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  • Diamonds, Maidens, Widow Dido, and Cock-a-diddle-dow
  • David Golz (bio)

References to Dido, lover of Aeneas, in the second act of The Tempest have garnered much interpretation and speculation by readers and playgoers. Studies over the last few decades have explored Dido's role in Shakespeare's play from the intertwined perspectives of gender, colonization, empire building, and the politics of reading and rewriting classical literature.1 Although some of these have revealed the extensive use of images and themes from the Aeneid in the play and have shown especially how the love of Ferdinand and Miranda is partly parallel to, and partly a reversal of, the ancient love story of Aeneas and the queen of Carthage, there may be another motive for Dido's inclusion, a motive related to a system of wordplay involving shuffled repetitions of the sounds of letters and syllables.2 As Russ McDonald has remarked in Shakespeare's Late Style, "The notorious mystery surrounding Gonzalo's 'Widow Dido' has been examined in almost every conceivable context except, I think, that of aural identity, simple rhyme."3 Although venturing a bit beyond rhyme, this essay focuses on the name of Dido as sound, and as alphabetical letters, situating the name within a set of wordplay practices extending across the genres of drama, prose fiction, poetry, and folk ballad. It explores, therefore, an overlooked linguistic facet of Dido's multifaceted legacy.

My argument begins with anagrammatical wordplay involved in commonplace associations between desirable women and precious jewels, and Dido's participation within that complex. I then consider Dido as an emblem of love-induced madness and explore a link between her name and the nonsense words in bawdy ballads. Finally, I maintain that utterances of "widow Dido" in The Tempest echo the refrain to "Come unto these yellow sands," and therefore participate in Ariel's music, which is both alluring and cautionary. [End Page 167]

I. Diamonds

Diamonds were hardly common material objects in late medieval and early modern England, yet in language and literature they gathered about them an array of cultural implications. Everyday speakers linked them, of course, with wealth and treasure, but also with innocence and virginity, and the writers of romances used them to symbolize the idealized, unalloyed beauty of the chaste females who were the objects of their heroes' quests. Players on the London stage in the time of Shakespeare invoked them to mark the role of the eminently desirable woman. The following lines, spoken by Savourwit in Thomas Middleton's No Wit/Help Like a Woman's, exemplify the figure:

Do not wise men and great often bestowTen thousand pound in jewels that lie by 'em?If so, what jewel can lie by a manMore precious than a virgin? If none more precious,Why should the pillow of a fool be gracedWith that brave spirits which dearness have embraced?—And then perhaps, ere the third spring come on,Sends home your diamond cracked, the beauty gone,And—more to know her, 'cause you shall not doubt her—A number of poor sparks twinkling about her.


He tells us that a virgin is a treasure so precious that she should be reserved for great men, who, presumably, will appreciate her, not for fools who will debase her and eventually abandon her to overuse among the common multitude ("poor sparks"), her own light and value greatly diminished. The phrase "diamond cracked" transfers the jewel reference from the young woman herself to her maidenhead. In the sexual innuendo of the period, "diamond," "jewel," or "precious stone" might refer to either female or male sexual parts.5

Yet a leading lady did not have to be a maiden to be pure and radiant, and valued as a diamond. In Middleton's Women, Beware Women the "most matchless jewel" Bianca, the sixteen-year-old wife of Leantio, must be "cased up from all men's eyes" (1.1.162, 170). When the lust-filled Duke of Florence sends a messenger to invite Bianca to a banquet, her husband tells her to withdraw, because she is "a gem no stranger's eye must see, / Howe'er thou please...


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