Love Versions: Revisiting Classic Sources in “The House of Fame”

Allusions to ancient mythology are sprinkled within all genres of writing. Many authors have built upon the ideas of these well-known tales and adapted them into new crafts of literature. One such author if Geoffrey Chaucer. In nearly all his works, Chaucer weaves in aligning tales from famous mythology to accentuate his themes and further his point. Although these allusions to mythology can frequently be seen, significant changes are often added, sculpting the old tale into something new. Chaucer adapts many stories, changing elements and altering the original intent of the tale. While Chaucer does this to accentuate his themes, in some instances, Chaucer’s meddling creates an entirely new reading of the old stories all together. One such story added and elaborated upon by Chaucer is the tale of Dido and Aeneas originating from Virgil’s Aeneid. Chaucer’s revision of the tale is found in his work “The House of Fame” from the book Love Visions; in this, Chaucer manipulates the story of Dido and Aeneas in order to warn audiences of the dangers of love and the fleeting desires of men. Chaucer changes the personality of Virgil’s characters, the conflict in the tale, and the overall theme of the narrative, consequently altering the original intent. The story shifts from a moral tale about obligation and fate to a tragic love affair displaying betrayal and lust. These changes promote Chaucer’s intent, but turn significantly from the tale Virgil originally wrote. What first appears as a summary of Dido’s and Aeneas’s story in “The House of Fame,” is truly a detailed selection on the part of Chaucer to illustrate the story he wants to portray.

Chaucer’s reorganization of blame and shift in characterization, changes the meaning of the work as a whole and presents themes that stray from the original story. In Chaucer’s summarization of book four of the Aeneid, Chaucer changes the very nature of Dido. Chaucer crafts a fragile Dido, naive and victimized in her situation. The contrasting Carthage Queen, found in Virgil’s telling of the story, makes decisions, contributes to her situation, and is influenced by more than the passions of love. These important differences transform Dido from an active lover overtaken by the misfortunes of fate to a helpless woman controlled by infatuation and destroyed by the fickle feelings of man. Bagby E. Atwood elaborates that Chaucer’s story “details are therefore carefully and subtly chosen with a view to arousing sympathy for Dido and blackening the at best somewhat dingy character of Aeneas” (Atwood 454). Chaucer’s shifts elements of the story, including Dido’s character development, to help the tale firmly support his point. This change allows the blame to fall heavily upon Aeneas, fulfilling Chaucer’s goal to criticize the routines of courtly love and to warn against the unfaithful hearts of men.

At the beginning of Virgil’s tale of the two lovers, Dido plays an impactful role in initiating the love affair between herself and Aeneas. Virgil’s story explains that, upon meeting Aeneas, Dido is “seized by hidden passion” and overtly interested in her new guest (Virgil 5-20). The gods are aware of Dido’s desire and assist the couple by bringing rain that forces them into a cave where the two begin their physical relationship (Virgil 120-125). This portrayal of Dido assigns her a more influential role in the story and suggests that Dido pursued and even tempted Aeneas with her affections. Raymond P. Tripp in his text, “Chaucer’s Psychologizing of Virgil’s Dido” affirms this perspective and writes, “As Virgil relates the tale…Dido is clearly an active party.” This is a key attribute of Dido’s character that is staunchly altered in Chaucer’s telling. Tripp asserts that when Dido’s character is presented by Chaucer, “Dido has become a passive and innocent victim” (Tripp 54). This change greatly affects the events of the story and changes the theme presented at the end. When Chaucer introduces Dido to the story he explains that Venus, “caused Aeneas to win such grace / With Dido, who was there the Queen” (Chaucer 240-241). This description strays notably from the love-sick Dido presented by Virgil. Chaucer’s Dido is not introduced with any feelings of affection for Aeneas, but instead is willed by Venus to care for him. Virgil writes Dido as an intrigued queen who distracts Aeneas from his destiny while Chaucer’s Dido is simply willed to Aeneas and then cast aside on a whim. This removal of initial feeling on the part of Dido releases the queen from any blame associated with her situation and accentuates her role as the naive victim, painting Aeneas as the untrustworthy villain.

A firm discrepancy in the role and traits of Dido can additionally be found in her death scene. In each story, Dido is driven to suicide by desperation, betrayal, and a scarred reputation, but Chaucer’s Dido is more greatly consumed with her broken love while Virgil’s portrayal of Dido reflects her role as a queen and a devoted leader of her nation. As Dido addresses her betrayal in Vergil’s account she exclaims to Aeneas that, “Because of you the Libyan tribes and the tyrants of the Numidians hate (me), and the Tyrians are hostile (Virgil 320-321)” She questions is she should die now or wait, “until my brother Pygmalion may destroy my walls, or until Gaetulian Iarbas may carry me away captured?” (Virgil 325-326). Dido kills herself because she is defeated not only emotionally but politically as well. She sees no other options than to kill herself of wait for someone else to inevitably kill her. This description of Dido depicts a dimensional character, driven to drastic measure by the betrayal of love and unavoidable demise. In Chaucer’s telling, he does not depict this same spectrum. As Chaucer recounts Dido’s death, he writes, “For he to her a traitor was, / and hence she killed herself, alas!” (Chaucer 266-267). Chaucer’s focus is purely on the betrayal between Dido and Aeneas. This selection reflects Chaucer’s motivation to detail the pitfalls of love and demonstrates his argument that love based on beauty does not last.

