To be or not to be: A Mirror up to Dido’s Suicide?

H. Gaston Hall



This paper treats Hamlet’s soliloquy as an inverted variation of Dido’s suicide in Virgil’s Aeneid IV, a suicide associated with three sorts of tragic destiny which recur in Hamlet (providence, fate and fortune), rejected succour (cf. Ophelia, Greek for succour), awareness of “the tears of things” and her story worthy to be told. Shakespeare’s not always tearful variations on the suicide theme are compared with John Dowland’s exactly contemporary Lacrimae Variations partly published at Elsinore. It concludes that Shakespeare’s debt to the Aeneid in Hamlet goes well beyond reminiscence of Dido’s Tale to Aeneas scripted in a stagey style. Further reminiscence of the Aeneid, inversion, creative substitution and other adaptations contribute to the epic elevation—political, literary and moral—of the soliloquies and the denouement.



Hamlet   Aeneid   John Dowland   adaptation   Fortune   “tears of things”  


Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” Soliloquy: a Mirror up to Dido’s Suicide?


In many respects the answer to the question posed in our title must be “no”. But a qualified “yes” may be more insightful, if after consideration of the genesis of Hamlet one assumes that in writing that play Shakespeare holds a mirror not only up to nature, but also up to literary experience and reminiscence: notably Belleforest’s version of Saxo’s tale for elements of plot, Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy for dramatic structure and Virgil’s Aeneid for “Aeneas’ Tale to Dido”, discussed by Hamlet with the First Player (II.ii.442-517).[1] On that basis I propose that Aeneas’ tale to Dido, which in the Aeneid leads to Dido’s infatuation and suicide, likely also points to a more general inspiration from the Aeneid and to variations on the theme of suicide, a theme which is poetically developed in Virgil’s depiction of Dido’s death and variously rejected throughout Hamlet.

In Elizabethan literature a mirror as metaphor may suggest a true likeness. In Renaissance paintings, however, a mirror often reverses and distorts the scene reflected. In Troilus and Cressida, Cressida remarks: “But more in Troilus thousand-fold I see / Than in the glass of Pandar’s praise may be” (I.ii.276-77).[2] Similarly, in Julius Caesar Cassius regrets Brutus has


… no such mirrors as will turn

Your hidden worthiness into your eye

That you might see your shadow…,

Then Cassius offers to be a mirror himself:

And since you cannot see yourself

So well as by reflection, I, your glass,

Will modestly discover to yourself

That of yourself which you yet know not of (I.ii.56-70).


Actual mirrors may also distort, and they always reverse and invert.


In Hamlet we find, so to speak, the image of Belleforest’s tale involving a brother’s murder at a banquet transferred to an orchard at an island royal court and so far inverted that Hamlet is murdered, whereas in the tale the young Amleth threatened by his uncle not only succeeds in avenging the murder of his father, but also in acceding to his father’s high office. In the exposition of Hamlet Shakespeare retains a ghost, not to deliver an ornate Senecan induction speech like Kyd in The Spanish Tragedy, but as an imposing, initially enigmatic character, inverting the Ghost’s relationship to the tragic hero from vengeful murdered son to aggrieved royal husband and father. If, as I now suspect, Dido’s suicide in Book IV of the Aeneid as well as Aeneas’ tale is a catalyst in the genesis of Hamlet because it brings together in the deeply moving verse announcing her suicide three notions of destiny, Dido’s own last words provide the best evidence. If so, Shakespeare once again inverts and varies a somewhat concealed, but meaningful literary source.


He was of course aware of other classic suicides. Suicide recurs as an event in The Rape of Lucrece and in several of his plays, but has escaped my notice in Belleforest’s tale and The Spanish Tragedy. It is all the more interesting that in Hamlet suicide is dramatized in imaginative variations of the theme without the deed: minus indisputable evidence that Ophelia’s death was a suicide and indisputably without suicide in Hamlet’s “O that this too too sullied flesh” and “to be, or not to be” soliloquies (I.ii.129-37 and III.i.56-88), at Ophelia’s grave in V.i, or in the denouement. Refraction of Dido’s suicide might be a better metaphor for the suicide theme—introduced in the first of Hamlet’s soliloquies, then repeated and developed in the second in a manner typical of Shakespeare’s stagecraft in this play before later elegiac, ironic and tragic variations. Contemplation in the “to be, or not to be” soliloquy does, however, invert the firm resolve implicit in Dido’s last words. So in that respect it may involve a reversed and distorted image of her suicide, like Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s death, the graveside banter and quarrels, and Horatio’s thwarted suicide. In any case the following comparisons may bring us a shade closer to Shakespeare’s imaginative response to Virgil. 


