Pyramus and Thisbe

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Pyramus and Thisbe Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Pyramus and Thisbe by Ovid.

Ovid first told the tragic story of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in Metamorphoses. The tale sounds very much like Romeo and Juliet, leading people to wonder if this is where William Shakespeare got his inspiration for the play. In addition to Shakespeare, many other authors have retold Ovid’s original story.

The tale is about two Babylonian lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe. Their families have lived as neighbors in Babylon all their lives. As Pyramus and Thisbe grow up, they fall in love. Unfortunately, the young lovers’ families hate each other and forbid them to get married. This forbidding by the families only makes the two fall more deeply in love.

They find a crack in the wall that separates their houses, and through it, they whisper and profess their love for each other. Finally, Pyramus and Thisbe can no longer stand being apart and decide to elope. They create a plan to sneak out of their houses separately that night and to meet at the tomb of Ninus under a mulberry tree that grows inside the tomb.

Thisbe arrives at the tomb first. She is so happy; she feels so close to becoming Pyramus’s wife. She is excited, but also afraid, and hopes nothing bad will happen to keep Pyramus and her apart. Upon her arrival, however, Thisbe sees a lioness with a mouth bloody from a recent kill. Thisbe fleas out of fear, leaving behind her veil.

When Pyramus arrives, he is horrified at the sight of Thisbe’s veil, assuming the lioness has killed her. Pyramus kills himself, falling on his sword in proper Babylonian fashion. His blood splashes on the white mulberry leaves.

Pyramus’s blood stains the white mulberry fruits, turning them dark. Thisbe returns, but to her dismay, she finds Pyramus’s dead body under the shade of the mulberry tree. After a brief period of mourning, she stabs herself with the same sword. In the end, the gods listen to Thisbe’s lament, and forever change the color of the mulberry fruits into the stained color to honor the forbidden love.

Ovid’s is the oldest surviving version of the story, published in 8 A.D., but he too had adapted an existing myth. Many others after Ovid recreated the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, in addition to Shakespeare, as mentioned above.

The story “Pyramus and Thisbe” appeared in Giovanni Boccaccio’s On Famous Women and in his Decameron. In the 1380s, Geoffrey Chaucer in his The Legend of Good Women, and John Gower in his Confessio Amantis were the first authors to tell the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in English. John Metham’s Amoryus and Cleopes, 1449, is another early English adaptation.

Then of course, there was the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet, which may be the most well known recreation of Ovid’s story. The earliest version of Romeo and Juliet was published in 1476 by Masuccio Salernitano and later was made famous by Shakespeare’s 1590 version of Romeo and Juliet. Here the star-crossed lovers could not be together because Juliet had been engaged by her parents to another man, and additionally, the two families held an ancient grudge that neither family was willing to let go. Just as in “Pyramus and Thisbe,” the two lovers (Romeo and Juliet) defied their families in order to secretly communicate, and created a plan whereby they hoped to be together; but just as in “Pyramus and Thisbe,” the plan sadly does not work, and the mistaken belief in one lover’s death leads to consecutive suicides of both lovers.

Shakespeare once again portrays the story of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when the story is acted out during a scene within the larger play. In addition, others have re-told the story. Spanish poet Luis de Góngora wrote Fábula de Píramo y Tisbe in 1618, while French poet Théophile de Viau wrote Les amours tragiques de Pyrame et Thisbée in 1621. There are even more who have re-written this beautiful yet tragic story of forbidden love, and as such, we see that the story of Pyramus and Thisbe has been, and continues to be to very popular throughout history.