Dido in England – “Dido and Aeneas” by Purcell – Chapter 2

In my last piece, I went rapidly through who Dido was, if she existed, and what may or may not have happened in Carthage when Aeneas turned up, if he did. But in the context of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, that hardly matters. What does matter is who Purcell’s audience thought she was. As I mentioned last time, every educated male likely to be in the audience for the performance in 1689 at a girls’ school in Chelsea run by Josiah Priest and his wife, or any other performance at around that time, would have known the story. They had struggled with Virgil’s Aeneid through long hours of Latin at school, and even if their Latin continued to struggle, they could fall back on published translations by Robert Stapylton (1634), Sir Richard Fanshawe (1648), Sydney Godolphin and Edmund Waller (1658), Sir Robert Howard (1660) and Sir John Denham (1668). Still to come was John Dryden’s masterpiece, published in 1697 but no doubt already circulating among the classical cognoscenti, among whom was Nahum Tate, author of the libretto Purcell set.

Virgil, however, was not the only source for Dido’s story in 16th and 17th century England. Both Petrarch and Boccaccio, as well as many writers of the early Church, had concentrated on other aspects of her story, which tended to show her chaste and virtuous. Aeneas does not figure in their versions. Instead Dido is importuned by King Iarbas, from whom she bought the land for Carthage in a dodgy real-estate deal, and who looks on the expanding city with anxiety and envy. Dido commits suicide rather than yield to him, in memory of the vow of chastity made to her murdered husband Sychaeus. She follows the model of virtuous Lucretia rather than sinful Phaedra.

In the last 40 years of 16th century England, Dido was often compared to Queen Elizabeth I. The first thing she shared was their name, Eliza, a modification of Elissa. Then there was the fact that she was a female ruler, a novel concept for the time. In regard to a possible marriage, the nobles of Elizabethan England were torn by fears that the Queen would never marry, and thus leave no heir, and fears that she would – to a subject? a (gasp) Catholic foreigner? Was she Petrarchan Dido, who resisted temptation for the good of the state, or Virgilian Dido, who gave in to her desires, and thus weakened it? Both solutions were in some way unsatisfactory, implicit if the monarch was female. The situation was further complicated by Elizabeth’s supposed family connection with Aeneas, based on the legend that Britain had been founded by Aeneas’s grandson Brutus (of which more below).

In any case, in both art and literature referring to Elizabeth, there are explicit references to Dido, sometimes as a model, sometimes as a warning. Proof that Dido could be all things to all men is provided by the play Dido, Queen of Carthage, by Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe, which probably dates from around 1590. In this version, Dido is a tease and Aeneas is a pliant boy who embarrassedly follows the ardent Dido’s erotic lead, and then sheepishly abandons her when so ordered by Mercury. When we realise that this play was given at Court before the Queen, and moreover performed entirely by boys, we start to realise the layers of meaning to which such a text could be subject.

By Purcell’s day, classical texts were not always taken seriously. Parallel to the study of all the versions listed above were the “travesties”, in which the stories, while closely followed, were vulgarised into doggerel verse, with much ribald “schoolboy” – quasi-pornographic – humour. They were hugely popular, and one of the most often reprinted was Charles Cotton’s take on Dido’s story, first published in 1665, then reprinted in 1667, 1670, 1672, 1678, 1682 …. (He called them his Scarronides, after Paul Scarron’s roguishly winking Virgile travesti from around 1650). Cotton does not mince his words: Virgil is a liar, for the events could never have happened, Aeneas a faithless coward and Dido guiltless. Cotton also introduces witchcraft into the story as Dido, like Armida, seeks to find spells to prevent Aeneas’s departure.

Which brings us to Purcell’s librettist for Dido and Aeneas, Nahum Tate.  The text set by Purcell was not Tate’s first version, as in 1678 he published a play called Brutus of Alba; or, The Enchanted Lovers. In it the story of Dido and Aeneas is transferred to Syracuse, with Dido as its Queen and Aeneas transmogrified into his grandson Brutus, whose mission is to found the Kingdom of Britain – a piece of English historical invention dating from around the 12th century. The play is notable for the extensive role given to the witches, following the fashion of the times. And Tate makes a considerable effort to share the blame for the ultimate tragedy between the two protagonists. The English Restoration period loved nothing better than a debate between Love and Honour.

Of which, more in my next.


Read Chapter 3 : Heros, Heroines and Witches

Read Chapter 1 : Who was Dido ?

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