“Female Drudgery” and the Homosexual Utopia: Dichotomies of Gender, Space, and Sexuality in Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage

Friday, February 20, 2015


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 the action of the play may be interpreted. Goldberg in particular identifies in the scene evidence of misogyny that I find especially productive:

           It begins in a misogyny that structures the relationship between
           Jupiter and Ganymede as an opposition to Juno–an opposition to
           women, but, more particularly, to his wife, to marriage and the
           goddess who represents that social institution. It slides into a
           misogyny based on the appropriation of the relationship between
           Jupiter and his wife. (130)

The misogyny that Goldberg identifies in the scene is, I want to argue, a function of a reflexive orientation toward homosociality and away from society with women¬–a reflexivity inherent in patriarchal society against any assertion of feminine agency that might erode the foundations of masculine dominance. Useful in this context is Laurie Shannon’s observation that Renaissance texts have frequently understood “gender as a concentrate that is diluted and changed by mixing,” particularly highlighting “the now-established critical viewpoint that effeminacy marks men who become womanly by too strong an interest in women.”6 Thus, in John Lyly’s Campaspe, Hephestion lectures the love-stricken Alexander that “thou hast a camp to govern, not a chamber; fall not from the armour of Mars to the arms of Venus, from the fiery assaults of war, to the maidenly skirmishes of love.” Hephestion’s warning is echoed in Dido in Achates’ advice to Æneas:

           Banish that ticing dame from forth your mouth,
           And follow your fore-seeing stars in all:
           This is no life for men-at-arms to live,
           Where dalliance doth consume a soldier's strength,
           And wanton motions of alluring eyes
           Effeminate our minds, inur'd to war.

Less a faithful rendition of Virgil’s epic, then, Dido is rather situated in a tradition of literary works that, in DiGangi’s words, “contrast disorderly male lovers to masculine soldiers who either feel no heteroerotic desire or who finally renounce it for the sake of stable male bonds” (140). Indeed, this resistance to the society of women¬–the tension between masculine and feminine, homo- and heterosexual orders–replaces the Virgilian choice between love and duty as the source of Æneas’s tortured decision and the governing force of the play. As such, Jupiter’s domain, in which homoerotic dalliance triumphs over heterosexual bonds, (p)refigures Italy as a masculine homosexual utopia defined in opposition to the feminine space of Carthage, ruled by Dido and beloved of Juno.

In light of the above discussion, the intervention of Venus calls for particular attention. The assertive nature of her intrusion into the homoerotic sanctuary of Jupiter and Ganymede, and particularly her demand that Æneas be rescued so that he might fulfill his destiny in Italy, appear on first glance to subvert the system of binaries that I have argued is in force in this scene. It is crucial, however, to emphasize the outcome of her intervention. First having reassured Venus that Æneas’s destiny will be fulfilled, Jupiter accedes to her request and dispatches Mercury to quell the storms that threaten the Trojan ships. Then, however, he nonchalantly dismisses Venus and returns his attention to his lover Ganymede in a gesture that effectively appropriates Æneas’s Italian destiny as the sporting project of the pederastic lovers: “Venus, farewell; thy son shall be our care. / Come, Ganymede, we must about this gear” (1.1.120-121). 

Venus, however, persists in her efforts to exert her own control over Æneas’s destiny. To ensure Dido’s good will, she causes the Queen to fall in love with Æneas. Later, she puts aside a longstanding rivalry and forges an alliance with Juno, agreeing to a scheme in which Æneas will marry Dido and fulfill his destiny in Carthage rather than Italy. Such an outcome would not only thoroughly incorporate Æneas into the symbolic and geographical domains of heterosexuality; it would also constitute the defeat of Jupiter and Ganymede’s adopted project at the hands of Juno, thus constituting a thorough triumph for the feminine and heterosexual forces in the play.

