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Pyramus and Thisbe

[pir-uh-muhs]
The love story of Pyramus and Thisbe, not really a part of Roman mythology, is actually a sentimental romance. It is briefly summarized by Hyginus (Fabulae 242) and more fully elaborated in Ovid (Metamorphoses 4).

Plot

In the Ovidian version, Pyramus and Thisbe is the story of two lovers in the Middle East who occupy connected houses, forbidden by their parents to be wed. Through a crack in one of the walls, they arrange to meet near a mulberry tree and state their feelings for each other. Thisbe arrived first, but upon seeing a lioness with a mouth bloody from a recent kill, she fled, leaving behind her veil. The lioness drank from a nearby fountain-then by chance mutilated the veil Thisbe had left behind. When Pyramus arrived, he was horrified at the sight of Thisbe's veil, assuming that a fierce beast had killed her. Pyramus proceeded to then kill himself, thrusting a sword into his groin. Thisbe returned, eager to tell Pyramus what had happened to her, but she found Pyramus' dead body under the shade of the mulberry tree. Thisbe, after a brief period of mourning, killed herself. The combined blood of the bodies seeped into the ground, staining the previously white fruit of the mulberry tree a deep purple. Thus, the mulberry tree became a symbol of the deaths of these two lovers.

Ovid's version

The following is a paraphrase of Ovid by Thomas Bulfinch (The Age of Fable, second edition, 1856):

Pyramus was the handsomest youth, and Thisbe the fairest maiden, in all Babylonia, where Semiramis reigned. Their parents occupied adjoining houses; and neighborhood brought the young people together, and acquaintance ripened into love. They would gladly have married, but their parents forbade. One thing however they could not forbid — that love should glow with equal ardor in the bosoms of both. They conversed by signs and glances, and the fire burned more intensely for being covered up. In the wall that parted the two houses there was a crack, caused by some fault in the structure. No one had remarked it before, but the lovers discovered it. What will not love discover! It afforded a passage to the voice; and tender messages used to pass backward and forward through the gap. As they stood, Pyramus on this side, Thisbe on that, their breaths would mingle. “Cruel wall,” they said, “why do you keep two lovers apart? But we will not be ungrateful. We owe you, we confess, the privilege of transmitting loving words to willing ears.” Such words they uttered on different sides of the wall; and when night came and they must say farewell, they pressed their lips upon the wall, she on her side, he on his, as they could come no nearer.

Next morning, when Aurora had put out the stars, and the sun had melted the frost from the grass, they met at the accustomed spot. Then, after lamenting their hard fate, they agreed that next night, when all was still, they would slip away from watchful eyes, leave their dwellings and walk out into the fields; and to insure a meeting, repair to a well-known edifice, standing without the city’s bounds, called the Tomb of Ninus, and that the one who came first should await the other at the foot of a certain tree. It was a white mulberry tree, and stood near a cool spring. All was agreed on, and they waited impatiently for the sun to go down beneath the waters and night to rise up from them. Then cautiously Thisbe stole forth, unobserved by the family, her head covered with a veil, made her way to the monument and sat down under the tree. As she sat alone in the dim light of the evening she descried a lioness, her jaws reeking with recent slaughter, approaching the fountain to slake her thirst. Thisbe fled at the sight, and sought refuge in the hollow of a rock. As she fled she dropped her veil. The lioness, after drinking at the spring, turned to retreat to the woods, and seeing the veil on the ground, tossed and rent it with her bloody mouth.

Pyramus, having been delayed, now approached the place of meeting. He saw in the sand the footsteps of the lion, and the color fled from his cheeks at the sight. Presently he found the veil all rent and bloody. “O, hapless girl,” said he, “I have been the cause of thy death! Thou, more worthy of life than I, hast fallen the first victim. I will follow. I am the guilty cause, in tempting thee forth to a place of such peril, and not being myself on the spot to guard thee. Come forth, ye lions, from the rocks, and tear this guilty body with your teeth.” He took up the veil, carried it with him to the appointed tree, and covered it with kisses and with tears. “My blood also shall stain your texture,” said he, and drawing his sword plunged it into his heart. The blood spurted from the wound, and tinged the white mulberries of the tree all red; and sinking into the earth reached the roots, so that the red color mounted through the trunk to the fruit.

