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Pyramus And Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream: Summary and Meaning

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  • 0:01 Summary
  • 1:35 Adaptations
  • 2:29 A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • 3:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
Before Romeo and Juliet, we see a parallel story in Pyramus and Thisbe, a Roman myth. It is all there: feuding families, forbidden love, and a tragic ending. Later, we see a spoof of Pyramus and Thisbe in ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.''

Myth of Pyramus and Thisbe

The tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe sounds very much like Romeo and Juliet, and one wonders if it is where William Shakespeare got his inspiration for the play. The tale was first told by Ovid in Metamorphoses. This Roman myth is as follows:

Two neighboring youths, Pyramus and Thisbe, fall in love. The only problem is that their families hate each other. They are forbidden to meet in person, so they communicate through a small chink in the shared wall between their houses. One day, they decide to meet at Ninus' tomb (Ninus is believed to be the one who started the city of Nineveh, capital of Assyria). They long to be together, as lovers do, to declare their feelings in person.

However, a horrible misunderstanding ensues! When Thisbe arrives, she sees a lioness with a bloody mouth who has just finished killing her prey. Terrified, Thisbe flees, but leaves behind her veil. The lioness randomly shreds the veil, smearing it with blood. When Pyramus arrives, he sees the veil, and he is horrified, assuming the lioness has slaughtered Thisbe.

As was the Roman way, he commits suicide by falling on his sword. As he falls, his blood stains the white fruit born by the Mulberry tree. Thisbe returns to the tomb to find Pyramus dead. Grief stricken, she, too, falls on Pyramus' sword and kills herself. In pity, the gods permanently turn the fruit of Mulberry trees a crimson color.

Adaptations

Famous writers, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Giovanni Boccaccio, John Gower, and Shakespeare, all wrote adaptations from this tragic story. Most familiar to us is Romeo and Juliet. Just as Pyramus and Thisbe's families feuded, so did the Montagues and the Capulets. Instead of speaking through a chink in a wall, Romeo scales the wall to the Capulet home and woos his love, Juliet.

Similar misunderstandings in both stories result in tragedy. For instance, Romeo finds Juliet in a drugged state that imitated death. He assumes she is truly dead and drinks poison, committing suicide. In a similar fashion, when Pyramus sees Thisbe's bloodied veil, he commits suicide, falling on his sword. When Juliet awakens and finds Romeo dead, she stabs herself in the heart. Thisbe, too, falls on her lover's sword upon seeing the fallen Pyramus.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a group of blue-collar workers decide to practice the play Pyramus and Thisbe for the wedding feast of King Theseus and Queen Hippolyta. They aren't very good actors; in fact, they really butcher the story! Although it is true that men always played women's parts in Shakespearean plays, it is funny that the youngest man, Flute, is forced to play the part of Thisbe. It makes one wonder if men truly disliked playing these women's parts!

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