When in the denouement Horatio attempts suicide, declaring “I am more a Roman than a Dane” (V.ii.345-47), Hamlet intervenes; and his failed attempt to drink poison is more reminiscent of Romeo’s suicide by poison in Romeo and Juliet V.iii than the assisted Roman suicides by sword of Brutus in Julius Caesar V.v or of Antony in Antony and Cleopatra IV.xiv. On the other hand, Cleopatra’s suicide, beginning “Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have / Immortal longings in me” (V.ii.278-79) is, mutatis mutandis, at once curiously reminiscent both of Dido’s death and of the immortal longings of Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy. Roman imperial spin in the Aeneid implies that Augustus’ enemy, the historical Mark Antony, should have abandoned Cleopatra for the sake of Rome, as Aeneas abandoned Dido.[3] Hamlet is given no such lofty reason of state for his treatment of Ophelia, doubtless best interpreted as misogynist puritanism in contempt of his mother’s remarriage. But Ophelia, whose name is derived from the Greek word for succour, may have been named in allusion to Dido, whose welcome to Aeneas includes the famous line: “Non ignara mali, miseris succurere disco” (“Quite used to suffering, I am learning to succour the wretched”) (I, 630).[4] 


Differences are no less important and not least because by remarriage, following the murder of her first husband, Gertrude more resembles Dido than she resembles Hecuba in Aeneas’ tale, as Rachel Falconer kindly reminded me. “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to her…?”, asks Hamlet (II.ii.553), aware (as one supposes) that she was a widowed queen who, unlike Dido and Gertrude, remained faithful to her husband, whom she had seen brutally murdered by Pyrrhus at an altar (Aeneid IV, 501-02 and 515-25)—the widowed queen painted as “a face where all distress is stell’d” in The Rape of Lucrece, 1444, and who at the nadir of fortune in Ovid’s Metamorphoses XIII achieves a revenge comparable to the revenge imagined by Dido in Aeneid IV, 600-02, if not altogether Amleth’s fuller revenge in Belleforest’s tale.


Ophelia, on the other hand, is presented as a virgin who, although clearly familiar with the expectations of a lover, had neither married nor made any such vow as Dido, the widowed queen who violates with Aeneas an oath of fidelity to her first husband. Contrast Ophelia’s “fair and unpolluted flesh” evoked by Laertes beside her grave (V.i.232) with Dido’s, dare I say “too, too sullied flesh”?[5] Ophelia’s “doubtful” death (V.i.220) is a matter of rumour and controversy throughout the “Grave scene”.  She is herself last seen, dramatically unbalanced of mind, in IV.v. So the pathos of her death is not in her own lucid words, but retrospective in its effect upon Hamlet and Laertes and in the elegiac words of Gertrude, beginning: “There is a willow grows askant the brook” (IV.vii.165-82).[6] Moreover, if Gertrude is to be believed, Ophelia died because she literally lost her balance and fell to a death so different from Dido’s, except that both are women scorned, as to suggest an inversion. That is: the death of a distraught virgin commoner by drowning alone in natural surroundings through no fault of her own other than disappointment that the prince she dared to love has cruelly rejected her and killed her father, on the one hand, contrasted on the other with the suicide of a guilt-ridden fallen queen abandoned by her second husband using the latter’s sword and by fire amidst other once-cherished regal memorabilia attended by a loyal sister in a royal palace. Ophelia had earlier returned memorabilia, Hamlet’s letters, in a commedia dell’artesdegno e pace” scenario; but in Hamlet what begins like a lovers’ tiff lazzi ends without the routine reconciliation (III.i.88-151). The passages narrating the two deaths are poetically linked through evocation of the pity of happiness lost and the loss of what might have been.