By this time, Thisbe, still trembling with fear, yet wishing not to disappoint her lover, stepped cautiously forth, looking anxiously for the youth, eager to tell him the danger she had escaped. When she came to the spot and saw the changed color of the mulberries she doubted whether it was the same place. While she hesitated she saw the form of one struggling in the agonies of death. She started back, a shudder ran through her frame as a ripple on the face of the still water when a sudden breeze sweeps over it. But as soon as she recognized her lover, she screamed and beat her breast; embracing the lifeless body, pouring tears into its wounds, and imprinting kisses on the cold lips. “O, Pyramus,” she cried, “what has done this? Answer me, Pyramus; it is your own Thisbe that speaks. Hear me, dearest, and lift that drooping head!” At the name of Thisbe, Pyramus opened his eyes, then closed them again. She saw her veil stained with blood and the scabbard empty of its sword. “Thy own hand has slain thee, and for my sake,” she said. “I too can be brave for once, and my love is as strong as thine. I will follow thee in death, for I have been the cause; and death, which alone could part us, shall not prevent my joining thee. And ye, unhappy parents of us both, deny us not our united request. As love and death have joined us, let one tomb contain us. And thou, tree, retain the marks of slaughter. Let thy berries still serve for memorials of our blood.” So saying, she plunged the sword into her breast. Her parents ratified her wish, the gods also ratified it. The two bodies were buried in one sepulchre, and the tree ever after brought forth purple berries, as it does to this day.

Analysis

Use of gratuitous violence

Roman versions of mythological events are riddled with gratuitous violence, often to the point of absurdity. In Pyramus and Thisbe however, Ovid actually uses the violence to his own advantage, allying it with the dark tone of the overall story. The extent of pain that Pyramus expresses when he kills himself serves a dual purpose - it upholds the ideal of the Roman man as well as showing that he is willing to die graphically for the woman he loves. By contrast, Thisbe's death is described in much less detail to portray the end of the darkness and the conclusion of the story.

Adaptations

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe appears in Giovanni Boccaccio's On Famous Women as biography number twelve (sometimes thirteen) and in his Decameron, in the fifth story on the seventh day, where a desperate housewife falls in love with her neighbor, and communicates with him through a crack in the wall, attracting his attention by dropping pieces of stone and straw through the crack.

Geoffrey Chaucer was among the first to tell the story in English with his The Legend of Good Women. The "Pyramus and Thisbe" plot appears twice in Shakespeare's works. The plot of Romeo and Juliet may draw either from Ovid's Latin retelling in the Metamorphoses, or from Golding's 1567 translation of that work. A comic recapitulation appears in the play A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act V, sc 1), enacted by a group of "mechanicals".

Luis de Góngora wrote his Fábula de Píramo y Tisbe in 1618. John Frederick Lampe adapted the story as a "Mock Opera" in 1745, complete with a singing "Wall" described as "the most musical partition...ever heard. In 1768 in Vienna, Johann Adolf Hasse composed a serious opera on the tale , Piramo e Tisbe.

Edmond Rostand adapted the tale from Romeo and Juliet, making the fathers of the lovers conspire to bring their children together by pretending to forbid their love in Les Romanesques. Rostand's play, translated into English as The Fantastics was the basis for the musical The Fantasticks. The musical West Side Story, based on Romeo and Juliet, and The Fantasticks, thus have the same ultimate source. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, also wrote a children's version of "Pyramus and Thisbe" in her short story "A Hole in the Wall".

Allusions

Thisbe is also a transliteration of Tishbe, a town mentioned in the Bible (Tanakh or Old Testament) .

Thisbe "of the many doves" is mentioned as a city in Boeotia in the Catalogue of Ships, from Iliad 2.502. Pausanias mentions a Boeotian nymph named Thisbe for whom the city is named (9.32.2.45).

A play adaption of the myth holds a prominent position in the play " A Midsummer Night's Dream". The myth is to be played out by a group of commoners for a wedding.

Footnotes

References

Primary sources

  • Hyginus, Fabulae 242
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses iv.55-166

Secondary sources

Bulfinch, Thomas (1856). The Age of Fable; Or, Stories of Gods and Heroes (2nd ed.).

External links

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