Heroes, Heroines and Witches – “Dido and Aeneas” by Purcell – Chapter 3

Nahum Tate’s libretto for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas starts bang in the middle of the story, at the moment Dido confronts her own debate between Honour and Love. Should she give in to new love, and betray her murdered husband’s memory, or resist and, effectively, die emotionally? And what will be the consequences for the country of which she is Queen in either case? Her first exchange with her “companion” Belinda turns on the fact that she cannot avow to anyone the attraction she feels for this resplendent hero who has turned up, uninvited, in her kingdom. But of course everyone knows her secret already. In fact, in my take on the story, Aeneas has been working behind the scenes to encourage Belinda and the rest of the court to persuade Dido that she can put herself into a win-win situation: she can have the lover she craves, and the kingdom a warrior who will defend it. Once Belinda openly declares “the Trojan guest into your tender thoughts has prest” Dido does not bother to deny it, and instead waxes lyrical about him. It is clearly only a matter of time before they will be an “item”.

Aeneas, however, has his own agenda. His debate between Love and Honour has already been resolved, at least in his own head. A time of delicious dalliance with the most beautiful widow of North Africa, yes; a long term arrangement, no. He has other work to do, and this is just another adventure along the way. The Aeneid still has six books to run.

This is where the witches come in. We have seen in my previous episode that in England at least they play an increasingly large part in the story through the 17th century. This can partly be explained by the need to have a new kind of Deus ex machina to replace the Roman gods, who featured so much in Virgil. But it must also be related to their extreme popularity on the 17th century English stage, especially after the Restoration of Charles II (1660). Shakespeare may have started it, as he did so many other things. The part of the witches in his Macbeth became more important with every revival, no doubt encouraged by the obsession of King James I with them. After the Restoration, Macbeth was revived in 1663, and again in 1673, each time with extra music for the witches. According to Samuel Pepys, Macbeth was “one of the best plays for a stage, and variety of dancing and musique, that ever I saw”. And in Shadwell’s The Lancashire Witches (1681) they take over the whole story, with an overtly political agenda.

In the England of Charles II religious quarrels still made political headlines: Anglicans v Puritans (as in the recent Civil War), and Anglicans and Puritans v Catholics, ever since Henry VIII. In 1680, the country was Anglican, but tenuously so: Charles II had recently converted to Catholicism in secret, and his brother James II, who would succeed him, was married to an Italian princess and openly Catholic. On the English stage, witches tended to be identified with Catholics, in the sense that they were seen both as followers of the devil and as false gods. It is thus extraordinary that Purcell’s Aeneas takes his instructions – to leave Carthage – from one. Does he really believe he is hearing Mercury transmitting a message from the gods? Or does he know he is being duped, and chooses to obey because it suits him?

In our take on the story, it is Aeneas himself who has set up the dénouement. While cultivating Dido by day, he has been amusing himself with the local coven (in truth a few local lads and girls letting off steam after a hard day’s work) by night, pretending to be their new Head Wizard. And when the time comes – when he has finally seduced the Queen – he gets one of them to pretend to order him to leave.

There have been productions in the past when Dido and the “Sorceress” were interpreted by the same artist, on the grounds that the witches express Dido’s “dark side”. This is the first time to my knowledge that the same artist sings both Aeneas and the “Sorceress”. It is not meant to be a definitive reading, but may help to shed light on Aeneas’s motivation, as understood in 17th century England. It should also be noted that in every other play with witch scenes, their chief was always a man, and that when Dido and Aeneas was revived on the stage in 1700, the “sorceress” was sung by a baritone.

What all this may mean for why and when Purcell composed Dido will be revealed in my final instalment next week.



Read Chapter 2 : Dido in England

Read Chapter 4: The when and why of Dido and Aeneas

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