I must however add that, despite the resolution with which Virgil credits Dido in the immediate preparation of her suicide, he suggests earlier and again pointedly in retrospect that she died in a moment of madness:


Nam nec fato merita nec morte peribat,

Sed misera ante diem subitoque accensa furore…”.[7]


[Since not by fate nor a merited death her life ended,

But in distress ere her time in a moment of passionate madness…].


It may be thought therefore that, whether or not Ophelia’s death is assumed to be a suicide, these lines fit her case at least as well as they fit Virgil’s account of Dido’s suicide. They may well have suggested it.


Dido’s own more resolute words, which I would not have ventured to contrast with “to be, or not to be” if they did not in other ways suggest affinity with Hamlet, are these:


“Dulces exuviae, dum fata deusque sinebat,

Accipite hanc animam, meque his exsolvite curis.

Vixi, et quem dederat cursum fortuna, peregi;

Et nunc magma mei sub terras ibit imago.

Urbem praeclaram statui; mea moenia vidi;

Ulta virum poenas inimico a fratre recepi;

Felix, heu! nimium felix, si litora tantum

Nunquam Dardaniae tetigissent nostra carinae!”

Dixit, et os impressa toro: “Moriemur inultae,

Sed moriamur, ait. Sic, sic juvat ire sub umbras.

Hauriat hunc oculis ignem crudelis ab alto

Dardanus et nostrae secum ferat omina mortis.” [8] 


[Relics, sweet for as long as the fates and as God, too, permitted,

Gather in now this my soul and release me from these tribulations.

I have lived, and the journey allotted by fortune completed;

And now my great spirit will make its way down underground.

I have founded a city far-famed, my walls have inspected.

Husband avenged, I painfully punished an enemy brother.

Happy, alas! all too happy, if only Dardanian vessels

Never had grounded their keels on our Carthagenian beaches!”

She spoke and, mouth pressed to couch, murmured, “We’ll die unavenged,

But let us die. It behooves us thus to descend ‘neath the shadows.

Let the cruel Trojan absorb through his eyes from the deep this combustion,

And may he take away with him ill omens of this our extinction.]


The first three lines are of special interest, and in particular the clauses “dum fata deusque sinebat” and “quem cursum dederat fortuna, peregi”, because they bring together in one of the best known passages of classical literature the three sorts of determinism manifest in Hamlet. In the first clause, deus singular in contrast with fata plural, implies Jupiter; but Virgil’s deus is also easily associated by syncretism with the Christian God, however the latter was interpreted during the Reformation.[9] Thus “fata deusque” together suggest notions of fatality or destiny, connected by fata with the three fates of Roman religion and by extension doubtless to the witches in Macbeth, and in deus a notion of divine providence—notions found also in Hamlet and all the more interesting because the clause is followed by an aptly illustrated reference to fortune. The goddess Fortune with her wheel represents a belief with deep resonance in Hamlet.


For the interaction of the three notions, consider the following examples. At the end of Act I the words “O cursed spite” suggest destiny rather than providence as the basis of Hamlet’s protest that the time is “out of joint” and “That ever I was born to set it right” (I.v.196-98). Per contra, when Hamlet later states: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (V.ii.215-16), he is generally understood to allude not only to Matthew 10:29, but to a distinction found particularly in Calvin’s Institutes between a general providence and a special providence manifested in a single event, such as Hamlet’s possession “heaven ordinant” of his father’s signet in his purse when he needed it to seal the letter destined to seal the fates of Rosencranz and Guildenstern (V.ii.48-53). The distinction is clear in Hamlet’s earlier metaphor: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (V.ii.10-11).[10]


As for mentions of Fortune in Hamlet, one of the most pertinent must be Hecuba’s in the First Player’s reply to Hamlet: “Who this had seen, with tongue in venom steep’d, / “Gainst Fortune’s state would treason have pronounc’d” (II.ii.506-07). Otherwise suffice “outrageous fortune” in the “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, “Fortune’s star” linking her to astrology (I.ii.32), “Fortune’s cap” (II.ii.28-29), “secret parts of Fortune” (II.ii.235), “hands of Fortune” (II.ii.240), and doubtless the words “quite, quite down” in Ophelia’s “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown” speech (III.i.152-56)—a perception of Hamlet implying that he has almost reached the nadir of Fortune’s wheel and an excellent example of how Fortune was believed to operate.[11]


