Marlowe may well have written Dido, Queen of Carthage while still a student at Cambridge, circa 1580-84, although it was first published in 1594. It certainly shares with his other student work, which consisted primarily of translations from Ovid and perhaps from Lucan, a strongly marked dependency on its source—in this case Virgil's Aeneid—and indeed follows it so closely in some places that it does take on much of the character of a translation. It thus tells very much the same story as was already well-known. Aeneas is the son of the Trojan Anchises and the goddess Venus. Together with his wife Creusa, his son Ascanius, and his old father Anchises, he lives in Troy during the period of its ten-year siege by the Greeks. He fights bravely, but is protected by his divine mother from ever sustaining harm, and when Troy eventually falls, he is assisted by her to escape from the burning city. He takes his family with him, leading Ascanius by the hand and carrying his father on his shoulders. His wife, Creusa, follows behind, but in the confusion she is lost, and never heard of again.
Escaping to his ships, Aeneas is informed by Mercury, messenger of the gods, that he has a divine mission to seek out the land of Italy and there found a second Troy. Duly setting out to do this, he is blown off course and lands on the African coast, from where he makes his way to Carthage, the city ruled by the Phoenician Queen Dido. Dido, whose husband Sychaeus is dead, falls in love with Aeneas and tries to persuade him to stay with her, but Mercury appears again and tells him he must leave. Unable to face saying goodbye to Dido, Aeneas sneaks away, and does indeed eventually land in Italy, where he wins the hand of the princess Lavinia and founds a dynasty. The distraught Dido casts herself on a pyre and is burned to death.
Marlowe tells only a small part of this story, beginning with Aeneas' landing in Africa and ending with his departure and Dido's suicide, but, as in Virgil, he is able to include Aeneas' recounting of his story to Dido to convey much of the rest. Marlowe being Marlowe, however, there are also some significant differences from the traditional version. The opening vignette of Jupiter loading his boy lover Ganymede with his wife's jewels offers an early warning that the pieties will not be respected. Most notably, the play contains numerous sly departures from the source which, taken cumulatively, clearly work to undercut Aeneas rather than to confer upon him the heroic status which he has in Virgil. In particular, Marlowe alludes quietly but unmistakably to the mediæval tradition that Aeneas was actually the betrayer of Troy, and that was how he and his company were so well placed to make their escape when no other Trojans did.
For Marlowe's original audience, this debunking of Aeneas will have been particularly sharp-edged. Aeneas was not only a Trojan; he was also, in mediaeval legend, indirectly responsible for the culture and indeed the very name of Britain, since his great-grandson Brutus, after having involuntarily shot his father in mistake for a deer, sailed away from Rome and founded a new colony in the island eventually named after him, Britain. To slur Aeneas is thus indirectly to attack British identity at its very core—something which Marlowe, as his iconoclasm in other works abundantly shows, would by no means have fought shy of doing.
Indeed, that he is doing precisely this is confirmed by his handling of the play's eponymous heroine, Dido. Initially, Dido appears to be much more favourably treated than Aeneas. The play is named after her; she, unlike Aeneas, never lies; it is clear that she would make a genuinely kind and affectionate stepmother to young Ascanius; and rather than being presented as a woman in whom passions generally run high, it is clear that she falls in love with Aeneas only through the direct intervention of Venus and Cupid. Marlowe, however, shifts the focus slightly when he refers to Dido by her other name, Elissa. The similarity between this and Eliza, the shortened form of Elizabeth, meant that Elizabeth I herself was sometimes compared with Dido, and Marlowe plays with this when he has Iarbas refer to “Eliza” as “a hideous echo”. The animus against the queen which often seems to be indicated in Marlowe is thus hinted at, and it certainly seems to spill over into the portrait of Dido when her suicide is ridiculously upstaged by the immediately sequent deaths of both Anna and Iarbas. Indeed much of the play—most notably the celebrated incursus into the cave and the passion of the Nurse—verges on the burlesque, not least because the play seems to have been first performed by the Children of the Chapel, and Marlowe makes repeated use of incidents where a larger child actor is required to carry one who is not necessarily all that much smaller. For him, the story of the legendary origins of Britain is, as are so many other sacred cows in his drama, something to be critiqued rather than celebrated.
It has indeed been recently suggested that his very choice of subject carried subversive connotations. The proper programme of activities for a poet had been clearly spelled out by Virgil, and it is supposed to culminate in the production of an epic, which is too grand a form to be tackled until after the poet has gained experience in pastoral. Marlowe's contemporary Spenser was obeying precisely these instructions by following Colin Clout's Come Home Again with The Faerie Queene. Marlowe, characteristically, debunks and inverts them by treating the epic subject of Dido and Aeneas at so early a stage in his career. He also takes a sideswipe at something else supported by both Virgil and Spenser, the idea of colonisation as a beneficent civilising force. For Virgil, the Romans under Augustus bring peace and enlightenment; for Spenser, the English in Ireland ought to do much more to root out the savagery and barbarism of the indigenous inhabitants; but for Marlowe, the indigenous inhabitants are already perfectly civilised and happy people whose lives are not enhanced but destroyed by the advent of that first coloniser Aeneas. As so often in Marlovian drama, in this his earliest play the most cherished assumptions of his contemporaries are caustically attacked rather than endorsed.
Hopkins, Lisa. "The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 08 January 2001
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=7958, accessed 19 January 2017.]