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Marlowe's Travesty of Virgil: Dido and Elizabethan Dreams of Empire


Donald Stump


Several recent studies1 of Christopher Marlowe's Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage, have focused on its relation to the development of English imperialism. Since the play represents a female ruler from North Africa who is brought down by her love for a male voyager intent on founding an imperial dynasty, the play invites studies of the politics of gender, nationality, and race. Lurking in the background, however, is also a political agenda of a more specific sort. As William Godshalk has suggested, Queen Elizabeth's abortive marriage negotiations with the Duke of Anjou in the years 1579-81 seem to have been on the playwright's mind, though their precise relation to the details of the play has never been worked out.2 It seems to me that recognizing allusions to the French Marriage is crucial in understanding Marlowe's position on the expansionist sentiment that was gathering strength in England in his day. The Queen's courtship of Anjou was a major turning point in Elizabethan foreign policy, one that set in motion England's sustained and ultimately successful attempt to project military power against Spain in the Low Countries, the New World, and beyond. For that reason, if for no other, the negotiations deserve more attention in studies of the play than they have so far received.

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