Of special interest, however, is the association of Fortune with music in “a pipe for Fortune’s finger” (III.ii.70-71). Edward E. Lowinsky describes in a masterly study how modulation in Renaissance music into conflicting keys sometimes expresses contrasted fortunes in compositions such as Josquin des Prez’s Fortuna d’un gran tempo, in which each of the three voices is written in what we would call a different key related musically as well as verbally to the “fortune of a great time”.[12] The Latin word mutatio used for modulation in music in the Renaissance is likewise the word used to describe the activities of Fortune, of which composers sometimes sought to compose an image in tone. In Hamlet Shakespeare seems to be doing something similar with conflicting styles. References to Fortune are not mainly decorative, like the mythological references in The Spanish Tragedy, but arguably structural. Characters’ styles are adapted to mutations of fortune somewhat as successive texts are set to conflicting keys in Josquin’s once celebrated work. The vicissitudes of Fortune, and not just contrasting characters, are dramatized in all their scope for interpretation on stage with the various styles and not just the semantics (sometimes synchronic) of the script.


Vicissitudes of fortune abound in the texts of Belleforest, Kyd and Virgil partly mirrored in Hamlet. But what a difference in styles! That is: a difference in quality from the first two and in variety from all three. Vicissitudes of fortune also abound in such Renaissance genres as the romance of chivalry and the picaresque novel, but without the modulation of style which distinguishes Hamlet, incorporating mutations of fortune behind Shakespeare’s dramatization of personal differences in status, humour, situation, mood, trust and distrust. I know of nothing like it in Italy. Italian traditions of neoclassical tragedy further developed in France with its unities and separation of genres offer no parallel. Shakespeare’s conflicting styles were not interpreted as an aesthetic assimilation of Fortune, but as the incorporation of low language disgracing a noble genre.


Spain went its own ways. Using romance with assonance, tercets, octaves and sometimes sonnets, Spanish Golden Age comedias are more varied in metre than French tragedies reliant almost exclusively upon the alexandrine; but changes of metre seem more linked to situation than to fortune per se even in such plays by Lope de Vega as El Remedio en la desdicha (The Remedy in Misfortune) and Valor, fortuna y lealdad (Valour, Fortune and Loyalty). Sonnets when introduced signal more a change to the language of love than a change of fortune—or perhaps it is better to say, any other change of fortune.[13] But throughout Europe Aeneas’ tale to Dido and Dido’s last words suffered changes of fortune, a few examples of which may help us to our conclusion.


In the sonnet which, more than sixty years ago, first interested me in comparative literature when I was re-reading the Aeneid and reading Racine’s tragedies as well as Hamlet for the first time, Garcilaso de la Vega allows a male poetic speaker to begin:


Oh dulces prendas, por mi mal halladas,

Dulces y alegres cuando Dios quería!...


[Oh sweet pledges, for woe renewed refound,

Joyous and sweet as long as God allowed!][14]


Garcilaso does not apostrophize a funeral pyre on being abandoned, but expresses mixed feelings—blissful to suicidal—on the return of a sweetheart who had ditched him sometime before. As adapted to this sonnet, the opening words of Dido’s apostrophe have nothing to do with the fortune of a woman loved and left, yet it successfully captures the notion imbedded in Dido’s distress that no sorrow is greater than reminiscence of happy times in times of misery, earlier picked up from Virgil by Dante during their encounter with Paolo and Francesca da Rimini (Inferno V, 121-23). There is a tragic sense of loss not only of what had been, but also of what might have been, just as there is a similar sense of loss in the “Grave scene” with Hamlet’s recollection of former happiness with Yorick and recognition that the grave being dug is for Ophelia (V.i.178-85 and 235-64).


