By Margaret Siegrist
Dido commands clear literary influence as an early female leader
Though its plot and characters are shrouded in legend, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas cuts a clean, relatable narrative that resonates powerfully today.
Also known as Elissa, Dido’s origins trace from both history and mythology. The strongest account can be found in Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. Regardless of whether she truly existed, she commands clear literary influence as an early female leader, and some sources even cite her as a goddess. Dido ruled over the North African city of Carthage, a crucial center for trade, widely regarded as one of the wealthiest cities in the ancient world. According to legend, she was not only the queen, but also the founder of this important settlement. Dido felt her responsibility to her people deeply, and they were equally dedicated to her.
Also known primarily from Virgil’s epic poem, Aeneas was a prince and hero of Troy descended from the goddess Venus. He appears in Greek mythology, making a cameo in the Iliad, but is more prominent in Roman tradition, where he features as an important ancestor of Romulus and Remus. Aeneas’ place in the founding of Rome propels his role in lore, taking precedence over his character trajectory and relationships. His concession to abandon love for Troy at the word of the gods is one of many examples in which the canon of Rome pervades Aeneas’ story.
A supernatural force, neither mortal nor divine, redefines the stakes in the eyes of the audience
Composer Henry Purcell and librettist Nahum Tate apply distinct perspective to their setting of Dido and Aeneas. Introducing the Sorceress, a supernatural force neither mortal nor divine, redefines the stakes in the eyes of the audience. The narrative then explores the interplay of attraction and obligation between two political titans, rather than focusing on their resignation to fate. Purcell and Tate plant a spirit disguised as Mercury, not a real god, to command Aeneas to leave Carthage and his queen. Though the messenger is false, Aeneas’ loyalties are revealed. Heartbroken, Dido is left imploring her people to remember her for her former glory, not the tragic fallout.
Originally, Tate based the text of the opera on his play Brutus of Alba (The Enchanted Lovers), which accounts for some divergence from myth. It’s also likely that the opera was intended more symbolically than literally. Based on the librettist’s letters, scholars speculate that the opera allegorizes the “sorcery” of the Roman Catholic Church leading James II astray from the English people, as Aeneas is pulled away from Dido. By taking liberties with the myth, Tate and Purcell created a deeply human drama that was meaningful in their time and also seamlessly adapts to our own.