By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Although the plot details of the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe may not be familiar to most readers, many theatregoers will have encountered the myth: it plays an important part in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But what happens in the story of these two lovers?
Let’s take a closer look at the classical myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, starting with a summary of the story’s plot, followed by an analysis of its meaning.
Pyramus and Thisbe: plot summary
As is so often the case with ‘the Greek myths’, it was Ovid, a Roman poet, who fleshed out the details of the story and gave us what has become, in many ways, the definitive version. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells us how Pyramus and Thisbe, two young Babylonians, fell in love with each other but were forbidden to marry because their parents would not allow such a match, because the two families were engaged in a bitter and long-standing feud.
Pyramus was the son of one family and Thisbe the daughter of the other family. They lived next door to each other in their parents’ grand houses, but were forbidden to associate with each other in any way.
(Sound familiar? It’s not unlike the story of Romeo and Juliet, although for that play Shakespeare took his inspiration from an earlier prose work, rather than the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe.)
A wall separated the two families’ houses, but there was a crack in it; Pyramus and Thisbe would meet and speak to each other in secret, using the crack in the wall to communicate with each other without their parents finding out.
They arranged to meet somewhere away from their parents’ houses, at the tomb of Ninus, the mythical founded of Nineveh and the Babylonian Empire. At the site of the tomb a mulberry tree flourished.
When Thisbe showed up on the night of their secret rendezvous, she couldn’t see Pyramus, who hadn’t arrived yet. But she saw a lioness with blood dripping from its mouth, having devoured some unfortunate prey. Thisbe grew scared, so she ran away, dropping her scarf behind as she fled. The lioness took the scarf in its mouth and tore it to pieces.
When Pyramus showed up, he found Thisbe’s scarf torn to bits and covered in blood, and no Thisbe. Assuming the worst, he took out his sword and stabbed himself, eager to join his beloved – so he thought – in the afterlife, unable to go on living without her.
When Thisbe showed up and saw her lover had killed himself, thinking her dead, she took the sword from his lifeless hands and stabbed herself. The blood of the two lovers stained the mulberry tree, turning the white fruit red.
Pyramus and Thisbe: analysis
When Ovid undertook his vast retelling of the classical myths, he chose the title Metamorphoses – meaning ‘changes’ or, more accurately, ‘changing shapes or forms’ – because he had observed how many classic Greco-Roman myths involved characters who were transformed in some way: women turned into spiders, winged horses turned into constellations, men turned into stags, and so on.
And a common trend among the myths is people dying and their blood staining white things red or causing new flowers to grow out of the earth. So Narcissus dies and from his blood the narcissus flower (a kind of daffodil) was said to have sprung; and Adonis’ blood is said to have stained white roses, giving rise to red roses (alternatively, it was Aphrodite’s blood when she cut her food rushing to help Adonis).
And in the Hyacinth story, Apollo was devastated by Hyacinth’s death, and as he stood over the youth, crying for his loss, his tears merged with the blood from the man’s head-wound, and the tears and blood combined to create the flower, the hyacinth, which bears Hyacinth’s name to this day.
In a sense, such myths function as ‘Just So’ stories for how the natural world came to be: every flower has its own back-story, some memorable tale (usually a tragic love affair) which explains how it came to be. The fruit of the mulberry tree would always be a rich purple colour in memory of the blood of the luckless lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe.
In his entertaining retelling of the classic myths, Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold (Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths), Stephen Fry points out that it was Ovid who moved the setting of the Pyramus and Thisbe myth from Cilicia, a kingdom founded by Cilix, to Babylon. But because Ovid’s version has become the most famous, most people (including Fry) have followed Ovid in locating the story in Babylon, whose remains are found in modern-day Iraq.
The story of Pyramus and Thisbe clearly shares many features with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: the feuding families, the young man and woman from the rival families who fall in love with each other; the secret tryst; the tragic ending with the two lovers killing each other when they see (or wrongly assume) the other is dead. There are too many similarities to be written off as coincidence.
And although Shakespeare clearly knew the Pyramus and Thisbe tale – he has Bottom and the other ‘rude mechanicals’ put on a farcical version of the tragedy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – he got the tale of Romeo and Juliet from another source. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe was well-known in medieval and Renaissance Italy: it features in Giovanni Boccaccio’s On Famous Women, and a story clearly based on it also appears in his Decameron.
In 1476, the earliest known version of the Romeo and Juliet tale, by Masuccio Salernitano, appeared in Italy. In 1524, Luigi da Porto augmented the text, both he and Salernitano demonstrating familiarity with both Ovid and Boccaccio. Then, in 1562, an English author named Arthur Brooke published his poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, based on a translation of da Porto’s version.
So although Shakespeare got Romeo and Juliet from Brooke, Brooke got it from da Porto, and da Porto got it from Boccaccio, who got it from Ovid.