It is to Dido’s earlier confession to her sister Anna that she has fallen in love with Aeneas that I would now draw attention: “agnosco veteris vestigia flammae” (“I recognize the traces of a long-ago flame”).[15] In Racine’s tragedy Andromaque I.i, these four words are simply adapted to a past tense for Oreste’s admission to Pylade that he is still in love with Helen’s daughter Hermione: “De mes feux mal éteints je reconnus la trace”.[16] Dido’s words, here admitting her forbidden love of a new man, are adapted to a male lover still infatuated with the same unresponsive woman who had earlier rejected him.


To cite now another of Racine’s tragedies, in I.iii of Phèdre the heroine’s dramatic first entry is partly modeled on Dido’s exit in death. Indeed the last line in Virgil’s description: “Quaesivit caelo lucem ingemuitque reperta” (“Sunlight she sought in the heavens and afterwards groaned having found it” (IV.692), is transferred to the present tense to begin with and to the second person by Phèdre’s confidante Oenone: “Vous haïssez le jour que vous veniez chercher” (“You hate the very sunlight you came looking for”), her fourth alexandrine in succession beginning with Vous—adapting to Phèdre’s distress the iterative agitation of Dido’s agony: “Ter sese attollens... / Ter revoluta toro…” (“Thrice herself raising up… / Thrice falling down from the couch…”).[17] The happier time Phèdre later recalls in guilt and sorrow to Hippolyte in II.v was her elopement with Thésée. The tragic waste of what might have been is, among other things, the doomed love of Hippolyte and Aricie. Like Hamlet, both Andromaque and Phèdre at such moments owe something of their epic elevation to Dido and the Aeneid.


Shakespeare himself relied on details of Aeneas’ tale to Dido in composing Othello’s tale to the Duke and Senators in I.iii of Othello.[18] That certain lines seem reminiscent of Aeneas’s tale and its effect on Dido can scarcely have escaped the notice of earlier Shakespeareans, although no rapprochement is made in the numerous editions consulted.[19] Our present focus on Dido’s last words is nonetheless a reminder that Aeneas’ tale to Dido effectively ends with her infatuation and the suicide from which we, like Aeneas, embarked. Here my suggestion is that Shakespeare returned to Aeneas’ tale, which is fraught with tragedy for Aeneas’ infatuated listener as well as for the Trojans massacred, enslaved or exiled in the Aeneid, in order to magnify another flawed hero.


In discussing the principal source of Othello in Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (III, 7), Kenneth Muir observes that the story is “an unpromising basis for a tragedy” above all because “the Moor himself lacks most of the dimensions of a tragic hero”.[20] Suffice the rapprochement of three brief passages in the Aeneid with two of the most striking lines in Othello’s tale of misfortunes in the Council Chamber: “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d; / And I loved her that she did pity them (I.iii.167-68). With the first of those lines compare this much of Dido’s reaction to Aeneas’ tale: “Heu! quibus ille / Jactatus fatis! quae bella exhausta canebat!” (“Woe! what the fates that / Hurled him hither! what  battles endured he narrated!”) and “Iliacosque iterum demens audire labores / Exposcit” (“Travails of Troy to be told once again distractedly did she / Supplicate”)[21]. With the other line compare the following verse, one of the first addressed by Aeneas to Dido: “O sola infandos Trojae miserata labores!” (“O you alone who pitied unspeakable Trojan misfortunes!”).[22] The quality added to the characterization of Othello as a tragic hero by Shakespeare is achieved in part by a contaminatio with Aeneas’ tale to Dido and its effect upon that unfortunate queen. His suicide with memories of happy times in deepest grief so near the marriage bed—heavenly sorrow striking “where it doth love” (Othello V.ii.21-22)—certainly includes a sense of loss of what might have been and likely also includes reminiscence of Dido’s suicide.


Shakespeare in Othello, Racine in Andromaque and Garcilaso de la Vega show how successfully Dido’s words can be adapted to male voices with preoccupations quite different from her own. The case I am arguing is more difficult. So I can only suggest that Shakespeare may have composed Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy partly in reminiscence and rejection of Dido’s last words, rather like a composer develops a passage around a musical theme never fully stated because unstated reminiscence has prompted inversions and other variations. Music would soon become commonplace as symbol. In the seventeenth century musical instruments, representing an art more ephemeral then than now, began to appear with or instead of skulls in vanitas and other paintings as symbols of the transient nature of life.


