"Choose Your Own Chaucer" Viewer's Guide

The "Choose Your Own Chaucer" film assumes that the viewer knows the "Legend of Dido" and its antecedents, Virgil's story of Dido and Aeneas in Aeneid Book 4 and Ovid's re-working of the story from Dido's perspective in his Herodies 7. Additionally, the uninitated might need a brief introduction to the theoretical underpinning of the "Choose Your Own Chaucer" format. So these are the "liner notes," as it were; I hope you can appreciate the film more because of them.

Dido appears in Virgil's Aeneid as a kind of "rabbit trail" that distracts Aeneas, a royal escapee from the burning Troy, from his divinely mandated, imperial destiny of founding Rome. A storm blows Aeneas off track and he lands in Carthage, a North African city-state ruled by the widowed queen Dido. The gods who are warring over Aeneas' destiny (primarily in this book Juno and Venus) involve themselves, and effectively cause Aeneas and Dido to fall passionate in love and eventually to consummate their relationship in a cave, during a rainstorm. After Aeneas dilly-dallies (as Virgil will have it) with Dido for some time, Jupiter sends Mercury to recall Aeneas to his imperial task. With some reluctance "Pious Aeneas" does obey the gods and reoutfit his ships for the voyage; Dido, however, is outraged and kills herself on Aeneas' own sword as he sails away. The episode closes memorably with Aeneas viewing the flames of Dido's funeral pyre as he leave the Cartheginian shore. Ovid questions Virgil's imperial focus in his Heroides 7, which is written as a letter from Dido to Aeneas as Aeneas is leaving and just before she commits suicide. This letter legitimizes Dido's more domestic perspective by undermining many of the "givens" in Virgil's epic; importantly, the gods are given no causal role, thus shifting the focus from Virgil's "piety" towards issues of individual responsibility and agency.

Writing sometime probably in the 1380s, Chaucer revisits these two formative and well-known classical narratives in his Legend of Good Women. In the Prologue, our Chaucerian narrator has a dream in which the God of Love takes him to task for writing against love; Alceste, a classical figure known for her ideal wifehood, proposes that the narrator redeem himself by writing stories of "good women" -- defined by her as those women who have been true in love even when deeply wronged by men. It is a penance that doesn't jive with the narrator's supposed "sins," and many of the subsequent legends problematize the category of the "good woman" in subtle ways. When he writes his "Legend of Dido" within the LGW, Chaucer (via his narrator) draws attention to both Virgil and Ovid as being the sources for his narrative while creating his "good woman" Dido by crafting Aeneas as a "bad man."

This film, then, takes the text that the Chaucerian narrator creates out of Virgil and Ovid and refragments it, partially returning the narrative to its Ovidian and Virgilian sources while showing a Chaucerian narrative persona (seen in the opening Prologue in the "Dido" track and in the voice-over Middle English) stitching narratives together. This is accomplished by filiming the same narrative in two "tracks," the Aeneas track and the Dido track, influenced by Virgil and Ovid respectively. On YouTube you are only able to view each track individually; in the DVD version, the viewer is prompted to choose which track he or she wants to see for the next scene. This technique allows the audience some agency in how this narrative is "stitched" together -- a trick adapted from Chaucer's tendency (in other poems more than the LGW) to place interpretive agency on the reader rather than on himself as an author.

One of the downsides of the condensed time frame was that the film team did not have time to nuance the screenwriting or acting in the ways they initially desired. In order to ensure that the audience did not miss the significnce of different scenes (and to obscure a few infelicitous filming moments), the absurdity levels often had to be jacked during the editing phase -- you can't miss them, and I hope that you'll laugh at them as we did in our class viewing.

Credits

Screenwriting: Christina Anderson, Sarah Frank, Adriana Thomas
Cinematography: Kitty Capelle, Rob Thomason
Editing: Rob Thomason
Costuming: Rebecka Wilson

Cast

Aeneas: Zach Burch
Anna (Dido's sister): Adriana Thomas
Chaucer: Rob Thomason
Dido: Kitty Capelle
Juno: Sarah Frank
Mercury: Rebecka Wilson
Venus: Christina Anderson
Voice-over Middle English narrator: Rebecka Wilson

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