Dido, queen of carthage, by christopher marlowe

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A production of Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage at the Globe theatre; this season was a first in all sorts of ways. It was Marlowe’s earliest play; it was the first Marlowe play to have been performed at the reconstructed Globe; and was joined in The Season of Regime Change 2003 at the Globe by another of Marlowe’s plays, Edward II. It was also quite possibly the first time that this play of Marlowe’s had been performed in an open air theatre on Bankside, as the play’s performance history indicates that the play was originally written for the Children of the Chapel Royal and was probably first put on at a private indoor theatre such as the first Blackfriars or at court. The play was later revived in 1598 and the entries for it in Henslowe’s diary suggest that it was again performed at an indoor private theatre. In view of all this and because it is so rarely performed anywhere there was a real atmosphere of expectation surrounding this production of Dido.

The buzz of curiosity was amplified by the production team’s decision not to restrict themselves to simply trying to recreate the original playing conditions of Dido but to make use of contemporary set design, costume and casting. The modernity of the set design was certainly striking, as a children’s playground had been superimposed onto the Globe stage. A steel slide stretching from the balcony to the front of the stage, over which stood a climbing frame and swing dominated the stage. The modern colours and textures of the grey steel and plastic toys scattered over the stage contrasted with the red pillars and gilt work of the Globe’s ceiling.

As a design concept the playground set was used to convey the connection between the divine and the mortal worlds, with the slide and climbing frame used to comic effect by the gods as they observed and intervened in the lives of Dido and Aeneas. In the opening scene Venus, observing the arrival of Aeneas in Carthage from the balcony, remarks ‘Now is the time to play my part’ (I.1.182) and slides down to speak to her son. The set design was used to emphasise the childishness of the gods, which was also signalled by the choice of their costumes. Jupiter sported an oversized tweed jacket and Hermes wore a huge baggy jumper, the arms of which he flapped like wings to denote his role as messenger to the gods. Venus and Juno were also styled as children dressing up, this time in mummy’s clothes as they wore oversized high heels, with Juno wielding a huge gold handbag and compact, while Venus had a gauzy gown with boa trim, which neatly underlined their attempts at something like divine behaviour. The decision to emphasise the child-like qualities of the gods through their costume, in which they are presented as children playing at being adults, was also a subtle nod to the play’s stage history when the parts of the gods were taken by boys who would have worn adults’ clothing to play at being adults.

The Company of Men and Women for Dido comprised only six adults, so that doubling of parts was necessary. The parts which benefited from their doubling were those of Iarbus and Hermes performed by Dave Fishley. I thought Fishley gave an excellent performance as Dido’s thwarted lover, with the comedy of his role really coming through. During Dido’s description to Aeneas of her suitors, Iarbus not only listened with the rest of the courtiers, but also doubled as the gallery of suitors, as a hula-hoop was used to frame his face as Dido described each one in turn. I particularly liked the way in which the doubling of these parts highlighted the fact that it is the role of both Iarbus and Hermes to facilitate Aeneas’s departure from Carthage, albeit for very different reasons. Earlier Iarbus is shown making a sacrifice to the gods to bring about his departure, as he offers to shoot a plastic Action Man doll with a plastic gun. Virgil certainly presents Aeneas as an action man, but Marlowe’s is anything but. Later in Act V scene 1, the scene opens with the stage direction ‘Enter Aeneas with a paper in his hand, drawing the platform of the city’. The production offers a tongue in cheek interpretation of this by having Aeneas on stage with a toy truck filled with sand: here the rebuilding of Carthage is represented by sandcastles, offering a further ironic touch to his opening lines ‘Here will Aeneas build a statelier Troy’ (V.1.2).

Discussion of his plans for Carthage are interrupted by the arrival of Hermes in huge trainers who promptly stamps on the sandcastles, reproving his behaviour with: ‘Why, cousin stand you building cities here / And beautifying the empire of this Queen while Italy is clean out of thy mind?’ (V.1.27-29). I thought the use of the sandcastles to represent Aeneas’s vision of Carthage summed up not only the transitory and impossible nature of his plans, but also fed into Marlowe’s characterisation of his Trojan protagonist: he is not the heroic founder of Rome, but the child who gets sand kicked in his face.