In any case variations on the theme of suicide in Hamlet are thematically linked to grief, as the musical variations (as then understood) by John Dowland more obviously also are in his Lacrimae or Seven Tears, dedicated to Queen Anne of Denmark in 1604 upon her marriage to King James I, an unusual set of pavans and other “songs” or pieces for lute and viols in part previously published, notably the Lacrimae antiquae section which includes Dowland’s most famous song “Flow my Tears”, first published in his Second Book of Songs dated 1st June 1600 at Elsinore, where Dowland was already in the service of the new Queen of England’s brother, King Christian IV.[23]


Compassion in Gertrude’s report of Ophelia’s death “in the weeping brook”, so related in distress and so different in execution from Dido’s, and so different, too, in style from Gertrude’s other lines, likewise suggests tears, along with reminiscence, inversion and variation on the theme of Dido’s suicide. Ancient tears more clearly reach the first of Hamlet’s suicide soliloquies in mythological form with reference to his widowed mother as “Niobe, all tears” (I.ii.149), doubtless after Ovid, Metamorphoses, VI, 182-83. However, reminiscence of tears as Virgil’s metaphor both for tragic grief and for compassion, as well as his depiction of Dido’s suicide, more meaningfully underlies the tragic sense of destiny and final rejection of suicide in the denouement of Hamlet. For representation of the fall of Troy discovered by Aeneas in the Temple of Juno upon his arrival at Carthage prompts a famous line anticipating Dido’s succour and the tale he later tells her: “Sunt lacrimae rerum, et mentem mortalia tangunt” (“Here there are tears for misfortune, and misery touches the heart”).[24] The denouement of Hamlet invites a similar response; and I can think of no better inspiration for Hamlet’s wish that his story be told by Horatio than Aeneas’ forecast for Dido: “Semper honos nomenque tuum laudesque manebunt” (“Evermore honour, your name and acclaim will survive”).[25]


My rapprochements may appear more plausible if (sometimes substituting Dido or Turnus for Aeneas) they are compared with Colin Burrow’s perception that in Cymbeline Shakespeare “makes his characters seem both near to and far from the hero Aeneas”.[26] For Shakespeare seems already to be doing something similar in the denouement of Hamlet, which is so unlike Amleth’s separate slaying of Fengon before burning alive the latter’s trapped courtiers elsewhere and surviving to succeed his late father’s killer, but not so unlike the denouement of the Aeneid: Aeneas’ last battle, which Aeneas survives, but not Turnus.[27] The pathos of the wounded Turnus’ pleas for his father’s life and for vengeance limitation and their initial impression upon Aeneas suggests the pathos of both the brutal murder of Priam and Laertes’ reconciliation with Hamlet, while the fury of Aeneas’ final assault upon Turnus when reminded by the spoils of Pallas that Turnus had killed that youth suggests Hamlet’s furious assault on Claudius when Laertes denounces him as Gertrude’s poisoner. In this context, Turnus’ dying voice for the victorious Aeneas: “Utere sorte tua” (“Embrace your fortune”) would appear to have prompted Hamlet’s “dying voice” for Prince Fortinbras, whose decision “to embrace my fortune” reads like an answer to Turnus’ imperative (V, 2, 361, 393). Reminiscence of the Aeneid and the image of a peaceful foreign succession in preference to further conflict better explain Shakespeare’s tragic alteration and elevation—political, literary and moral—of the denouement of the Amleth story than mere coincidence. Finally, Dido’s anticipation of descent “sub terras” and “sub umbras” may be compared with Hamlet’s own last words: “the rest is silence” (V.ii.363)—words considered a reminiscence of “the dead … that go down into silence” in Psalm 115, 17.




[1] Hamlet is quoted from William Shakespeare, Hamlet, The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Harold Jenkins (London and New York: Routledge, 1994; London: Methuen, 1982). Although textual evidence suggests that for “Aeneas’s Tale to Dido” Shakespeare draws upon Marlowe’s tragedy Dido Queen of Carthage, he also read the Aeneid in Latin, as re-affirmed by Colin Burrow in “Virgil”, Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 51-91, 68. However, he is more concerned with stylistic features of Aeneas’ tale as presented in Hamlet and neglects Shakespeare’s subtle use of other, more broadly-based reminiscence of or allusions to the Aeneid of a sort which he so ably analyses in Shakespeare’s later plays.

