A Critical Review of The Tragic Queen of Carthage and “Pygmalion”

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A Critical Review of The Tragic Queen of Carthage and “Pygmalion”

The Tragic Queen of Carthage, an adaptation of Virgil’s Aeneid, dramatically narrates Dido’s fanatical love for Aeneas, his eventual unfaithfulness, and Dido’s suicide after learning that Aeneas had deserted her and left for Italy. “Pygmalion” is one of the stories in Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphosis and tells of a legendary King of Cyprus and sculptor (going by the same name as the title) who lost all interest in women after seeing the lewd womenfolk in his city selling themselves. Pygmalion starts carving the perfect woman out of ivory but falls in love with the statue after finding it too realistic and beautiful. Venus grants the protagonist’s prayer to have a bride similar to the ivory sculpture by animating the statue. Both works are similar in that the main characters are driven by passion in their actions. Dido is so infatuated with Aeneas that when he discovers he is leaving for Italy, she despairs and commits suicide. Pygmalion is also so enamored by the perfect ivory statue that he imagines it to be a real woman and starts courting it. He is only saved from this wretchedness when Venus decides to grant his wishes and animates the ivory sculpture. This paper will investigate the dissimilarities between the two works with a special focus on their cultural contexts.

Women in Virgil’s time were assumed to be physically, emotionally, and mentally inferior to men and were relegated to nurturing children and maintaining the home. This gender stereotype in the classical world was supported by the preconceived notions of the common people and philosophical thought. Because of their supposed subservience, women had absolutely no place in the public sphere of governance or politics (Guevara n.p.). Virgil’s portrayal of Dido as a strong and indomitable woman possessed of heroic dimensions goes against the classical notions of female nature and women’s place in society. Dido flees her homeland after the death of her husband and leads her people out of Tyre to the coast of North Africa, where she establishes the new city of Carthage that goes on to become a prosperous kingdom. She is also described as a fair and just leader capable of maintaining order and peace in her domain. Dido is Aeneas’s equal feminine counterpart, and as a significant female character, she provides a cogent matriarchal theme in the storyline.

            While Dido inspires admiration for her ability to chart her course (she abandons the stereotypical role of mother and wife and becomes a respected and able ruler), her uncontrolled lust for Aeneas becomes her undoing. Even though she realizes that this desire for Aeneas is inappropriate, given her status as the leader of Carthage, and that it will be her end, she cannot change the course of events, as she has done so many times before. She abandons her responsibilities to Carthage, and her inability to control her emotions becomes a source of contempt from the Libyans, the Numidian tyrants, and even her people, who feel insulted by her loss of reputation and continued neglect of the realm.

Her passions so consume her that upon learning of Aeneas’s plans to depart for Italy, she persuades Aeneas to stay with her. She takes him among her buildings, showing him her Sidonian wealth and the strength of her city’s defenses, even going as far as proposing that the Trojans form an alliance with the Carthaginians on equal terms (Ramsby 15). Unfortunately, Aeneas’s sense of duty to his future country does not allow him to linger any longer, and his leaving devastates Dido so much that she commits suicide. After Aeneas spurning her, acknowledging that her reckless actions had brought shame to her people, Dido’s sense of pride, dignity, and self-respect results in her self-inflicted death. Despite Dido’s descent into a disgraceful lovesick suicide, she is characterized as a courageous and independent woman who drew upon her resources to flourish in a male-dominated society.

In contrast, Ovid depicts Galatea in “Pygmalion” as a woman lacking any free will and who passively conforms to the traditional social role of wife and mother. When Pygmalion’s kiss rouses the statue (Galatea) to life, the first things she perceives upon opening her “bashful eyes” are the sky and Pygmalion. The latter represents not only Galatea’s lover but also her fate. Becoming alive and opening her eyes for the first time, she sees the sky (the home of the gods) and her maker, who immediately assumes the role of her god. In that moment and after that, Pygmalion becomes Galatea’s creator, husband, and father, and she is consigned to be a submissive and dedicated figure to the former (Bullón-Fermández 365). Galatea’s characterization in work is revealing: she remains unidentified and speechless until the end of the tale.

