The story of Dido, Aeneas, a gender-queer Sorceress, and the fate of… England?

This past weekend I had the good fortune to see a most unusual opera. I confess, I’m not actually an opera fan, not in the conventional sense – as of yet I have no interest in Verdi, Puccini, et al. (although like everyone else, I adore the instrumental music in Carmen).

Live performances* of Early Music, though, are endlessly fascinating, and this work was no exception. It was Dido and Aeneas, written by the English composer Henry Purcell, who lived in the late 1600s, and performed by the Boston Camerata, under the direction of Anne Azéma.

Dido_Aeneas_ManettiIf you’ve studied classical literature, you might remember the story from Virgil’s Aeneid. Aeneas, a young warrior and prince of Troy, has escaped from the fall of his homeland, and the gods send him to Italy to found a new Troy, which we know better as “Rome.” On the way, he stops at Carthage, the major ancient city in modern-day Tunisia founded by the Phoenicians, and he falls in love with its queen Dido (in English rhymes with “Fido”). But he cannot stay. The gods remind him of his destiny, and off he goes, abandoning poor Dido, who dies of grief (and the sword she chooses to fall upon).

The story of Dido and Aeneas is great on two levels. First, they’re star-crossed lovers, one of the classic themes of literature. And second, since they’re both more or less heads of state, we also find ourselves in meta-narrative territory. Their stories are at the same time the stories of two powerful groups. We have the mythic founding of ancient Rome, although many generations elapse between Aeneas and his descendants Romulus and Remus, those famous babies saved by a wolf-mama. We have Rome as the heir of far-more-ancient Troy, a tragic fall from its noble renown and a new beginning. As we know, Restoration meta-narratives are especially emotionally appealing (Make Troy Great Again!) – Romans get to share in the glory of a remarkable world power and feel very proud of themselves for having brought that world back to light and life again. But then, by mistreating the queen of Carthage, Aeneas sets his future city up for trouble, foreshadowing the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome – more than a hundred years of violence.

So that’s Virgil’s version. Purcell, though, adds a twist. Instead of the gods reminding Aeneas that he’s supposed to go to Rome, we have a malign sorceress/sorceror who thinks it would be worth their while to tear the two lovers apart. In Purcell’s words, they hate Dido, “As we do all in prosp’rous state.” (Down with the One Percent!)

What’s the deal with that, anyway? That is, obviously it’s way more cool to have a powerful magician conspiring in a secret cave with their witch-friends than just the usual divine reminder. The marvelous Jordan Weatherston Pitts was mesmerizing on Saturday. But was there a bigger point, for Purcell?

In the 1600s, one of the biggest worldview challenges facing England was the religion of its monarchs. Since the time of Elizabeth, the English powers-that-be generally felt strongly that England should stay Protestant (the queen or king was the head of the Church of England, after all), but of course the pope wanted it back. And then along came James II, who decided as an adult that he’d rather be Catholic. He went and married an Italian princess and they had a baby boy, who was going to displace his older, Protestant sisters (Mary and Anne) in the line of succession and portend an entire dynasty of Catholic kings. That would just not do (and besides, I guess the king was a jerk?). So a group of leading Protestants invited Mary’s husband William to invade, and James was overthrown, in the “Glorious Revolution.”

And apparently, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was an allegory for all that.

The libretto (text) for the opera was written by Nahum Tate, an Irish poet. According to Wikipedia, around the same time, Tate wrote a poem alluding to James II as Aeneas, who had been tricked by the evil sorceress and her witches – apparently a common metaphor at the time for the Roman Catholic Church – into abandoning Dido, the British people. Adding the sorceress flips the meta-narratives upside down. Our perspective is no longer with Aeneas and his destiny; we’re the sad queen of Carthage, ruined by his folly.


But there’s one more thing – back to the personal level and Dido’s reasoning. After starting to make plans to resume his journey to Italy, Aeneas changes his mind and tells her he’s going to stay with her. But nope, she’s not having it: “’Tis enough, whate’er you now decree, that you once had a thought of leaving me.” From her perspective, once the possibility of doing what he had, after all, promised to do had entered his head, that was the end of it.

If she was going to be that intolerant of ordinary human ambivalence – let alone the conflict of a man having made two sets of contrary vows – they were probably doomed before she even met him. I mean, any competent 21st-century advice columnist would tell her that their relationship was the stronger for him having thoroughly considered his alternatives and making an informed choice. Instead, Dido had fallen victim to the seductive thrall of purity-thinking – a topic I’ll have to save for another day.

So there we have it – meta-narratives everywhere, even in an English baroque opera. If you’d like to see Dido and Aeneas, it’s available to ticket holders online until November 29. And by the way, if allegory entertains you, and you’re familiar with the Game of Thrones storyline, check out the first part of Zvi Mowshowitz’s recent post on the 2020 U.S. presidential election and the pandemic. Ha!

Until next time.

* Or at least the pandemic version of “live” performance, and they didn’t even have to travel to Eugene for me this time!

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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2 Responses to The story of Dido, Aeneas, a gender-queer Sorceress, and the fate of… England?

  1. Robin Turner says:

    Wow – I’ve always been a fan of Purcell (even played in a performance of Acis and Galatea) but had no idea there was a Jacobite subtext to Dido and Aeneas!

  2. That’s cool, Robin! Crowd-sourced reference material is truly one of the great achievements of the Internet age, in my opinion.

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