A Woman Scornd: Responses to the Dido Myth. Edited by Michael Burden. London: Faber and Faber, 1998. [xiii, 290 pp. ISBN 0-571-17699-2 £12.99, $21 (paper bound).]
Reviewed by Margaret Laurie*
1. The Context
2. The Essays
1.1 This book publishes the papers of a conference which examined the classical story of Dido and some of the ways in which it has been used since in literature, art and music.
In the original myth (which may well have historical roots), Dido (or
Elissa) escaped from Tyre after her husband was murdered by his brother
and founded the city of Carthage on the African coast. Having vowed to
be faithful to her late husband, she committed suicide rather than being
forced into marriage with the local chieftain, Iarbas. Virgil completely
subverted this story: although his Dido rejects Iarbas, she succumbs to
Aeneas, who had been driven to her shores by a storm after his escape
from Troy. She commits suicide when he deserts her to sail to Italy and
establish the city of Rome.
2.1 In the first of the ten chapters of the book, Roger Savage, after commenting upon the two versions of the story, surveys references to the Virgilian version made by Shakespeare and others, then gives a brief résumé of adaptations of it in four operas: Cavallis La Didone (1641), Purcells Dido and Aeneas (1680s), Sarros Didone abbandonata (1724) and Berliozs Les Troyens (1863). The first two of these are discussed in greater detail later in the book.
2.2 Various aspects of Virgils handling of the story are discussed in the next four chapters. Nuttall demonstrates how Virgils treatment of Dido is more sympathetic to her than might be expected given that the Carthaginians were traditional enemies of Rome and that in Virgils version she is basically a siren distracting Aeneas from his destiny. James Davidson explains how when Virgil was writing an attempt was being made to establish a Roman colony on the site of Carthage, which had been razed at the end of the Punic Wars over a hundred years previously, and that Virgils ambivalent attitude to Dido may, at least partly, reflect a need to encourage this.
2.3 The last section of the book is of more immediate interest to musicologists,
for it looks at how the Dido story was handled in art, on the Renaissance
stage, and by seventeenth-century English translators of Virgil. We are
shown how both versions of the story were well known to Renaissance literati;
thus Dido could symbolize either the faithful spouse or the seducer of
a hero from his appointed course depending on which version was in mind.
Diane Purkiss and Wendy Heller note that in both Elizabethan England and
early seventeenth-century Venice the main topics associated with Dido
were the vulnerability of women rulers and questions of womens chastity.
Purkiss demonstrates how in William Gagers Latin play, Dido (1583),
commissioned by the Earl of Leicester, elements of both were combined
to praise Queen Elizabeth but warn against any possible foreign marriage,
equating the Queens chastity with stable government, while, in contrast,
Marlowes and Nashes saucy Dido, Queen of Carthage, in which the
Virgilian Dido is portrayed as an arrant flirt, appears to be expressing
criticism of the monarch.
3.1 Wendy Heller notes that while some Venetian representations of the Dido story also touch on political concerns, Cavallis La Didone (1641), to which her perceptive study is mainly devoted, appears to focus on sexual morality. The librettist, Busenello, combines the chaste widow and the illicit lover aspects of the Dido myth by setting the first act in Troy and contrasting the virtuous Trojan women, Cassandra and Hecuba, with the more venial Dido of the remaining two acts. The initial portrayal of Dido as staunchly loyal to her murdered husband is gradually undermined by secondary characters who satirize many of her gestures, and her protestations of chastity are bit by bit exposed as hypocritical. Although when Aeneas deserts her she responds with anger and reproaches, her lament after his departure is devoted mainly to blaming herself for yielding to him. Finally Busenello provides the obligatory happy ending by having her marry Iarba after all. Heller perceptively demonstrates how Cavalli heightens the emotional twists of the libretto, underlining the main thrust of it by making the laments of the Trojan women in Act I more deeply expressive than that of Dido in Act III.