Throughout the narrative poem until the moment she is brought to life, Galatea is a peripheral figure and is viewed as nothing more than Pygmalion’s work. Her opinions or views concerning her animation are of little interest, and she is portrayed as a naïve and bashful being who blushes at the feeling of her creator’s kisses. Galatea’s animation is conducted in a patriarchal context. She is animated to serve as an embodiment of the ideal wife for Pygmalion and all men alike. Galatea is created to be her creator’s “perfect woman,” a woman lovelier than any living woman and the epitome of female virtue (Roos 112). Her pale countenance (the white of the ivory) symbolizes her purity, beauty, modesty, and submissiveness. Unlike Dido, who refuses to be inhibited by the classic female stereotype, Galatea is animated to embody all those qualities that were considered to be possessed by the ideal Roman woman.

Ovid intentionally portrays Galatea to reinforce the idyllic female values and the traditional role of women in Greek society. The obscene Propoetides, who defy the standards set by society and go so far as to deny that Venus is their goddess, are forced to criminate their bodies and turn them into stone shamelessly. Ovid’s depiction of the Propoetides reflects the misogynistic leanings of the patriarchal Greek society. Pygmalion, who is disgusted by the immorality and seditiousness of the Propoetides, decides to create a statue that embodies the qualities of an ideal woman. He shuns the rebellious and sexually liberated Propoetides and desires a woman of his own, a beautiful chaste woman who will show him deference and submit to him. Pygmalion’s anger and abhorrence for the former is emphasized by the violent use of the h alliteration in the sixth stanza, where he describes them as “hardened” and “heartless.” However, his hate for all women has one exception: he loves the notion of a woman with passion.

The word “perfect woman” is constantly repeated in stanzas eight and nine. However, this passion is one-sided and reserved for the statue only. When the statue is unable to reciprocate his affections, Pygmalion desperately prays to Venus to provide him a wife with the same features as his ivory statue. When the goddess eventually grants his request, Pygmalion immediately marries Galatea. There is no free will on Galatea’s part, and she is submissive to her creator’s wishes. Despite her lack of freedom or character, the metamorphosis of Galatea from an inanimate waxen figure into a living being is meant to serve as a counter-model to the rebellious and lewd Propoetides (Sharrock 37). Unlike the Propoetides, who are punished for living a petrified existence forever, the innocent and pure Galatea turns from ivory into flesh. It leaves the petrified existence behind to fulfill her role as wife and mother. Virgil and Ovid differ markedly in their representations of women. Virgil portrays a woman who is overwhelmed by her passions but is strong and daring enough to defy society’s misogynistic standards. On the other hand, Ovid depicts a woman who has no free will of her own and submissively takes on the role given to her by her male creator.    

Virgil’s story of the tragic Queen of Carthage extols traditional Roman virtues. He portrays Aeneas as the embodiment of Roman qualities, including integrity, fairness, good judgment, honesty, gravity, mercy, courage, self-control, humor, and dutifulness (Higgins n.p.). He is represented as a Trojan hero who is devoted to his family and his countrymen, whom he leads to safety to found a new Trojan state and restore order into their lives. One particular virtue that he excels in and which has earned him the favor of the gods is tenacity (the capacity to stick to one’s purpose). Aeneas’s sense of mission to his gods is single-minded, and nothing, not even the virtues and entreaties of Dido, can stop him from carrying out his responsibilities to his future country and people (Mathis 45). Virgil’s presentation of Aeneas’s doggedness in matters concerning fate and the gods is consistent with the Roman resolve in one’s duty to the gods and family.

Even though Cupid played a role in Dido’s infatuation with Aeneas, the latter’s Roman virtues, especially his valor, character, manliness, excellence, and worth, played a role in winning the confidence and affections of the Queen of Carthage. As Aeneas narrated his feats of courage and valor to Dido, his lofty sense of duty to his country as well as his family appealed to the Queen, who also shared the same devotion to her kingdom (Kelley 16). However, if Aeneas’s Roman virtues earned him the respect and admiration of Dido, his duty to his gods would not allow him to stay with the gracious Queen any longer than was necessary, and as soon as he was prepared to leave, he set off for Italy where the gods wanted him to establish the country that would later become the Roman empire.

