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In Virgil's Aeneid, how far would you agree that Dido was an innocent victim for whom we can feel nothing but sympathy?

Dido, to a limited extent, was an innocent victim whom we should sympathise with. She is powerless to act against the will of the Gods, and the Goddesses Juno and Venus each manipulate her for their personal gain. Furthermore, we are inclined to feel sympathy for the tragic way in which Dido’s life ends. However, her suicide was her own doing and that she felt so driven to take her own life without seeing an alternative is an act can be solely attributed to her. This we cannot feel sympathy for, indeed I would argue that her extreme decision was a mere over-reaction. In addition, Dido broke her own vow to never love again after her husband’s murder in order to ‘marry’ Aeneas. Again, this decision was her own: she chose to act upon the infatuation aroused in her by the Gods, and for this she does not merit sympathy. My argument is that, while to a certain extent Dido was an innocent victim of forces beyond her control, many of the actions that brought about her suicide were her own doing and therefore she is not the victim for whom we can feel only sympathy.

In the first instance, we can observe that Dido is manipulated by two Goddesses, each pursuing their own ends. Venus, lacking trust in the welcome given to the Trojans and the promises made by Dido that they will come to no harm, sends her son Cupid down to Earth, disguised as Ascanius, with the aim of causing Dido to fall in love with Aeneas. This shows us that Venus is not concerned with Dido’s wellbeing, only being interested in the safety of her son. This somewhat selfish act is what first causes Dido’s infatuation and, considering Venus’ total disregard of the Carthagian queen’s state; we can feel a degree of sympathy for Dido here and regard her as an innocent victim of the will of forces beyond her control.

In addition, a further God seeks to manipulate Juno for her own gain. Juno, who loves Carthage, does not want to see Aeneas found a city prophesised to be greater than Carthage and so seeks a deal with Venus; hiding her true motive, Juno approaches Venus and suggests that Aeneas and Dido are married. Despite being warned by Jupiter that it is not the will of the Fates for Aeneas to settle and remain in Carthage, Venus agrees. This, once again shows a clear disregard of Dido from the Gods, messing with her feelings purely for personal gain. This, Dido is powerless to do anything about and so again we can view her as an innocent victim.

Furthermore, we can feel a degree of sympathy in the manner in which Aeneas plans to leave Dido. Considering she truly believes them to be married (though Aeneas is not so convinced), it is fair to say that Aeneas’ initial plan to leave her without a word is harsh at best. To leave her without so much as a goodbye, as Aeneas intends, will not have done anything to ease the pain she will feel and nothing to aid her madness. In this respect also, we can feel sympathy for Dido as an innocent victim.

However, in several other ways, Dido is not such an innocent victim. It is her that succumbs to her lust; it is even quoted that she and Aeneas became the ‘slaves of lust.’ This is not the behaviour expected of a queen and does not deserve our sympathy. It is understandable that she is overwhelmed by the love kindled in her by Cupid however to descend into this lustful madness is something she could have avoided. It is not her choice to fall in love with Aeneas but it is her choice to succumb to lust. For her part in this, it is hard to feel sympathy for Dido and we cannot see her as an innocent victim. Additionally, she neglects her city and her people. Out of love for Aeneas, her walls cease to rise and work in her city stops. This is a hugely selfish act and to neglect an entire race of people for one man makes me unable to view her as an innocent victim.

As well as this, it appears that Dido is mistaken that her and Aeneas are married. Though they were ‘married’ in the cave with Juno and the fires of heaven witness, Aeneas never regards that moment as a union between the two. He believes them not to be married. While we can say that Dido is indeed a victim of a misunderstanding, it is also true that she could and should have been able to see that Aeneas did not believe them to be married. That she goes on to use this against him is extremely unjust and therefore I cannot describe her as a victim or pity her.

Moreover, in falling in love with Aeneas, Dido broke her own vow, not to remarry after the death of her husband. While it may be harsh to deny a widow the chance to remarry, she had previously reproached the advances of many men from neighbouring countries. She had been capable of rejecting men before meeting Aeneas so it is a fair argument that she should have been able to suppress her feelings for Aeneas. She had rejected those who sought her, yet fallen for one who did not once attempt to woo her. Thus again, I do not feel sympathy for Dido or view her as a victim.

I also believe that Dido was extremely unreasonable when questioning Aeneas about his leaving. While we can sympathise with her love of Aeneas, that she does not understand his destiny to found a city for his people and his son is very unjust and selfish. She is also unable to compromise and either travel with him or agree to suspend their ‘marriage’ until his return. These are both reasonable courses of action and for her to be ignorant of or unwilling to follow them leads me to be disinclined to feel sympathy for her.

Finally, she displays the full extent of her madness when she resorts to suicide. Though she is clearly pained by Aeneas’ leaving, she does not attempt to fight her depression, instead resorting to killing herself. This is a somewhat selfish act, not giving a thought to her people or to her sister Anna. Though she is desperate, suicide should not have been the only course of action she felt able to pursue. Her suicide is the ultimate display of selfishness, cowardice and madness we see from her. Though sad that she sees no other way out, I believe she should have tried to come to terms with losing her ‘husband’ and that her suicide was unnecessary. Therefore I do not feel sympathy for her.

In conclusion, I believe that on balance, much of Dido’s madness is her own doing. Though it is impossible to deny that her love for Aeneas is kindled by Gods acting in their own interest who do not particularly care for Dido, it is true that her mad love for Aeneas leads to lust, neglect, selfishness and, invariably, madness. She seems unable to distinguish reason from madness by the culmination of book 4 and this is exemplified by her taking her own life. Therefore, I believe Dido can only be viewed as an innocent victim with whom we should sympathise to a very limited extent.

Michael M. GCSE Classical Civilisation tutor, GCSE History tutor, GCS...

2 years ago

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