Chaucer’s characterization of Dido alleviates her somewhat from a degree of blame and forces readers to only see her as a pawn abused by a man. This characterization drastically changes the nature of the character written by Virgil and shifts Dido from a queen that actively participates to a victim destroyed by trusting a man of which she did not know the true nature. Her identity is solely seen in her relationship and betrayal. The story is crafted to accentuate the underhanded nature of men that Chaucer hopes to highlight and warn against. Similarly, Chaucer shifts the conflict in the story to exist between Dido and Aeneas in order to illustrate the underhanded aspect of men and the fickle desires of love. In Virgil’s telling of the love affair, the primary conflict resides between the humans and the gods. In, “The House of Fame,” Chaucer suggests that the conflict resides between men and women. Virgil paints the story of Dido and Aeneas as a struggle between desires and destiny, opposing human wants with the will of the gods and implying that the issue exists between mortals and the divine. When addressing the original audience of Virgil’s story, Charles Tisdale explains that the people would believe that Aeneas, “is a rational spirit who, by his birth is susceptible to fleshly passions in this world.” This original audience would see Aeneas’s relationships with Dido as Aeneas, “[making] a wrong choice with the Queen of Carthage by allowing his “carnal desires to adulterate his higher reason” (Tisdale 253). Aeneas’s error would have been thought to be corrected when he left Dido, portraying Aeneas in a significantly more sympathetic manner than is granted by Chaucer. Virgil’s story reflects a discrepancy between Aeneas’s desires and his god given mission to found the Roman empire. Virgil presents themes of duty coming before pleasure and pain ensuing because of distraction. This message cannot be seen reflected in Chaucer’s account. Chaucer’s motivation is to portray a story that illuminates the pitfalls of men paired with women whose hearts are blinded by class and appearance. Robert J. Allen in his article, “A Recurring Motif in Chaucer’s ‘House of Fame,’” explains that Chaucer’s telling, “leaves the reader’s mind preoccupied with the faithlessness of men” (Allen 397). Chaucer’s motivation is to focus on Aeneas’s betrayal rather than the moral quandary he is presented with. Because of this, Chaucer adapts the tale to shape it into the one he desires to tell. Although it is clear that Chaucer changes this work to benefit his narrative, it is interesting to see how significantly it strays from Virgil’s intent.

It is hard to not conclude that Chaucer misrepresents Virgil’s characters and craft, altering how audiences will perceive the story of Dido and Aeneas. Chaucer borrows the tale of the two lovers, but in doing so he adds to it, linking himself with the original thoughts. This connection forces readers to see Dido and Aeneas in a different manner and affects how they will forever view Virgil’s thoughts. Since Chaucer’s ideals were not Virgil’s it seems that Virgil would experience difficulty supporting the drastic revisions of his work. Both portray themes of misrepresentation and tragedy, but the effect left by Chaucer’s telling does not exactly pair with that of Virgil’s story. While Virgil comments on the influence of destiny and struggle between man and god, Chaucer forsakes many of these elements, instead infusing his own mistrust of love to this complicated legend.(1585 words)

Works Cited

Allen, Robert J. “A Recurring Motif in Chaucer’s ‘House of Fame.’” The Journal of English andGermanic Philology, vol. 55, no. 3, 1956, pp. 393–405. JSTOR, JSTOR,www.jstor.org/stable/27706774.Atwood, E. Bagby. “Two Alterations of Virgil in Chaucer’s Dido.” Speculum, vol. 13, no. 4,1938, pp.454–457. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2849666.Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The House of Fame.” Love Visions. N.p.: Penguin Classics, 1983. N. pag.Print.Tisdale,Charles P. R. . “The House of Fame: Virgilian Reason and Boethian Wisdom.”Comparative Literature, vol. 25, no. 3, 1973, pp. 247–261. JSTOR, JSTOR,www.jstor.org/stable/1770072.Tripp, Raymond P. “Chaucer’s Psychologizing of Virgil’s Dido.” The Bulletin of the RockyMountain Modern Language Association, vol. 24, no. 2, 1970, pp. 51–59. JSTOR,JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/13465Virgil. Aeneid. Ed. Publius Vergilius Maro and Karl Watts Gransden. Cambridge: CambridgeUP, 2003. Print.

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