Book 4

Aeneid 4 “appeared in a great many versions . . . adapted for a variety of literary purposes” (Morini) in early modern England; for instance, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey translated it (c. 1540), as did Sir Robert Staplyton (1634), Sir Richard Fanshawe (1648), Edmund Waller and Sydney Godolphin (1658), Sir Robert Howard (1660), and Sir John Denham (1668). As Ovid complained: “No part of the whole Aeneid is read more than Aeneas’ and Dido’s love affair joined in illicit union.” In the 5th century, “Macrobius says that no book of the Aeneid was more popular with painters, sculptors, or designers of tapestries” (James O’Hara 16).

We sense that part of the Vergilian epic’s ambition is to “incorporate or cannibalize other genres”; earlier, Greek critics had asserted that tragedy itself “derives from epic.”

How does book 4 function like a drama? Is there tragic irony at play? What lineaments of Medea do you sense? How is the narration more ‘dramatic,’ less ‘epic’? Why is this particular book so conducive to reappropriation on stage?

See chapter II.1 in Burden’s A Woman Scorn’d, “Dido on the Tragic Stage: An Invitation to the Theatre of Carthage” (45-61). [“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorn’d” comes from Congreve, although it is sometimes misattributed to Shakespeare.] See also Michael Silk’s overview of “Epic Drama,” which surveys Aristotle, Schiller, Nietzsche, and Brecht; Frances Muecke, “Foreshadowing and Dramatic Irony in the Story of Dido“; J. L. Moles, “Aristotle and Dido’s Hamartia.” The classicist R. G. Austin asserts: “If Virgil had written nothing else . . . [Book IV] would have established his right to stand beside the greatest of the Greek tragedians.” The following short passage from Gian Biagio Conte, The Poetry of Pathos: Studies in Virgilian Epic (54-56), chimes with our theme of suffering:

Empatheia takes over to the extent of making the text assume the actual form of drama, as Dido’s feelings impose themselves with such violence that the narrated action necessarily becomes direct discourse. [notes that Dido’s final lament echoes the opening lines of Euripides’ Medea] In order to signal his imposition of a dramatic register, Virgil makes direct contact with the great tragic model; if Apollonius’ Medea inspired Virgil’s Dido, it is now the fierce grandeur of Euripides’ Medea which prompts the last speech of the humiliated Carthaginian queen. . . . Virgilian empatheia is not just a pose of the narrative surface to generate pathos, but rather a bold appropriation of the fractured and confrontational language of drama. . .  empatheia in Virgil not only relates to the form of expression, but also affects the form of the contents of the poem. . . While the empathetic multiplication of points of view generates a dramatic structure in which individual subjectivities fragment the text as they emerge in their various affirmations of truth, the sympatheia of the omniscient narrator is able to relate each fragment to the objectivity of a unitary vision.


fresco of Medea, from peristyle of the Casa di Dioscuri in Pompeii, first century CE

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