Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.07.41 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.07.41

Antonio Ziosi, Didone regina di Cartagine di Christopher Marlowe: metamorfosi virgiliane nel Cinquecento. Lingue e letterature Carocci, 202.   Roma:  Carocci editore, 2015.  Pp. 358.  ISBN 9788843073283.  €29.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Frances Muecke, University of Sydney (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Christopher Marlowe’s 450th birthday fell in 2014 and was marked by a comprehensive collection entitled Christopher Marlowe at 450.1 In that book’s opening chapter, Dido, Queen of Carthage, where she gives a very useful survey of the scholarship, Ruth Lunney signalled the need for a new commentary on Marlowe’s first play.2 H.J. Oliver’s was written in 1968 and since then there has been only one full-length study of the play.3 Ziosi’s impressive study–cum–edition is probably not exactly what Lunney had in mind, although it will be essential reading for anyone who does undertake that task. The book comprises Introduction, Text and Translation, Commentary, Bibliography and Indexes.

Ziosi’s is a commentary with a difference; it could be termed a ‘reception-commentary’. Its main aim is to analyse the play in the light of Marlowe’s reading of (mainly) Virgil and Ovid, and thus to further understanding of their Renaissance reception. The chief focus of his analysis and interpretation is intertextuality, a phenomenon particularly studied by Latinists since the 1980s. (He consciously, though not entirely, eschews other recent approaches.) Only by concentrating on Marlowe’s Latin library (see Intr. 1.3.3 “La biblioteca latina di Marlowe”), Ziosi argues, is it possible to come to a deep engagement with “il più umanista dei tragediografi elisabettiani” (p. 27). This does not mean that he ignores the long late-antique and medieval tradition of thinking about Didos (see Intr. 1.2 “La battaglia delle due Didoni”) but what Ziosi adds are insights stemming from ways of reading the post-Virgilian poets, especially Ovid, that have become influential through the work of the Anglo-American-Italian school of “New Latinists”.

These insights are developed with great subtlety in the Introduction, especially Parts 2 and 3. Here, as if in a piece of music, a number of concepts and themes are introduced, interwoven, repeated and developed. They have to do with the relations between epic and drama and between epic and elegy, with illusion and reality and with metaphor and theatricalisation. Finally, in the last section of the Introduction (Intr. 3.3 “Nell’officina di Marlowe: analisi di alcune scene di Dido”) they are reassembled in greatest detail in acute discussions of the “ecphrastic” significance and symbolic value of the Ganymede scene (a mirror of the whole tragedy), Aeneas’ and Achates’ encounter with the statue of Priam (another ecphrasis, and theatrical mimesis), the nexus love/fire/destruction of Troy/destruction of Carthage, the death of Priam (and Seneca and Hamlet), the Anna-Iarbas sub-plot (both ‘anti-Virgilian’ and Virgilian) and Dido as “a second Helen” (“uno dei nodi tragici e simbolici più intricati della tragedia”, p. 108). Apparent departures from Virgil are not necessarily departures from Virgilian ways of doing things.

In all these readings Marlowe’s text is traced through a network of connections, including, besides the medieval tradition, Ovid’s Amores, Heroides and Metamorphoses and Lucan’s Pharsalia, other parts of Dido and other works by Marlowe himself. This is important, Ziosi argues, because Dido is formative for Marlowe’s oeuvre: “Il lessico, i temi, le immagini mitologiche che nascono dalla riscrittura dell’epica in Dido rimarrano ‘nella penna’ di Marlowe e saranno incastonate in nuove opere mantenendo la densità intertestuale e simbolica che avevano in origine” (p. 77).

The text printed is that of Fredson Bowers (Complete Works, 2nd edition, Cambridge, 1981), with a few changes and an enlarged apparatus criticus. Bowers defined his text as “a reading text in critical old-spelling form”.4 I have noticed a few errors in Ziosi’s reproduction.5 The elegant translation faces the text. Where possible Ziosi uses the Italian hendecasyllabic line and aims to reflect the syntactic, stylistic and rhetorical features of Marlowe’s text (pp. 140-41). What he cannot do is reproduce the effect of the archaic forms and expressions. As a “strumento esegetico” (p. 11) the translation also enables lightening of the commentary.6

The bulk of the commentary records and discusses a treasure-trove of sources, models and parallels from the range of authors and material already identified an intertexts, and from other Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. Ziosi notices significant stylistic and metrical effects, and explicates the relation of Dido to its Latin hypotexts more carefully and more generously than has been done before. To give an example of the commentary’s richness, on 1.1.220 “I plowed the deepe”, ignored by Oliver, Ziosi notes the new sense of conscendere in Virgil’s conscendi aequor (Aen. 1.381), comments on “deepe”, brings in Virgil’s introduction of arare for sailing (Aen. 2.780) adopted by Ovid (Am. 2.10.33f.), where Marlowe did not translate with “plough”. But, Ziosi notes, in OED “plough” as a metaphor for sailing is not attested before Marlowe. Later in Dido (4.3.11) Marlowe writes “Till he hath furrowed Neptunes glassie field”. The note continues with exploration of the poetic history of the metaphor, and the symbolism of the land/sea opposition, and concludes by defining the difference between the word “deep” and aequor. The commentary contains, less systematically, other essential explanations, but overall pays less attention to individual word usage and meaning than does Oliver. Occasionally I felt it could have been pruned, but it is always interesting.

Not every contribution to the Renaissance reception of Virgil and Ovid need or could take the form of a ‘reception-commentary’ but Ziosi convinces that, in this case, it is appropriate. Ziosi is as at home in the technical aspects of Latin scholarship as in the conceptual advances of modern Latin literary study, nor does he ignore the solid achievements of earlier scholars. His mastery of his other field is for others to assess. Latinists with an interest in Renaissance reception will be excited by Ziosi’s revelations of the power and depth of Marlowe’s reading of his Latin authors and his creative transformation of them. Since the book offers stimulating new ways of understanding the play it is to be hoped that some Anglo-American Marlowe specialists will be able to cross the double linguistic barrier.

Table of Contents

1. Le due Didoni e i molti Marlowe
Il romanzo di marlowe/La battaglia delle due Didoni
2. Didone tragica
Remeber me/Una questione de... genere/Didone a teatro e un'altra regina
3. La tragedia di Didone, regina di Cartagine
Dido, Queene of Carthage/Il Virgilio di Marlowe, o la epische Technik/Nell'officina di Marlowe: analisi di alcune scene di Dido
The Tragedie of Dido, Queene of Carthage
Atto I
Atto II
Atto III
Atto IV
Atto V
Indice dei nomi
Indice dei passi citati


1.   Sara Munson Deats and Robert A. Logan, eds, Christopher Marlowe at 450 (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited), 2015.
2.   Ruth Lunney, Dido, Queen of Carthage, pp. 13-49, at p. 42.
3.   H.J. Oliver, ed. Dido Queen of Carthage and The Massacre at Paris (London, 1968); M. E. Smith, “Love Kindling Fire”: A Study of Christopher Marlowe’s “The Tragedy of Dido Queen of Carthage” (Salzburg, 1977).
4.   Vol.1, p. vii.
5.   1.1.155 read “cleare”, 2.1.107 read “a-fire”; 2.1.322 read “flye”; 3.3.43 read “lade”, 83 read “gaine”; 3.4.41 read “worths”, l. 49 is omitted; 5.1.13 read “loade”.
6.   At 3.4.24-27 the translation does not match the text; at 4.3.3. “illes” should not have become “colli”; at 4.4.95 the translation of “runne aground” does not seem quite right; similarly at 5.1.176 of “Which if it chaunce”.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010