Research Stream


Lucy Potter (2016)
The University of Adelaide

Ekphrastic Catharsis: Act 2, Scene 1 of Christopher Marlowe’s Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage

This project examines the sequence of episodes in Act 2, scene 1 of Marlowe’s Dido in the context of the first major ekphrasis in Book 1 of Virgil’s Aeneid the mural in the temple of Juno that depicts scenes of the Trojan War (1.46693). The project demonstrates that Marlowe’s engagement with this episode in the Aeneid is a major intervention in the critical traditions of catharsis as well as ekphrasis. The result is a kind of catharsis yet to be recognised in the history of the term that is literally ‘written into’ the emotional response that Marlowe’s Aeneas has to the story he tells Dido about the fall of Troy.


Ekphrasis; the critical history of catharsis.jpg

In this interdisciplinary project, Lucy Potter tracks the emergence of a kind of new kind of catharsis she calls ‘ekphrastic catharsis’ in Act 2, scene 1 of Marlowe’s Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Her work focuses on the origins of Marlowe’s notion of the tragic in Dido in the intense and highly subjective emotional reaction that Virgil’s Aeneas has to the first major ekphrasis in the Aeneid the mural in the temple of Juno that depicts scenes of the Trojan War (1.46693) his ‘lacrimae rerum’, or ‘tears for things’ (1.462). She investigates the ways in which Marlowe transfers this emotional reaction from the artwork that stands in for the mural in Dido a statue of Priam to Aeneas’ narrative to Dido about the fall of Troy. She argues that this narrative is, to quote Sir Philip Sidney, a ‘speaking picture’ (Apology 101) that Aeneas and Dido, as well as the play’s audience, see in their mind’s eye. By tracking the emotion literally ‘written into’ Aeneas’ response, she suggests that his narrative constitutes ‘Marlowe’s mural’, an artwork constructed by Aeneas’ emotional response to it in ways that are authorised by Virgil’s own aesthetic enterprise.  This focus on process reveals a paradox yet to be adequately addressed in criticism of this play: that what is not-Virgilian in Marlowe’s Dido is evidence of the play’s comprehensive Virgilian-ness. In appropriating an aesthetic program that the Aeneid endorses, Dido ultimately engages the doctrine of ut pictura poesis (as painting, so poetry) in ways that invite a reconsideration of Marlowe’s engagement with Ovid as well as Virgil.


The project sheds new light on the literary history of ekphrasis as well as catharsis, and what is at stake in its practice, which, as Alessandro Barchiesi asserts, is ‘the challenge of representation itself’ (‘Ekphrasis’ 271). In particular, Potter's work adds weight to James Heffernan’s view that ekphrasis does not ‘freeze’ time in space but is ‘dynamic and obstetric’ (Museum of Words 5). It posits that our existing histories of both ekphrasis and catharsis need revision to include Marlowe’s dramatic experimentation with both concepts in Dido.

The project also identifies future research opportunities, such as the implications of Marlowe’s Aeneas as another Achilles for our reading of the entire play and for future assessments of the narrative that gives birth to him. Viewed through an entirely Virgilian prism, some uncomfortable questions arise about Marlowe’s Aeneas that evoke the more conflicted elements of the entire Aeneid, elements Potter has examined elsewhere as evidence of the epic’s ‘dark side’. Another area of future investigation that the project identified is the influence of Marlowe’s ekphrastic practices on Shakespeare, notably, of Jove’s statue coming to life in Aeneas’ narrative sand the statue of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. Such an examination would involve the heart of ekphrasis and the ut pictura poesis contest: a belief in ‘the power of art to create rather than portray’ that is ‘crystallised’ in the myth of Pygmalion (Gombrich, Art and Illusion, 80). Hamlet, too with the prince’s musings on the theatrical failure of Dido (2.2.44677), warrants further examination. In his assessment of Dido as a box-office flop, Hamlet refers to an audience of readers rather than spectators. Potter suggests that what Shakespeare tells us about Dido in Hamlet is a feature of the Aeneid and its synecdoche, the mural ekphrasis, that defies their imitation as a performance text experienced sequentially by an audience: the process of constantly reading forward and backward that the Aeneid requires, which Dido inherits in its structure as the well-spring of its Virgilian-ness.

Image: Sebastian Brant (1458-1521): The Image on Juno’s Temple, University of Heidelberg, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike