I got an email from a friend a couple of days ago going “Hey, wanna do something social? Haven’t seen you for a while, and I’d like to.” After kicking around a couple of ideas, she mentioned that she’d been interested in going to see Christopher Marlowe’s Dido: Queen of Carthage by the Theatre Pro Rata, and was I interested?
I was, but after saying that, had a moment of “Boy, is it possible to major in Medieval/Renaissance Studies in college and have gaps in your knowledge” – I’ve never actually taken a class that taught Marlowe’s work, and I’ve only read his Faustus (and that a very long time ago.) And Elizabethan drama was not something my father, the theatre professor, gravitated to (he was much more likely to aim at Molière, a longtime fascination of his, or various other French playwrights, if he was not focusing on his primary interest, ancient Greek (and by extension, classical era) plays.
[In contrast, I’ve read all of Shakespeare at one point or another, and seen most of it in performance in some form, often multiple productions. And I’m familiar with Dido’s story both from the Aeneid, and from both listening to and performing in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which premiered in 1688.]
All of this combined, it seems a good time to do a refresher in Marlowe, and on this play in particular. And at the same time, I want to balance that with experiencing the play as a play, rather than a written work. Because it’s actually sort of rare that I go to see things without knowing a fair bit about them in advance.
So, my decision is to do some reading and learning about Marlowe and general background before I go, but not to actually read the play. (Though I may see about rereading the relevant section of the Aeneid again.) However, because we’re going Saturday, I don’t have time to get books from the library in time, so my focus is of necessity online materials.
And, because I figured it might amuse, I thought I’d share how I go about that.
Production information and starting points:
- Theatre company webpage
- Production study guide in PDF format which includes an overview of Marlowe’s life, when the play was probably written, a summary of the setting, and some thematic notes, along with other resources.
- An audio interview about the production and design from the Twin Cities Theatre Connection.
People mostly agree that Marlowe wrote Dido relatively early in his career – some people think it was the first play he wrote, some people think it was the second. The most common date given for it is 1584 (based on dates for the troupe that’s recorded as playing it in the first publication), when Marlowe was still at Cambridge.
Marlowe was born in 1564, as the son of a shoemaker in Canterbury. His parents had 9 children (6 of whom survived into adulthood: Marlowe was the second child, but his older sister Mary died when he was four.) His intellectual gifts were recognised quite early, and he eventually gained a scholarship to the King’s School (the choir school associated with the cathedral) which focused on a heavily classical education.
He then went to Cambridge, finishing his BA in 1584 (and his MA in 1587), again, focusing on the classic Latin authors – he wrote at least one play (now lost) before Dido. Marlowe went on to have an even more exciting life as an agent of the Queen (plus the circumstances around his death), but I’m skipping those right now as not relevant as background for this play.
- The Marlowe Society’s notes about his birth and education
The story of Dido, Queen of Carthage comes out of the core of the Aeneid, when Aeneas leaves Troy, and has not yet reached Italy. Carthage was a small country to a small empire in Northern Africa (what is now Tunisia). Dido is also known as Elissa (perhaps a variant on the Phoenician Elishat – Dido as a name may be related to the Phoenician word for wanderer.)
At any rate, the basic story is that Dido and her brother Pygmalion were children of the king of Tyre. After the king dies, Dido and Pygmalion were supposed to become joint heirs to Tyre. By this point, Dido had married (Virgil names her husband as Sychaeus), a man who was wealthy and powerful. Pygmalion attacks and murders Sychaeus to gain his wealth, Sychaeus appears to his wife in a dream, and tells her both where his wealth is hidden, and to flee Tyre. She does, and ends up founding a new city-state, Carthage.
Virgil’s take on the rest of the story is that as the Gods are shooing Aeneas off away from Troy, so he can eventually go found Rome. He lands in Carthage, and he and Dido fall in love, aided by the interference of Juno and Venus. Another king (Iarbas) is jealous (Dido having previously turned him down), and he prays to Jupiter to make Aeneas go away. Gods being Gods, this is what happens (and Aeneas does not handle it well), leaving Dido alone. She cannot bear to live, and kills herself (in Virgil, she builds a massive funeral pyre, stabs herself with a sword Aeneas left, and swears eternal enmity between Carthage and the descendents of Troy (foreshadowing the Punic Wars.)
Marlowe’s work is based heavily on Virgil, but he adds a number of elements – a subplot of Anna (Dido’s sister) and Iarbas, and Aeneas’ first attempt to leave Carthage.
In some versions of the story, part of the reason for Dido’s suicide is that Iarbas has enmity toward her in specific (because she wouldn’t marry him, but would love Aeneas), and so removing herself from the stage (so to speak) will be better for her country.
The Marlowe Society has lots of nice background. The actual date of the play is unclear: people are currently seeming to settle on 1585-86ish, but it might be 1584, or it might be later. Some people think it must have been written after the less proficient (in terms of stagecraft) but better known Tamburlaine, which was probably written in 1587.
- Plot summary
- Dramatis Personae
- Themes (notably the pettiness of the Gods, unrequited love, Marlowe’s challenging of convention about how relationships are negotiated, and the contrast of the romantic plot against a moralistic plot where you see very different takes on the characters.)
That last bit has a lot in it that’s reminiscent to me of Euripides, who does the same thing. (More specifically, who has an interesting trick of spending half the play making you think sympathetically of a character, and then turning that on its head.)
One other interesting note is that on the 1594 quarto, one Thomas Nashe is given credit along with Marlow for writing Dido. Again, the Marlowe Society has lots of details.
Okay. Now I think I’m ready to go take in the play, without feeling like I know exactly what’s going to happen.