[2] Except for Hamlet, quotations from Shakespeare are with one exception from William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Peter Alexander (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1966; 1951).

[3] Shakespeare acknowledges the parallel by letting Antony predict that when he and Cleopatra arrive amongst the ghosts gazing in the underworld, “Dido and Aeneas shall want troops” (Antony and Cleopatra, IV.xiv.51-52).

[4] Virgile, L’Énéide, Classiques Garnier, ed. Maurice Rat, 2 vols. (Paris: Garnier, nd), vol. 1, 40. Translations are my own. Focus on Dido’s suicide in this paper follows more detailed consideration of Shakespeare’s reminiscence of Virgil and of the mirror metaphor in two recent studies: “Epic Antecedents of the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father: Reminiscence and Allusion?”, Cahiers Élisabéthains 82 (Autumn 2012), 33-38, and “Repetition, Inversion and Metaphor in Two Moments of Hamlet”, CahiersÉlisabéthains 84 (Autumn 2013), 13-22. In “Epic Antecedents…” I should have mentioned, along with the admonitory ghost of Creusa who appears to Aeneas during the sack of Troy (Aeneid II, 771-92, vol. 1, 98) and the ghost of his father as his guide in the Underworld in Aeneid, VI, the irate ghost of his father who admonishes and frightens Aeneas in a dream: “Admonet in somnis et turbida terret imago” (IV, 353, vol. 1, 168).

[5] Aeneid (IV, 412), ed. Rat, vol. 1, 172. Cf. Virgil’s apostrophe beginning “Improbe Amor…” (“Impudent Cupid…”. The contrast is not so neat if “solid” is preferred to “sullied” in the cited crux. Cf. Andrea’s reference to “wanton flesh” in The Spanish Tragedy (I.i.2).

[6] In disappointment in love Ophelia shares the willow motif associated with Dido in The Merchant of Venice:  “In such a night / Stood Dido with a willow in her hand…” (V.i.9-10).

[7] Aeneid (IV, 692-93), ed. Rat, vol. 1, 190.

[8] Aeneid (IV, 651-63), ed. Rat, vol. 1, 188. 

[9] In the Aeneid not Moloch, but Jupiter, father of the Roman gods and Aeneas’ grandfather through Venus, is associated with Dido (I, 522, 731…). Cf. Διòς in Homer, Iliad, I, 5.

[10] This metaphor may be “from stone or timber work”, as Harold Jenkins suggests (Hamlet, 394).  But soon after settling in Warwickshire in 1966 I heard a countryman explain that his partner was rough-hewing the hedge they were relaying and that he was shaping it. So the metaphor may be from hedge-laying. In either case this metaphor for two sorts of providence is derived from some form of discretionary human labour involving decisions and free will.

[11] In Macbeth the Second Murderer admits he is: “So weary with disasters, tugg’d with fortune, / That I would set my life on any chance” (III.i.111-12), associating fortune with astrology in the worddisasters and subordinating chance to fortune. Shakespeare’s uses chance as a synonym of accident, probability, outcome, opportunity or lot, as we do in “a game of chance”. Consider: “The shot of accident nor dart of chance” (Othello IV.i.264) and Warwick’s comment: “There is a history in all men’s lives [from which] “a man may prophesy … of the main chance of things [to come]” (2 King Henry IV, III.i.80-84). Cf. sors in Latin. For in Troilus and Cressida Nestor’s observation, “In the reproof of chance / Lies the true proof of men” (I.iii.33-34), chance seems to signify less accident than fortune or destiny. Nestor’s wit implies a reliance on free will similar to Cassius’ rejection of his fortune in Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves that we are underlings” (I.ii.140-41). Macbeth, on the other hand, famously challenges Fate in defiance of the witches: “Come, Fate, into the list” (Macbeth III.i.70)—and refers to men placed not by Fortune, but by the gift of “bounteous nature” (III.i.97-98). However, the denouements of Julius Caesar and Macbeth perhaps, as well as other references, confirm that the importance of Fortune in Hamlet is no aberration, to cite only Northumberland’s son as “Sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride” (1 King Henry IV, I.i.83), “storms of fortune” in Troilus and Cressida (I.iii.47) and “Fortune and Antony part here” (Antony and Cleopatra IV.xii.19).

