Dido Queen of Carthage

To war 'gainst heaven

Possibly Marlowe’s earliest play, possibly co-written with Thomas Nashe, Dido was originally performed by the Children of her Majesty’s Chapel, a boys company. I’m assuming that this accounts for several of the features of the play I’m about to talk about, but boys companies are not my area of expertise.

The first thing that struck me was the sparseness of the cast (relatively speaking) — there are only 17 characters. Not only does this play have a female title character, but five female roles — Dido, Anna, Venus, Juno, and the Nurse.

The play is readable and dramaturgically sound, straightforward to follow both on the page and on stage and there is no subplot or early modern weirdness to work through. The Folger digital edition counts it at a quick-moving 1788 lines, making it possible to put it on the modern stage without any cuts needed for time. The language is quite familiar, other than a couple of latin passages and sundry mythological allusions. Dido comes across as so easy to produce that I remain surprised it is not more popular.

The weakest element of this early play for me is that I don’t feel much differentiation of character within the language. One line could be said by one character as much as any other. Still even here you get what I think is one of the hallmarks of Marlowe as a playwright: the epic monologue. He’s so good at them. We’ll encounter some amazing speeches as we re-read Marlowe’s plays, and in Dido we get Aeneas’s recounting of the fall of Troy. This moment seems to have made such an impression that perhaps Shakespeare paid honor to it in Hamlet with the Player King’s speech about Priam and Hecuba.

My favorite thing about this play is that Dido is not just a scorned lover holding back a man from his destiny, but a woman who has been magicked out of her individuality. I love that you can see in the text how Cupid’s influence spreads, and there are plenty of moments to explore Dido trying to fight it. Besides her love for Aeneas being forced upon her, it is also possible to consider her a woman entirely uninterested in marriage, who is attempting to maintain her independence in a world full of suitors who all expect her to marry somebody.

The ending can feel abrupt, but I see the potential to make use of that in the theatre. I expected an additional scene, where Aeneas finds out about Dido’s death, perhaps, or where the gods comment on what has passed—almost as a framing narrative since they started the whole thing. But Aeneas doesn’t get the final word; it’s not his play. And the gods don’t comment, because they are gone, with Aeneas. Dido has been abandoned by the creatures who put her in this situation in the first place, and that seems very playable to me.

This play has actually been on my short list to produce for several years and I enjoyed getting to revisit it!

Next up: Tamburlaine Part ONE!