Doubling within the rest of the production worked less well as it was not always clear which parts the actors were playing. For example, James Garnon began as Jupiter in an oversized suit jacket, removing his jacket to become Achates. The confusion began, however, with the decision to have the roles of Ganymede and Ascanius acted out with dolls, their voices being ventriloquised by Garnon. In the induction for instance Garnon as Jupiter provided the voice for Ganymede and later as Cupid he also provided the voice for Ascanius. For members of the audience not familiar with the play it was impossible to properly follow these sequences as all efforts were focussed on working out who Garnon was playing and for whom he was voicing. In particular, the decision to have Ganymede played by a Tiny Tears doll, with Garnon (as Jupiter) providing a squeaky child’s voice for him, reduced Ganymede’s significance. Ganymede is not simply a petulant child making demands of a fatherly Jupiter. His cruel humour is played down, as is Jupiter’s infatuation for the youth, which prevents the audience from seeing the parallels between Jupiter and Dido, with gods and mortals alike governed by their passions.

Cupid disguised as Ascanius was played by another Tiny Tears doll, with Garnon providing another squeaky voice over. The production’s interpretation of Cupid’s role was rather one-dimensional: Garnon played him simply for laughs as a rather gormless schoolboy playing pranks on his unsuspecting victims as he strikes them with a toy bow and suckered arrows. The characterisation of Cupid and Ganymede’s behaviour as harmless fun and which played down their malicious streak meant that the production with its playground framework failed to capitalise on the less palatable playground behaviour of bullying and manipulation which Marlowe clearly presents.

The role of the Nurse also suffered from doubling, as there was no clear indication that that was who Clare Swinburne was meant to be. Swinburne was easily identifiable as Venus with fluffy mules and a yellow wrap, and even as Aeneas’s follower Sergestus in a white top and trousers, but when she continued in the same costume for the part of the Nurse, the character change was unclear, with the Nurse’s scene treated as a bit of an afterthought. The Nurse, like Dido before her, however, offers another example of what J. B. Steane calls Marlowe’s ‘humour of discomfiture’ as Cupid takes a sadistic pleasure at the grotesque effect his arrows have upon the Nurse, mocking her for thinking of love at her years: ‘A husband and no teeth!’ (IV.5.24). Cupid’s game-playing invites the audience to observe with a detached amusement her emotional see-sawing. The production’s failure to offer a clearly defined sketch of the Nurse, as well as its use of a doll for the role of Cupid as Ascanius, obscured a rare Marlovian comic character, as well as defusing the darker comedy of this scene, which was a real shame.

The production’s emphasis on the gods had the effect of making the play feel a little unbalanced, with other areas appearing rather neglected. The costumes of Dido and Aeneas compared with those of the gods were a case in point, with Aeneas in jeans and a t-shirt and Dido in vest top and leggings. I didn’t necessarily want opulent costuming for the lovers, and Rakie Ayola certainly gave a regal performance, but her black socks and trainers left me wishing for a grown-up glamour that would outshine that of Venus and Juno.

I waited eagerly to see how the production would handle the tricky stage management of the deaths of Dido, Iarbus and Anna by immolation. The picture in the programme from the illustrated edition of Dyden’s translation of the Aeneid has Dido balancing on top of a precariously built pyre with a sword at her side. The production chose to depict the deaths symbolically with Dido holding a handful of sparklers, with Iarbus and Anna each taking one in turn. Dido’s death is one of muted triumph as she isn’t given the last word and the production did capture the play’s sense of anti-climax, particularly as members of the audience hesitated to clap, unsure in fact whether it was the end. All in all, despite certain failings, I congratulate the production for its inventiveness and look forward to my next Dido.


Christopher Marlowe, Dido, Queen of Carthage. In Dido, Queen of Carthage and The Massacre at Paris. The Revels Plays. Ed. H. J. Oliver. London: Methuen, 1968.

J. B. Steane, Christopher Marlowe: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.

Fred B. Tromly, Playing With Desire: Christopher Marlowe and the Art of Tantalization. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
Dido, Queen of Carthage, by Christopher Marlowe, presented by the Company of Men and Women at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, England. June 2003 – August 2003. Directed by Tim Carroll (Master of Play). Designed by Laura Hopkins. Music by Claire van Campen. Choreography by Siân Williams. With James Garnon (Jupiter/Ganymede/Achates/Ascanius/Cupid); Clare Swinburne (Venus/ Sergestus/Nurse); Will Keen (Aeneas); Caitlin Mottram (Ilioneus/Anna/Juno); Dave Fishley (Iarbus/Hermes); and Rakie Ayola (Dido).
Annaliese Connolly is a Ph.D. student at Sheffield Hallam University and is
researching the performance of female rule in the plays of Lyly, Marlowe,
Shakespeare and Webster.  To respond to the review please e-mail:

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