[12] Edward E. Lowinsky, “The Musical Avant-garde of the Renaissance or: The Peril and Profit of Foresight”, Art, Science and History in the Renaissance, ed. Charles S. Singleton (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins Press, 1970; first publ. 1968), 113-62.

[13] In Portugal the delightful metric versatility of Ferreira’s seminal tragedy Castro seems more inspired by musicality and the metrics of Greek tragedy and its Italian Renaissance imitators than by Fortune. Cf. Adrien Roig, La Tragédie “Castro” d’António Ferreira. Établissement du texte des éditions de 1587 et 1598, suivi de la traduction française. Série histórica & literária, 8 (Paris: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian Centro Cultural Portugués, 1971).

[14] H. Gaston Hall, “Four Sonnets of Garcilaso de la Vega”, Ball State University Forum XXX, 3 (1989), 26-31, 29-30

[15] Aeneid (IV, 23), ed. Rat, vol. 1, 148.

[16] Jean Racine, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Oeuvres complètes, 2 vols., ed. Raymond Picard (Paris: 1950-52), vol. 1, 266. Racine’s debt to the Aeneid in Andromaque, further evident in various other lines, is acknowledged in successive prefaces. The translations are my own.

[17] Aeneid (IV, 600-02), ed. Rat, vol. 1, 190, and Racine, ed. Picard, vol. 1, 772.

[18] Cf. Burrow, Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity, 57.

[19] However, William Shakespeare, Othello, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd series, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1997), links Othello’s greeting to Desdemona, “If it were now to die / ’Twere now to be most happy… (II.i.187-88) with the dying Dido’s declaration “sic, sic juvat ire sub umbras” (IV, 660), uttered in typically dissimilar circumstances. Reminiscence of Dido’s suicide in this ecstatic reunion ironically foreshadows the murder of Desdemona, a most unwilling victim. 

[20] Kenneth Muir, “Othello”, The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 182-96, 185.

[21] Aeneid (IV, 13-14), ed. Rat, vol. 1, 148, and (IV, 78-79), vol. 1, 152.

[22] Aeneid (I, 597), ed. Rat, vol. 1, 38.

[23] Cf. Richard Boothby’s programme notes dated December 2012 for performances of Dowland’sLacrimae Pavans and Galliards by Fretwork, quoted from the programme for Fretwork’s concert for the Mississippi Academy of Ancient Music, 7 November 2013. In his dedication Dowland observes that “the teares which Musicke weepes” are not “shed alwayes in sorrow…”. Boothby notes reminiscence of Josquin des Prez at his best in Dowland’s composition.

[24] Aeneid (I, 462), ed. Rat, vol. 1, 30.

[25] Aeneid (I, 609), ed. Rat, vol. 1, 40. Even the flights of angels invoked by Horatio after Hamlet’s death may, mutatis mutandis, draw not only upon the apotheosis of Aeneas in Ovid, Metamorphoses XIV, but Jupiter’s assurance to Venus in the Aeneid: “sublimemque feres ad sidera caeli / MagnanimumAenean…” (“exalted to stars in the sky you will raise up / Magnanimous Aeneas…” (I, 259-60), ed. Rat, vol. 1, 18.

[26] Burrow, Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity, 84.

[27] Aeneid (XII, 919-52), ed. Rat, vol. 2, 324-26.


Hugh Gaston Hall (BA, hon. DHL Millsaps, MA Oxon., PhD Yale) has taught in universities in the USA, UK and Australia. He is a poet, translator, bibliographer, editor and author of books and articles, mostly on early modern French literature.


How to cite

H. Gaston Hall. “Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’ Soliloquy: a Mirror up to Dido’s Suicide?”. In Studies in Early Modern Mythology 2 (2014).





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