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Of all the characters in the Aeneid, Dido is probably the one you might relate to most. She's the most human. She's beautiful, generous, kind, and successful. She has strong emotions. She's the queen of a bustling city, Carthage. When you first see her, she offers a welcome relief from Aeneas' endless problems. But she ends up killing herself. What goes wrong?
On the simplest level, Dido's story is the classic story of unrequited love. She loves Aeneas more than he loves her. For a year they have a passionate affair and everything is great. But then Aeneas decides he has to leave. His respect for the gods and his duty to his people are stronger than his love. But nothing is more important to Dido than her love for Aeneas. She burns with love. She is totally distracted. When Aeneas finally leaves, she becomes alternately bitter, vindictive, and pathetic, as she curses Aeneas and then begs him to stay. She is a victim of uncontrolled passion.
Where did this passion come from? Is it Cupid's fault for wounding her with his arrow? If so, then what happens to Dido is not her fault. She's the victim of the gods and of Aeneas' fate to go to Italy. Part of Virgil's theme here is simply that life is terribly unfair to some people. Virgil wants you to feel sorry for Dido. After all, she got a raw deal.
But is there more to it? Do you really believe that Cupid was entirely to blame or was Dido ready to fall in love? Is passion part of her nature? The first time we see her we see that she is an extremist. She wants to stay up all night to hear Aeneas' story. Her vow never to remarry after her first husband died also seems a little drastic. Even her sister Anna thinks so.
Whatever started it, this excessive passion destroys Dido. For one thing, it makes her irrational. Aeneas' story should have warned her that he would eventually leave for Italy. A more rational person would at least have asked him what his plans were. Instead, Dido gets "married" in a mock ceremony in a cave-something only she believes is a real marriage.
Dido falls in love with Aeneas, in the first place, partly because she is so impressed with all his heroic exploits. She is a great person and she admires another great person. That's the basis of their love-the mutual respect of two people in similar situations. But, while they're having their love affair, both of them lose sight of the things that made them great. Dido forgets about ruling Carthage; she forgets about her reputation and about the kind of example she is setting for her people. She forgets about her vow never to marry again. Aeneas also forgets about Italy but, with a little help from Jupiter, he takes up his duties again. Stiff, when Aeneas leaves, Dido doesn't return to her duties as queen. She sinks into despair because not only has she lost Aeneas, she's also lost her self-respect. This is at least one reason why Dido commits suicide. No one can live without self-respect.
But why doesn't Dido return to ruling Carthage the way Aeneas returns to his responsibilities? You'll see that at the end this never occurs to her. She's too filled with despair. She does briefly consider trying to get someone else to marry her. She even considers following Aeneas to Italy. But we have to respect her when she realizes that either of these choices would be pathetic and would cause her to lose even more of her self-respect.
Dido kills herself out of frantic despair, but also as a way of restoring her self-respect. It is her last great act. Do you respect Dido for having the courage to kill herself or do you think it's the final sign of her madness?
Whichever answer seems right to you, you'll agree that Dido's tragedy shows the terrible destructive power of uncontrolled passion. In this way she is like Juno and Turnus but, in another way, she is totally different. They are angry and violent, lashing out at others, but Dido is ruined by love. In the end, she does curse Aeneas and predict a great war between Carthage and Rome, but Dido never actually hurts anyone but herself, and this makes her tragedy the greatest in the Aeneid.