Dido, Queen of Carthage (Act V, Scene 1)
A Monologue from a 16th Century Drama
by Christopher Marlowe
Entrant: Sayyida Laila al-Sanna' al-Andalusiyya
King & Queen's Bardic Championship; Barony of Dragonship Haven; 23 February 2019
Dido, Queen of Carthage was first performed by the Children of Her Majesty's Chapel, a company of boys, sometime around 1586. The company performed the play throughout the late 1580s and early 1590s, and the precise date of the first performance is unknown. In 1597, it was performed by the Lord Chamberlain's players, in what was probably its first performance with an adult cast. The script was first published in 1594 by the bookseller Thomas Woodcock.
Dido, Queen of Carthage was written by Christopher Marlowe, in collaboration with Thomas Nashe. There is some debate as to what level of involvement Nashe had in the writing, but he is credited in the original publication. It is based on Books I, II, and IV of The Aeneid, by Virgil.
Dido, Queen of Carthage re-tells the episode in the Aeneid in which Aeneas washes up on the shores of Carthage and is aided by its powerful Queen. Though it hews closely to the original, Marlowe's play takes a more favorable view of Dido than did Virgil. (Neither bears much resemblance to the historical Dido.) In Marlowe's play, Dido is ensnared by Venus' spell, and subsequently falls hopelessly, foolishly in love with Aeneas, which causes her to act out of character -- desperate, lovesick, and weak.
When this monologue begins, Aeneas has boarded a ship and is about to depart Carthage under veil of night. His action breaks countless promises made to Dido, while taking terrible advantage of her generosity. (Dido has outfitted Aeneas' crew with ships and supplies, on the promise that Aeneas will remain behind.) Dido initially seeks a way to stop Aeneas, but when she realizes that her cause is lost, she is overcome by the magnitude of Aeneas' betrayal. She curses him, throwing herself into a sacrificial fire as an act of ultimate revenge.
Authentic Period Performance Practice
While modern actors frequently apply an RP (Received Pronunciation) accent (the standard upper-class London accent) when performing Shakespeare and Marlowe, this does not accurately reflect the way the language was spoken in the 16th century. In fact, the 16th century British accent resembled the modern Standard American English accent. It had richer, more musical vowels, and very percussive consonants. It is also important to note that pronunciation was not standardized, and Shakespeare's texts frequently use multiple pronunciations of the same word at different places in the text.
There are some aspects of 16th century English pronunciation that have to be dispensed with in modern performance in order to avoid affectation. For example, Marlowe's actors would have pronounced the "k" in the word "known." This would unnecessarily disrupt a modern audience's ability to follow the text, so even the most authentic performances will generally modify pronunciation to be comprehensible.
Blank Verse and the Integrity of the Line
One of the most distinctive aspects of 16th century English drama is the use of blank verse, also known as unrhymed iambic pentameter. Marlowe is still frequently cited as the greatest master of blank verse, including by Shakespeare himself. (Shakespeare's work fought against the structure a great deal more than Marlowe's.) In performing blank verse, it is important to understand that 16th century actors were steeped in this rhythm. It was second nature to them, and they knew its flow. Modern actors tend to fight against the form, but doing so violates a sense of authenticity.
In modern acting, form generally follows feeling. Blank verse, and, in fact, all 16th century English theatre, demands the opposite approach. Form comes first, and the feeling follows. The underlying rhythm of the verse guides the actor, and the line ends must be observed with some sort of breath, at a minimum. A trained actor must follow clues in the text, such as slowing down when a line is monosyllabic, or eliding certain words in order to retain the sense of scansion (i.e. the flow of the iambic pentameter line).
Emotion and Restraint
While we cannot know for certain what constituted a great Elizabethan actor, we do have one excellent resource to turn to: Hamlet's speech to the players, which is widely believed to have expressed Shakespeare's own preferences. The overarching theme of the speech is the importance of balance in acting: Don't be too wild or too tame. Don't be too fast or too slow. And above all, don't overdo it. It seems that Shakespeare was not fond of over-acting, but preferred a high level of naturalism on the stage.
I have chosen a selection from Dido, Queen of Carthage, Act V, Scene 1, that takes the actor and the audience on an emotional journey. My goal, in performing this piece, is to honor the intent of the author by performing it in a style that reflects period practice as closely as is practical, while prioritizing the emotional integrity of the performance above all else.
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O Anna my Aeneas is aboard
And leaving me will sail to Italy.
Once didst thou go and he came back again.
Now bring him back and thou shalt be a queen
And I will live a private life with him.
Call him not wicked, sister. Speak him fair
And look upon him with a mermaid’s eye.
Tell him I never vowed at Aulis’ gulf
The desolation of his native Troy,
Nor sent a thousand ships unto the walls,
Nor ever violated faith to him.
Request him gently, Anna, to return.
I crave but this: He stay a tide or two
That I may learn to bear it patiently.
If he depart thus suddenly I die.
O Anna, Anna I will follow him.
I’ll frame me wings of wax like Icarus
And o’er his ships will soar unto the sun
That they may melt and I fall in his arms.
Or else I’ll make a prayer unto the waves
That I may swim to him like Triton’s niece.
O Anna fetch Arion’s harp
That I may tice a dolphin to the shore
And ride upon his back unto my love.
Must I make ships for him to sail away?
Nothing can bear me to him but a ship
And he hath all my fleet. What shall I do
But die in fury of this oversight?
Ay, I must be the murderer of myself.
No but I am not; yet I will be straight.
Lay to thy hands and help me make a fire
That shall consume all that this stranger left,
For I intend a private sacrifice
To cure my mind that melts for unkind love.
So! Leave me now. Let none approach this place.
Now, Dido, with these relics burn thyself
And make Aeneas famous through the world
For perjury and slaughter of a queen.
Here lie the sword that in the darksome cave
He drew and swore by to be true to me.
Thou shalt burn first; thy crime is worse than his.
Here lie the garment which I clothed him in
When first he came on shore. Perish thou too.
These letters, lines, and perjured papers all
Shall burn to cinders in this precious flame.
And now ye gods that guide the starry frame
And order all things at your high dispose,
Grant, though the traitors land in Italy
They may be still tormented with unrest.
And from mine ashes let a conqueror rise
That may revenge this treason to a queen
By plowing up his countries with the sword.
Betwixt this land and that be never league.
Litora litoribus contraria, fluctibus undas
Imprecor, arma armis; pugnent ipsique nepotes.
Live, false Aeneas! Truest Dido dies!
Sic, sic juvat ire sub umbras.