Marlovian parody and asinine heroism in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Dido, Queen of Carthage



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William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream, which has previously been denied a dramatic source, in fact features a deep engagement with Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage on both structural and thematic grounds. I suggest that MND features a conscious, parodic engagement with Dido that derives from both the overriding Ovidian mode in which both plays are written, and more importantly from Shakespeare's direct parodying of the romantic plot features in Dido, a play that itself parodies Virgil's Aeneid and undermines its pius Aeneas. Shakespeare's deployment of multiple Marlovian techniques--in a nearly identical fashion to Marlowe's--generates a comic appropriation of Marlowe's story- line that constitutes interpretation of and commentary upon Dido and the stakes of Aeneas' heroism in Marlowe's play. Shakespeare adapts a number of dramaturgical methods from Marlowe: instantiations of triangular erotic desire; "gender inversion" and the pursuit of men by women; substitution and conflation of maternal and erotic relations; infantilization of male lovers; and wooing queens with Cupid's polarizing arrows. Each of these dramatic techniques figures prominently in both Dido's relationship with Aeneas and Bottom's with Titania. Shakespeare's comic subplot about the interaction between Bottom and Titania can thus be read as a microcosmic, mock-epic retelling of the main plot of Dido. Rather than a subplot that parodically or comically rehearses the events of MND's main plot, Shakespeare writes a subplot that is tangential to the play's main action and in it interprets Dido as a comic storyline with potential to defer or avoid the harm caused by Aeneas' abandonment of Dido. Bottom's tryst with Titania parodies Dido by using multiple Marlovian tactics directly from Dido and Aeneas' affair, yet lowering the stakes of erotic entanglement in order to suggest a feasible alternative to Aeneas' catastrophic departure from Carthage. Within MND, Bottom and Titania's tryst serves as a counterpoint to the sometimes violent silencing--and consistent male domination--of women in Athens proper under Theseus' ruthless patriarchy. By parodying Marlowe's Aeneas and foregrounding Duke Theseus' past abuses of woman, Shakespeare interrogates classical heroism and suggests a benign form of heroism in the character Bottom.