These machinations are doubly significant insofar as they place the ambivalent Æneas in direct opposition to Iarbas, geographically and psychologically rooted in the play’s spaces of heterosexuality. As William Godshalk has noted, in Marlowe’s rendition “Iarbas becomes, as the jealous lover of Dido, an important foil to Æneas,"7 and the decisiveness with which he pursues the hand of the Queen, even as he fends off unwanted advances from her sister Anna, stands in stark contrast to the noncommittal dithering of the Trojan hero. Thus at the beginning of act 3 we encounter an assertive, even arrogant Iarbas pleading for the hand (and indeed the body) of Dido:

           How long, fair Dido, shall I pine for thee?
           ’Tis not enough that thou dost grant me love,
           But that I may enjoy what I desire:
           That love is childish which consists in words. (3.1.7-10)

By contrast, Æneas’s interactions with Dido are always more reserved, less self-assured, and apparently calculated to deflect rather than excite romantic and erotic interest. As Deats has argued, Æneas’s ambivalence can be understood as a wariness of the threat society with women poses to his masculinity: “Sharing the cultural anxiety of the time concerning the precariousness of a masculine identity always in danger of receding into the feminine matrix, Æneas struggles to maintain his manly shape in the face of what he perceives as Dido's potent effeminizing power” (123).

That anxiety is most evident when the plot of Juno and Venus is on the verge of coming to fruition. A large party has embarked on a hunting trip, and though Dido would prefer to have the time alone with Æneas, to whom she has already expressed her love but without reciprocation, Iarbas insists on staying close at hand until Dido rebukes him. In response, Iarbas, in what must be construed as an aside, seems at once to threaten Æneas and call out his homosexuality:

           Women may wrong by privilege of love;
           But, should that man of men, Dido except,
           Have taunted me in these opprobrious terms,
           I would have either drunk his dying blood
           Or else I would have given my life in gage.

Of course, in calling Æneas “that man of men,” Iarbas may simply be referencing his heroic reputation, constantly alluded to in Dido but never much on display; however, the designation also operates as a pun on the decidedly masculine company Æneas keeps, and his persistent refusal to be drawn into a romance with a woman whom Iarbas deems eminently desirable.
When, per Juno’s plan, a downpour interrupts their hunting trip, Dido and Æneas seek refuge in a cave, where they find themselves alone for the first time in the play. Recognizing the opportunity, Dido begins to slyly allude to her desire for Æneas:

           Dido. Tell me, dear love, how found you out this cave?
           Æneas. By chance, sweet queen, as Mars and Venus met.
           Dido. Why, that was in a net, where we are loose;
           And yet I am not free, – O, would I were!
           Æneas. Why, what is it that Dido may desire
           And not obtain, be it in human power?
           Dido. The thing that I will die before I ask,
           And yet desire to have before I die.
           Æneas. It is not aught Æneas may achieve?
           Dido. Æneas, no, although his eyes do pierce. ‘

The cornered Æneas can do nothing more than feign ignorance in the face of Dido’s advances, which take an increasingly erotic tone as the conversation progresses. As Donald Stump observes, it is possible to identify a system of euphemisms at work in Dido’s speech that betray the carnality of her desire for Æneas. “The ‘thing’ she wants, the sort of ‘looseness,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘having,’ ‘piercing,’ and ‘dying’ that she has in mind¬–are clearly beyond him.”8 Stump’s analysis suggests, in particular, a subversive wordplay in the last line that calls for closer examination. That is, Æneas may, as Dido seems to be implying, be able to see through her veiled language in this exchange. However, to additionally read the line as a pun on the word “pierce” alters its meaning entirely: the homoerotically inclined Æneas is not able to satisfy Dido’s desire (being “pierced” by his penis), “although his eyes do pierce.” Dido’s wordplay suggests an awareness, even at this early stage in their affair, that Æneas has his sights, both erotic and otherwise, set elsewhere.

Marlowe leaves it to the audience to decide whether the two actually do go on to consummate the relationship, though Iarbas, who bemoans “these adulterers surfeited with sin” (4.1.20), certainly is convinced that they do. What we do see is that Æneas, finally persuaded, promises Dido “Never to leave these new-upreared walls, / Whiles Dido lives and rules in Juno’s town” (3.4.48-49). In spite of his promises, however, Æneas soon decides to leave Carthage, awakening his men at night and ordering them to ready the ships. Even so, Æneas’s resolve is not absolute, and he struggles to resist the siren’s call of Dido, Carthage, and the heterosexual order they represent. His men already aboard the ship, Æneas lingers a little longer and contemplates what he is leaving behind, seeming to be on the verge of changing his mind before summoning the courage to depart:

            I fain would go, yet beauty calls me back:
           To leaver her so, and not once say farewell,
           Were to transgress against all laws of love.
           But, if I use such ceremonious thanks
           As parting friends accustom on the shore,
           Her silver arms will coll me round about,
           And tears of pearl cry, ‘Stay, Æneas, stay!’
           Each word she says will then contain a crown,
           And every speech be ended with a kiss:
           I may not dure this female drudgery.
           To sea, Æneas! find out Italy!

