Guilty of Guilt: The Tragedy of Dido

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Perhaps no book of Virgil’s Aeneid is as well-known as Book 4, which depicts the tragic love affair between Dido and Aeneas. And perhaps no aspect of this book is debated more than the cause of Dido’s downfall, a question raised by Aeneas himself later in the epic (6.458). As Spence (1999) asks: “Who is guilty, and of what does that guilt consist?” In a poem as complex as the Aeneid, Spence’s question may well admit of multiple answers depending on from which of several possible perspectives one chooses to approach the matter. In this paper, I take a fresh look at this question from the perspective of the poem’s rich and complex psychology. I argue that when viewed from this perspective, Dido is the guilty party. And, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, she is guilty of guilt, insofar as the guilt felt from violating the decrees of her own conscience leads to her destruction.At the outset of the Book 4, Dido confesses to her sister that she is attracted to Aeneas and “could have succumbed to sexual indiscretion (culpa)” had her mind not been set against embracing another man after the death of her former husband (4.15-19). She expands on this thought by addressing her pudor, declaring that she would wish for the earth to bury her alive before committing an act that would violate “you or break your laws (iura)” (4.27). I suggest that Dido’s conception of pudor functions like conscience. The notion of pudor entails a divided or split self (see Kaster 2005), which is also central to the notion of conscience (conscientia). And as common with passages in Latin literature employing conscientia (Cic. Ver. 2.189; Sen. De Ira 1.14; Lucr. 3.1014-22) we also find judicial language present.Despite her resolution, Dido does “succumb” to Aeneas. This, we are told, was the “cause of her troubles” (4.169-70). From this point on, Dido suffers from a guilty conscience. Her pudor violated, part of the self now stands in judgment of the rest of the self. Indeed, language of self-judgment is ubiquitous (4.24-7, 54-5, 321-3, 547, 550-2, 596). This negative self-judgment results in madness, attributed to her by both the narrator (4.283, 298, 300, 465, 469, 532) and Dido herself (4.374, 376, 595, 548; see Gill 1997). A comparison to Aeschylus’s Orestes underscores the psychological cause of Dido’s madness. While the furies drove Orestes mad on stage, Dido, through the judgments of her own guilty conscience, delivers herself over to madness (4.465-77).From this psychological perspective, Dido’s tragic mistake lies in judging herself harshly for breaking a resolution where others have not been wronged. This sort of guilt, as Williams (1994) observes, “narrows down suspectly to a desire for punishment.” And thus Dido, knife in hand, exclaims from the altar: “I shall die unavenged, but let me die. So, so, I rejoice to go to the shades below” (4.659-60). Both Aeneas (6.475-6) and Virgil as narrator (4.696) inform us that they don’t share her judgments. And thus in the end, we find that Dido was not guilty of any crime—not against Aeneas, or even her former husband. She was guilty only of guilt; but this was sufficient to bring about her destruction. And therein lies the tragedy.Works CitedGill, Christopher. “Passion as Madness in Roman Poetry.” In The Passions in Roman Thought andLiterature. Susanna Braund and Christopher Gill, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1997, 213-41.Kaster, Robert A. Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.Spence, Sarah. “Varium et Mutabile: Voices of Authority in Aeneid 4.” In Reading Virgil’s Aeneid.Christine Perkell, ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999, 80-95.Williams, Bernard. Shame and Necessity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

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