this down to the poet's limitations, whilst others (Oliver) credit Marlowe rather with appreciating the beauty of Virgil's lines and the recognition that they could not be matched in translation1. Others ascribe the inclusion of Latin lines to the target actors, namely Cambridge students (see discussions on dating the play).

Aeneas Leaves, and Dido is Distraught

As in Virgil, their parting is emotional and dramatic. "If not, turn from me, and I'll turn from thee; / For though thou hast the heart to say farewell, / I have not the power to stay thee" (V.1.181-3). She turns, and Aeneas leaves silently.

Turning back, the Queen cannot believe Aeneas has left for good. She imagines him getting as far as his ship before "he shrinks back, and now rememb'ring me, / Returns amain: welcome, welcome my love!" (V.1.190-1). Anna enters and struggles to console her sister in her grief. Dido dispatches Anna to the port-side to beg Aeneas to stay, but unlike last time this desperate mission fails: "Aeneas was aboard, / And, spying me, hoist up the sails amain;" (V.I.226-7).

The final straw is the nurse reporting the disappearance of Ascanius, which Dido already knows (although not realising the Cupid substitution). The Queen's wrath is directed at the innocent nurse, as she first insults her ("O cursed hag and false dissembling wretch / That slayest me with thy harsh and hellish tale!" - V.1.216-7) and then accuses her of treason and has her thrown in prison.

Death of Dido, painted by Peter Paul Rubens (1640)
Death of Dido
Peter Paul Rubens (1640)

Dido Commits Suicide, Followed by Iarbus and Anna

Dido desperately craves some means of following her lover, with "wings of wax like Icarus", or riding on a dolphin's back. But eventually she accepts the painful truth, and determines that there is only one course of action: "I must be the murderer of myself" (V.1.270). But she cannot tell her sister this, and so feigns a plan to burn Aeneas' possessions that he has left behind, "to rid me from these thoughts of lunacy" (V.1.273).

Iarbus arrives to find Dido in resigned mood. Wood is brought and they build a fire, before she asks to be left alone. Increasingly depressed, she burns first Aeneas' sword ("that in the darksome cave / he drew, and swore by, to be true to me" - V.1.295-6), then the clothes she first lent him when he came ashore, and finally his letters. After praying that the Gods ensure the "traitors ... be still tormented with unrest", Dido commits suicide by throwing herself onto the burning pyre whilst quoting directly in Latin a line from the Aeneid that translates roughly as "I rejoice at passing into the darkness" (V.1.313).

Marlowe adds his own tragic twist to this traditional tragic ending. Anna and Iarbus rush in to find Dido "in these flames". Distraught at the suicide of his beloved Queen, Iarbus also kills himself with the line "Dido, I come to thee: ay me, Aeneas!" (V.1.318). In turn, Anna is grief-stricken at the loss of her "sole delight" and she too kills herself: "Now, sweet Iarbus, stay, I come to thee!" and we are left suddenly with a body count that has been frequently criticised by commentators as undermining the tragic nature of the play.

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