Who was Dido ? – “Dido and Aeneas” by Purcell – Chapter 1

In less than a month, come and enjoy our concert version with gestures of “Dido and Aeneas” by Purcell.

Come and join us on our Facebook events:
At the Dôme de Pontoise, April 6th
At the Temple du Foyer de l’Ame in Paris, April 12th 

To make you wait a little, here is an article written by our Artistic Director Graham O’Reilly on the origines of Dido.

Who was Dido?

In the classical period, the Mediterranean seems to have been overrun with wronged women.  Arianna was deserted by Theseus and Medea by Jason, while Phaedra, sister of Arianna and wife of Theseus, was ruined by her attraction to his son Hippolytus. Many stories grew up around the Trojan wars : Circe, Iphigenia, Electra, Cassandra and of course Helen all suffered as a result of it. Most of them are descended in some way from the gods, and many have magical powers, apart from their obvious ones of being female. The Romans added stories of their own wronged women (Lucretia raped by Tarquinius) and so, later, did Christian storytellers, notably Armida’s desertion by Rinaldo and the sacrifice by Jephte of his daughter to ensure success in battle, an updating of Iphigenia’s sacrifice by Agamemnon before sailing to Troy.

Dido, seduced and abandoned by an escapee from Troy, fits easily into this sisterhood, to the extent that confusion is both possible and widespread. As usual, the gods are implicated, both by family relations (Aeneas is said to be the son of the goddess of love Venus) and as instigators of the action. The “facts”, if they may be called such, are set out in Virgil’s Aeneid, written at the order of the first Roman Emperor Augustus in around 30 BC. In Book I Virgil recounts Dido’s origins. Her real name is Elissa and she is a Phoenician, sister of the King of Tyre, Pygmalion, who murdered her husband Sychaeus for his alleged treasure. Elissa escapes and after many wanderings arrives in present-day Tunis, where she founds Carthage. It is the locals who give her the name of Dido, which may have meant “the Wanderer” in their native tongue.

Aeneas is another wanderer, and when a storm (provoked by Dido’s protector Juno, wife of head god Jupiter) brings him to the shores of Carthage, Dido receives him and his men with generosity. She listens with rapt attention to his account of the sack of Troy, which occupies Books II and III of the Aeneid, and by Book IV, she has fallen for him and allows herself to be seduced. Jupiter hears of this, and sends Mercury, his usual envoy, to remind Aeneas of his real function in life – “bound by Fate” to found a new Troy in Rome. Aeneas leaves and Dido, full of guilt for having broken her vow of chastity to her former husband, and full of anger for having been made a fool of, kills herself.

Historically, the whole tale is impossible, as the dates of the fall of Troy and the founding of Carthage do not coincide. They may be out by anything between 60 and 600 years, depending on which authority you choose to trust. What then was Virgil’s – and Augustus’s – point? The two key words are, firstly, Carthage, and secondly, Cleopatra.

-          Rome had defeated and entirely destroyed Carthage, her traditional enemy, in 146 BC, and at the time of the Aeneid (30 – 20 BC) was busy refounding it as a colony. Augustus was willing to burnish its reputation a little, to overcome the curse associated with it and encourage settlement.

-          Cleopatra had seduced another Roman hero, Marc Antony, and caused him to become an enemy of Rome. Augustus had finally defeated him at Actium in 31 BC and he commanded the Aeneid immediately. Dido’s tale is thus a warning against North African temptresses who might distract Roman heroes from their duty. Aeneas had resisted, Marc Antony had not.

One wonders whether Augustus was entirely happy with the result, which turned Dido into a heroine and Aeneas something of a coward. Book IV remained popular throughout the succeeding centuries even when the rest of it languished in semi-oblivion. By Purcell’s time, in late 17th century London, every normally educated male in the audience would have known it from their schooldays, and even the female part of the audience, carefully denied a classical education, could have availed themselves of five translations of Book IV made within the last 50 years, with Dryden’s to come before the end of the century.

What they made of it, and what Purcell and his librettist Nahum Tate may have thought, will be the subject of my epistle next week.


Read Chapter 2 : Dido in England

All the articles