Thus Italy beckons, a space of masculine company in opposition to the unendurable “female drudgery” of Carthage.

The Trojan escape is thwarted, however, when Dido catches sight of the ships and sends Anna to retrieve Æneas, who, just as he fears, changes his mind when confronted with the grief of the queen. Grateful to not be losing her lover after all, Dido showers him with royal gifts, urging him to rule in her place. Even as he kisses the Queen and revels in her flattery, though, Æneas finds himself pulled between the opposing urges of Dido in Carthage and his men aboard their ships:

           How vain I am to wear this diadem,
           And bear this golden sceptre in my hand!
           A burgonet of steel, and not a crown,
           A sword, and not a scepter, fits Æneas.

Once again the tension between Æneas’s geographical options is represented in conspicuously gendered terms, the feminine diadem and scepter of a queen versus the masculine helmet and sword of a warrior. His stated preference notwithstanding, though, Æneas opts to stay. Indeed, it is not until Hermes, sent at Jupiter’s behest, demands that he depart for Italy and informs him that Dido’s love had been orchestrated, that he is finally resolved to leave. Once again Dido catches him out, but in a lengthy appeal, she is unable to persuade her lover to stay, and is left watching helplessly as Æneas departs with his men for Italy. In Virgil, Anna assists Dido in building the pyre on which she will kill herself, believing her sister intends only to burn her remaining relics of Æneas. Marlowe, however, has Iarbas perform that function before leaving her alone, imagining that the queen will be his once the task is done. But when Anna enters just after Dido has thrown herself on the pyre, she calls to Iarbas, who, grieving the loss of his beloved, likewise kills himself; he, in turn, is followed by Anna. One by one, then, the jilted lovers throw themselves to death on a funeral pyre as Æneas and his men, at last escaped from the realms of “female drudgery,” sail on to their destiny.

It is arguably the most neglected scene in the entire play, and yet, the triple suicide on the pyre achieves the closure of a number of plot lines that only warrant disregard if one accepts Marlow’s project as thematically coincident and coterminous with Virgil’s. Certainly masculinity triumphs over femininity, insofar as it is Æneas, and not Dido, whose desires prevail. More than that, though, the triple suicide signifies a triumph of homosexuality over heterosexuality and the institution of marriage, for not only do Jupiter and Ganymede have their way at Juno’s expense, but the three heterosexual lovers of the play, their respective dreams of marriage dashed in quick succession, all meet their deaths while Æneas and his men sail away unscathed. Thus the domestic conflict presented in the Jupiter-Ganymede interlude, the subplots of Iarbas’s courtship of Dido and Anna’s of Iarbas, and the affair between Dido and Æneas are all brought to a close as the principal tension of the play¬–the dichotomy between masculinity, homosexuality, and Italy on the one hand, and femininity, heterosexuality, and Carthage on the other–is resolved. The only element left open is Æneas’s destiny. Unlike in Virgil, Marlowe’s Æneas does not, after all, reach Italy; he and his men sail off into the margins where, their impossible utopian destiny always yet to be confronted, its myth is permitted to remain intact.


  • 1. The more precise terms “homoerotic” and “homosocial” are employed where appropriate. While I acknowledge that the term “homosexual” is anachronistic, I use it here and elsewhere to denote a masculine orientation toward the same sex that resists marriage and domesticity and is not simply, or not only, erotic or social.
  • 2. See Sara Munson Deats, Sex, Gender, and Desire in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999),  95-6 and 110-11.
  • 3. Mario DiGangi, The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 25.
  • 4. All citations are from Christopher Marlowe, The Tragedy of Dido Queen of Carthage, The Complete Plays, ed. J. B. Steane (London: Penguin English Library, 1969).
  • 5. Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 260.
  • 6. Laurie Shannon, “Nature’s Bias: Renaissance Homonormativity and Elizabethan Comic Likeness,” Modern Philology 98.2 (2000), 185.
  • 7. William Leigh Godshalk, “Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage” ELH 38.1 (1971), 2.
  • 8. Donald Stump, “Marlowe’s Travesty of Virgil: Dido and Elizabethan Dreams of Empire,” Comparative Drama 34.1 (2000), 91.