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Redressing Caesar as Dido in Thomas May’s Supplementum Lucani

Robert Clinton Simms

Thomas May's Supplementum Lucani (1640), often sniffed at as little more than a Latin crib of his earlier English Continuation from ten years earlier, is more fruitful when read as a unique volume treating the same subject. May's fidelity to Lucan, once considered his signal virtue, is not unswerving. The tensions between following his model and pursuing the critical concerns of his age, especially in politics, have been noted (Paleit ch. 6 & 7; Norbrook). In this paper I discuss May's sophisticated reconstitution of an early modern Caesar. The superfluous revisitation of Caesar's romantic interlude with Cleopatra in Sup. 2 suggests a vigorous effort to challenge Lucan by recasting Caesar as Dido in his romantic tryst. Lucan's epic on the civil wars ends with the open possibility of continuation. Though many readers have speculated on the poem's likely reach, Caesar's affair with Cleopatra is not a topic to which he is thought likely to have returned. Of course, if Lucan had continued to Actium Antony's affair with the notorious Egyptian queen would be a possible. Lucan's own Cleopatra follows the conventions of Augustan propaganda as a bewitching whore, a new Helen, who nearly destroys Rome (10.56-67). Scholars have noted that Caesar's tarrying at Alexandria echoes Aeneas' interlude with Dido at Carthage (e.g. Zwierlein), but while Bellum Civile 10 has Caesar at his weakest, and most vulnerable, the overall criticism of his passion for Cleopatra is light. Lucan, outside a noncommittal reference to Caesar running around like a frightened girl (10.458-9), avoids suggestions of effeminacy and unmanliness while at Alexandria. Caesar's vices and failings are predominately military, political, masculine. May's reframing of the episode emphatically underscores Caesar's overriding passion for Cleopatra; he simply can't seem to get away. In early modern England, Caesar could equally, and simultaneously, embody both military virtue as well as philandering vice, thanks in large part to the distillation and indexing of his notorieties in commonplace books, and other exemplementary writings (Jensen, 99). May follows Lucan in adopting the Aeneas-Dido armature to construct the episode; however, in order to display his predilection toward effeminacy, May grafts Caesar's role as lover on to Virgil's characterization of Dido. At Sup. 2.28-9 we find that the image of Cleopatra clings to his heart and burns: '…pectore totus in haeret | Quoque magis cernit, magis ardet'. At Sup. 2.46-8 his love for Cleopatra is a wound, and a fire: 'saucius ignem | concipit inde nouum, nimioque accenditur aestu'. Such lines we can gainfully compare to Aen. 4.1-5 (and other minor instances) that yield similar notions of the clinging image of a beloved, love as a wound, and love as a burning fire, that predicate Dido's unhappy condition. Essentially, May reinstitutes the Aeneas-Dido paradigm on which Lucan constructs the Caesarian dalliances, but with a twist: Caesar becomes Dido, and Cleopatra recedes to an object of Caesar's desire and attentions. Taking on the role of Dido also plays to an early modern notion of feminine beauty as emasculating (Cf. Shakespeare Antony & Cleopatra 1.4.4-7 and Romeo & Juliet 3.1.7). Thus by redressing Caesar as Dido, May more fully reifies the Caesar of the early modern imagination. Moreover, this example should suggest caution in too quickly dismissing the Supplementum as a translation, since the preference for specific lexical units reveal the precise intertexts in May's Latin, though not necessarily in his English.

Session/Panel Title

The World of Neo-Latin: Current Research

Session/Paper Number

84.4

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