If Virgil extols Roman virtues and particularly one’s sense of duty, Ovid appears to extol the Grecian notions of the ideal human body form. Pygmalion’s wife should not only be chaste and submissive, but she should also be beautiful and possess the ideal body shape. As no woman is entirely flawless, Pygmalion denies himself the company of women and starts carving a statue of ivory to give it a perfect shape and make it more beautiful than any woman ever born (Eck 14). His obsession with creating a woman possessing ideal features and surpassing every other woman in beauty was the goal of most ancient Greek sculptors during Ovid’s time.

Unfortunately, the perfectly sculpted woman becomes the creator’s source of affection, and Pygmalion soon falls madly in love with his creation. Ovid demonstrates how the protagonist’s obsession with Grecian ideals of beauty and form pushes the artist to irrational infatuation. The statue soon becomes the only female being Pygmalion is capable of loving, and he starts courting it. He flatters the inanimate ivory girl with presents and compliments, over and above, adorning its body with precious jewelry and clothes. He even places the statue on soft cushions and considers it his bedfellow. Pygmalion’s equation of physical beauty with perfection is why he holds the statue as the perfect woman, even when there is no evidence of Galatea’s character or personality. 

The ideal Roman woman dutifully sat at home tending to household chores, caring for the children, and possessing typical feminine traits expected of a primary carer. Virgil’s story of the tragic Queen of Carthage intentionally portrays Dido that threatens the patriarchal gender roles in Roman society. She is strong, independent, gracious, and resourceful, but she is also a woman of wavering purpose and insatiable passions. Her lust for Aeneas proves to be her undoing. Still, Virgil’s Dido differs markedly from Ovid’s Galatea, who is anything but solid or independent (Lafont 4). Ovid depicts Galatea as a woman lacking any free will and who passively conforms to the traditional social role of wife and mother: she is submissive to her creator.

Besides this striking difference in women characters and roles in the two works, the two poets also appear to exalt different qualities from their periods. Virgil’s story of the tragic Queen of Carthage extols traditional Roman virtues. He portrays Aeneas as the embodiment of numerous Roman qualities, including integrity, fairness, good judgment, honesty, gravity, mercy, courage, self-control, humor, and dutifulness. On the other hand, Ovid appears to extol the Grecian notions of the ideal human body form (Morse 6). Pygmalion’s equation of physical beauty with perfection is the reason he obsesses over his ivory statue and believes it to be the perfect woman, even when there is no evidence of Galatea’s character or personality.

Works Cited

Bullón-Fermández, María. “Gower and Ovid: Pygmalion and the (dis)illusion of the word.” Through A Classical Eye, University of Toronto Press, 2016, pp. 363-380.

Eck, Stefanie. Pygmalion’s Metamorphosis and Galatea’s Revenge: Feminist Revisions of Ovid’s Pygmalion Myth in British and American Literature Since the 20th Century. GRIN Verlag, 2013.

Guevara, Mima Galdamez. “Dido, a Threat to the Patriarchal System.” May 2020. Magnificat. <>.

Higgins, Charlotte. “Dido, queen of Carthage, conquers theatreland.” The Guardian, April 7 2009, Accessed 18 April 2021

Kelley, Rachel E. “Queen Dido and empathy: a different perspective on an ancient epic” College of Arts and Sciences Senior Honors Theses. Paper 150, 2017.

Lafont, Agnès. “Multi-layered conversations in Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage.” Interweaving Myths in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Manchester University Press, 2017. https:l/

Mathis, Steffen. “The Clashing Island of Humanity: Virgil’s Aeneid as Heroic Threnody.” 2019. Rollins Scholarship Online. <>.

Morse, Ruth.” Pygmalion, once and future myth.” Interweaving Myths in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Manchester University Press, 2017.,7765/9781526117694.00019.

Ramsby, Teresa. “Juxtaposing Dido and Camilla in the Aeneid.” The Classical outlook (2010): 13-17.

Roos, Bonnie. “Refining the Artist into Existence: Pygmalion’s Statue, Stephen’s Villanelle and the Venus of Praxiteles.” Comparative Literature Studies (2001): 95-117.

Sharrock, A R. “Womanufacture.” The Journal of Roman Studies (1991): 36-49.

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