Dido Queen of Carthage, Christopher Marlowe’s earliest play, revolves around the romance of Æneas and Dido as related in the first four books of Virgil’s Aeneid. Although in many respects Marlowe adheres very closely to his source material, the play features a number of deviations from Virgil, most notably a conspicuously homoerotic introduction and a borderline farcical conclusion, neither of which has any obvious bearing on the narrative. While critics have often been eager to dismiss either or both of these elements, such dismissals seem to be implicitly predicated on the premise that Marlowe’s project is little more than an essentially faithful dramatic rendering of the most memorable episode of the Aeneid–a problematic assumption that can by no means be taken for granted. Against this tradition, I want to propose a reading that views these deviations as crucial to–and contextualizing of–a distinct narrative project at work in the play. Specifically, I will argue that the central tension in Dido, Æneas’s vacillation between his men and their destiny in Italy on the one hand, and Carthage and his marriage to Dido on the other, can be understood as a tension between the demands of the feminized heteronormative order in which he finds himself and the utopian allure of a masculine homosexual alternative.1
Evidence of such a project abounds in Marlowe’s text. It includes the compromised characterization of Æneas, whose heroic stoicism is substituted for an exaggerated indecisiveness by Marlowe’s invention of an aborted attempt to flee Carthage, and whose failure to save his wife is compounded by the further failures to avert the rape of Cassandra and the sacrifice of Polyxena.2 It also is evident in Marlowe’s abridgement of the Virgilian narrative, which invokes Æneas’s Italian destiny as a catalytic plot device while simultaneously undermining its relevance by consigning it to the margins of the play. Thus neither Æneas’s teleological military triumph, nor the heteronormative marriage from which the legendary founders of Rome will spring, finds representation in Dido; rather, Virgil’s epic is reduced to a melodrama of indecision in which the immediate choice is not between love or empire so much as masculine or feminine society, the adventure of martial existence versus the tedium of a sedentary life. In this respect Dido conforms to a type, identified by Mario DiGangi in a number of late-sixteenth-century texts, most notably the plays of Fletcher and Lyly, wherein “a male character forgoes women, redirecting his social and erotic energies back into orderly–and potentially homoerotic–military relations.”3 The homoeroticism of the play’s introduction, by this interpretation, serves not only to foreshadow, but eroticize, such tensions, establishing the competing spaces in which they play out; the culminating suicides of a chain of jilted heterosexual lovers, meanwhile, confirms the fanciful triumph of the “orderly–and potentially homoerotic” masculinity of Æneas and his men, who are thereby freed to pursue their utopian homoerotic destiny.
Marlowe’s reimagining of the Aeneid begins, unexpectedly, with “JUPITER dandling GANYMEDE upon his knee, and MERCURY lying asleep,” as the hedonistic Jupiter implores, “Come, gentle Ganymede, and play with me” (1.1.1).4 But instead Ganymede chastises Jupiter for failing to protect him from the jealous Juno’s “shrewish blows” (1.1.4). Jupiter is incensed at the treatment his boy lover has received at the hands of his wife, and threatens, should it happen again, “To hang, her meteor like, ‘twixt heaven and earth, / And bind her, hand and foot, with golden cords” (1.1.13-14). He then proceeds to bestow gifts on Ganymede, first feathers plucked directly from the slumbering Mercury, and then Juno’s own wedding jewels. The lovers’ reverie is interrupted, though, when Venus bursts onto the scene, castigating Jupiter for “playing with that female wanton boy, / Whiles my Æneas wanders on the seas, / And rests a prey to every billow’s pride” (1.1.51-53).
Critics have tended to take either of two approaches to this scene. The first has been befuddlement and consequent rejection, treating it, in the words of Jonathan Goldberg, “as an embarrassment, a joke, or a symptom of [Marlowe’s] ‘pathological’ condition.”5 The alternative has been to interpret the scene precisely as its context demands, as a framing device according to which...