The source books from which Shakespeare took the main stories of his plays are well-known, sometimes so important that he quoted almost word for word, as in Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra from Plutarch’s Lives. Other sources seem to have been absorbed by Shakespeare, appearing maybe years later. We all remember best things that we learned when young, at school, at home, or as young adults and so did he.
I was reminded of some of these early influences when I recently went to see Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, in the RSC’s repertoire until 28 October 2017. I’m lucky enough to have seen two versions of this rarely-performed play as in 2013 Edward’s Boys did their own production. The play was probably performed around 1587, and the title page from the printed version dating from 1594 states it was acted by the Children of the Chapel, in other words by a company of boys.
Although there’s no actual evidence that Shakespeare and Marlowe met, it’s inconceivable that they didn’t. Marlowe was the same age as Shakespeare and famous before Shakespeare had even begun to write. He has recently been put forward as the co-author of some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, Henry VI parts 1-3 and the New Oxford Shakespeare puts his name on the title pages along with Shakespeare.
Dido, Queen of Carthage was perhaps Marlowe’s first play, set in the aftermath of the fictional Trojan War. After a ten-year siege of Troy the Greeks pretended to give up, leaving a massive wooden horse that the Trojans brought into the city with great celebration. The following night the Greek soldiers hidden within the horse let themselves out, murdering the citizens and setting fire to the city. Aeneas, one of the princes of Troy, escaped and found his way to Carthage in North Africa where he meets Dido. Told by Virgil in The Aeneid, the story leads up to the founding of Rome, that became one of the greatest civilizations in history. The play is a strong reminder of how important this story was to Elizabethans. Both Marlowe and Shakespeare attended local grammar schools where they would have read the Latin texts containing the exciting story of the Trojan War.
There are many echoes of Shakespeare in the play that show that even years later Shakespeare probably had Marlowe’s Dido in his mind: the suicide of Cleopatra at the end of the Antony and Cleopatra, verbal repetitions in Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest. Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare’s play about the Trojan War just as Dido is Marlowe’s. Most striking though is “Aeneas’ tale to Dido”, which Hamlet asks the Players to recite when they appear at the court of Elsinore. In Marlowe’s play Aeneas also tells Dido the story of the Trojan War. Editions of Hamlet comment that the speech is inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid, books 2 and 3 but surely this is also a nod to Marlowe, and the first audiences would have immediately made the connection with his earlier version.
Assuming Shakespeare knew Marlowe’s play, perhaps he learned how to improve on Marlowe’s stagecraft. In Marlowe’s version Aeneas’s story of the Trojan War goes on for about 164 lines. In Hamlet, after only 32 lines from the Player King, Polonius comments “this is too long”, and the Player finishes his tale in another 15 lines. Shakespeare knew that at least some of the audience wouldn’t enjoy even the excitement of the sack of Troy if it went on too long. And Shakespeare was lucky that Cleopatra committed suicide by poisoning rather than as Dido does throwing herself into a flaming pyre, described with typical understatement by Stanley Wells in his book Shakespeare & Co as “difficult to stage”.
Whereas Marlowe’s version reflects on Aeneas’ own experience, Shakespeare describes just part of it: ’Twas Aeneas’ tale to Dido; and thereabout of if especially when he speaks of Priam’s slaughter”, including the reactions of Hecuba, Priam’s wife. Shakespeare cleverly concentrates on the section of the story that relates to Hamlet’s own obsession with his own mother’s reaction to his father’s death.
Another major influence on Shakespeare from the classical period was the Roman poet Ovid and his stories called Metamorphoses. Many, such as the tales of Daphne, Adonis, Niobe and Philomel are referred to in his plays. Until the end of October 2017 the RSC are running an Ovid season and a variety of events are planned.
If you’d like to know more about other ways that Shakespeare’s early life influenced his writings, and you live in the Stratford-upon-Avon area, come along to the Shakespeare Club’s meeting on 14 November when this year’s president, Michael Wood, will be giving a talk on Shakespeare’s Memory, that will include a discussion of his background in rural sixteenth century England. He’s an enthusiastic speaker who really knows his subject and it’s sure to be an interesting evening.