3.2 Michael Burden then re-examines Tates characterization in the libretto for Purcells Dido and Aeneas. His attempt to view the characters purely in terms of what is actually in the libretto is commendable though perhaps ultimately misguided. I find it a bit illogical to argue that the audience (especially if it was originally a court audience) would have picked up the significance of the changes which Tate made to the libretto—most of which Michael Burden discusses—yet would not have read into the story elements of Virgils version which the very pared-down libretto simply omits. That they would indeed have done so is the central point of Andrew Pinnocks somewhat light-hearted, but cogent, discussion of seventeenth-century English translations and travesties of the relevant sections of Virgils epic in the final chapter of this book. The various allusions in the libretto to Aeneas past and destined future and the episodic nature of the plot suggest that Tate did in fact rely on the audiences knowledge of Virgil to fill in the gaps. For instance, it is possible, as Michael Burden contends, that Tate intended Dido to be seen as a virgin queen, but, as he admits, her mental conflict is much more explicable in terms of her vow to her dead husband. Moreover, by developing Roger Savages idea that the Sorceress is Didos self-destructive alter ego and declaring that the Witches scenes are Didos nightmare scenario played out by the courtiers, Michael Burden reads into the plot an anachronistic psychological interpretation which, I feel, would have been far less likely to occur to seventeenth-century listeners than details of Virgils familiar epic.
3.3 This study seeks to lay virtually the whole blame for the tragedy on Dido,
stating that it occurred because she did not trust her love for Aeneas
and allowed the effects of suspicion to corrode her sanity, with the
implication that if she had trusted Aeneas all would have been well. However,
the disaster occurs precisely because she does trust Aeneas, for it is
her giving way to his advances against her better judgment that goads
the Sorceress into intervening to prevent a stable relationship developing
between them. I am not convinced by the attempt to exonerate Aeneas. Since
he, far better than Dido, knew that he was destined to go to Italy he
should never have pressed his suit on her in the first place. If his boastful
bending spear remarks in the Grove Scene do symbolically announce the
consummation of their love, as both Michael Burden and Andrew Pinnock
plausibly assert, they surely imply—grossly insulting and politically
unwise as they are—that he is staking a permanent claim to her, yet almost
immediately he accepts without protest the false Mercurys command to
leave. He attempts to do so without telling Dido and, when she angrily
confronts him, changes his mind yet again and offers to stay. Her rejection
of this offer is not mere churlish foolishness, as Michael Burden suggests,
but surely springs from understandable disillusionment: a bitter realization
that Aeneas is not the strong hero of her imagination but weak and vacillating
and thus indeed not to be trusted. It is true that, considered rationally,
neither Tates (nor Virgils) Dido need have committed suicide, but this
was expected of classical women who had been seduced or raped. I would
agree that to some extent Dido brings the tragedy upon herself, but I
think that Michael Burden has carried the denigration of her character
too far. Moreover his interpretation totally ignores the dignity with
which Purcells music invests her. His fresh examination of the work,
however, contains some illuminating points and provides stimulus to further
4.1 The Virgil section of this book sits a little uneasily with the rest and seems directed at somewhat different group of readers. Inevitably there is a certain amount of repetition, especially in the recounting of the two versions of the story. Nonetheless this is an interesting study of artistic reactions to this potent myth throughout the centuries since its conception.
Laurie has recently retired from the post of Music Librarian at Reading
University, Great Britain. She is Chairwoman of the Purcell Society Committee
and has edited Purcells secular solo songs and most of his operas, including Dido and Aeneas, for the Purcell Society Edition.
I. Dido Dies Again
III. Reinterpretations: Dido on the
Stage (and Elsewhere)
Copyright © 2000 by the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music. All rights reserved.
 Copyrights for individual items published in The Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music (JSCM) are held by their authors. Items appearing in JSCM may be saved and stored in electronic or paper form, and may be shared among individuals for purposes of scholarly research or discussion, but may not be republished in any form, electronic or print, without prior, written permission from the author(s), and advance notification of the editors of JSCM.
 Any redistributed form of items published in JSCM must include the following information in a form appropriate to the medium in which the items are to appear:
 Libraries may archive issues of JSCM in electronic or paper form for public access so long as each issue is stored in its entirety, and no access fee is charged. Exceptions to these requirements must be approved in writing by the editors of JSCM, who will act in accordance with the decisions of the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music.
 Citations to articles from JSCM should include the URL as found at the beginning of the article and the paragraph number; for example:
This document and all portions thereof are protected by U.S. and international copyright laws. Material contained herein may be copied and/or distributed for research purposes only.