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The Influence of Ovid and Thisbe on the Romance Plays of William Shakespeare

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The true author or authors behind the works attributed to William Shakespeare has long been debated, scholars proposing more than 70 potential candidates, ranging from Sir Francis Bacon to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Over centuries the works have been studied in immense depth across the globe, finding their way into the hands of academics and school students alike. With such wide recognition comes scrutiny, and Shakespeare’s every word has been analysed and picked apart, sometimes fuelling the Anti-Stratfordian conspiracy but more often unveiling sources that provided him with inspiration for anything from a few words to whole plots.

Historians have been able to trace the tragedy of Othello to Cinthio’s short story Un Capitano Moro, the romantic play Antony and Cleopatra to Plutarch’s Life of Mark Antony, and a staggering 90% of Shakespeare’s mythological references to Ovid’s narrative poem masterwork, Metamorphoses. This claim may be an exaggeration by the source as they do not provide evidence for how this statistic was calculated; but there is certainly a large affinity between the myths referenced by Ovid and by Shakespeare. Ovid had more to offer than just mythology, however; his tales served as stimulus for some of Shakespeare’s best and most well-known works, including Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the extent of this can be debated. In the late 16th century and early 17th century when Shakespeare was an active playwright, the Statute of Anne, the first piece of legislation which granted intellectual property rights and protection to the owners of creative works had not yet been passed, meaning plagiarism was not yet illegal. Consequently, this permits the inclusion of direct imitations of other works, which can serve as evidence supporting the argument that Shakespeare borrowed many of his ideas from Ovid, in addition to making mere allusions. This essay aims to discuss and answer the question of how far Ovid’s tale of Pyramus and Thisbe from his Metamorphoses influenced Shakespeare’s presentation of young lovers, in particular, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet.

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Ovid“Ovidius Naso,” sniffs Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “was the man.” Born in 43 BC, Sulmo, Roman Empire, Ovid’s first career was in government as a member of the Roman knightly class. He held some minor judicial posts before abandoning this career to instead cultivate poetry and the society of poets. Whilst attending grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare learnt Latin along with his classmates through the study of works by Roman poets including Ovid. They would have been drilled in extracts from Ovid’s works in their original Latin – at first brief passages for the teaching of grammar and rhetoric, then more substantial sections of the poems themselves. Although there exists no irrefutable proof of this, the grammar school curricula consisted of Latin texts by royal decree. In spite of Ben Jonson, a close personal friend and rival of Shakespeare, suggesting he had “Small Latin and less Greek” in a verse eulogy prefixed to the First Folio, it is widely accepted that Shakespeare possessed an adequate grasp of the language by modern standards. Shakespeare may have been able to translate the works of Ovid for himself, but there was also a translation of his Metamorphoses by Arthur Golding published in 1567 circulating widely, which there is a high likelihood he familiarised himself with and consulted more regularly than the original out of both convenience and preference. As shown by a census of printed translations, Golding’s was one of the most popular books of Elizabethan times, treasured for its entertaining plots and the moral lessons that Golding added to the ancient text. Numerous similarities have been identified between Golding and Shakespeare’s language choices across many of the latter’s plays and poems which are believed to be inspired by Metamorphoses. An example of this can be seen in The Tempest when Prospero cries “Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves!”, echoing the words of Golding “Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone/ Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye everychone.” In his translation of Medea’s invocation in Book VII of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Golding did more than literally translate the works of Ovid, he added layers of beautiful language and imagery that appealed to Shakespeare and set a precedent that a fairly simplistic tale can be enhanced through adaptation, a task that he later took on himself. Shakespeare aimed to develop and improve not only Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but also Golding’s translation of the text.

Shakespeare was not the only bard to be inspired by Ovid: Luis de Góngora, a Spanish poet, wrote an illustrious poem entitled La Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea that retells the story of Polyphemus, Galatea and Acis; John Gower wrote his 33,000 line Confessio Amantis, and more recently Ted Hughes adapted twenty four stories from the Metamorphoses into his volume of poetry ‘Tales from Ovid’ to name but a few. While Ovid could hardly have predicted he’d have such a substantial influence on art and literature 2000 years after his death, he did have reason to believe his name would live on, at least once he completed his Metamorphoses. By the time he came to write the epic, he was already arguably the most famous poet in Rome – a prominence due in no small part to the scandalous brilliance of his love poetry in the Amores, Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris – and his most ambitious work was designed to cement that fame for good. Believed to have been written in 8CE over 15 books, the Metamorphoses is an epopee depicting stories in chronological order from the creation of the world, the first metamorphosis of chaos into order, to the death and deification of Julius Caesar. The work is a collection of mythological and legendary stories, often from Greek sources, however the common thread is the role of transformation, metamorphosis, in each tale. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe can be found in Book IV and recounts the Babylonian myth of two lovers separated by a wall between their houses, able to communicate only through a small crack. When their parents refuse to consent to their union, they resolve to flee together, meeting under a mulberry tree. Thisbe arrives first but runs from an approaching lioness and in her panic drops her veil, which the creature rips and stains with the blood of an ox. Pyramus finds this and, believing her to have been devoured, stabs himself with his sword; when she returns and discovers him mortally wounded, she also ends her own life. To this day the white berries of the mulberry trees are stained red as a symbol of their tragic love. Although just 111 lines of text in its original Latin out of the 11,996 that make up the Metamorphoses, there is evidence to suggest that Shakespeare used this tale as the basis of his two works believed to have been written in 1595-1596, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A Midsummer Night’s DreamThe Mechanicals, a band of tradesmen turned actors who find themselves in the woods outside of Athens at the same time as the four lovers decided to perform their own version of Pyramus and Thisbe at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. The play within the play functions as further comic relief within the festive comedy, but also as a reflection of the principal plot. Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena may have survived their experiences in the forest and ultimately leave it more deeply in love and happier, yet there existed the potential for their complex love story to turn to tragedy, and Shakespeare includes the story of Pyramus and Thisbe to remind both characters and audiences alike of this. As Bate puts it, “The comedy and the charm of the Dream depend on a certain fragility. Good comedy is tragedy narrowly averted”. In order for a commentary to be drawn from The Mechanicals’ production, first several parallels should be identified. Both Pyramus and Thisbe and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, hereafter referred to as the Dream, demonstrate irrationality within love. Ovid’s tale portrays this theme when the lovers speak directly to the wall.“Thou envious wall why art though standing in the way of those who die for love? What harm could happen thee shouldst thou permit us to enjoy our love?”. The personification of the inanimate object separating the lovers could be interpreted as a metaphor representing the will of their parents which keeps them apart. However, by addressing the wall instead of their families, it is clear that the couple are not acting rationally. Their state of mind borders on delusional if they believe they stand more chance of achieving success at persuading a wall to allow their union as opposed to convincing their parents.

Furthermore, their plan to elope lacks any consideration of the practicality of life after the marriage ceremony; they are unable to see beyond their affections for one another and therefore unable to look at the situation objectively, which ultimately leads to their decline and eventual suicides. Similarly, there are many displays of irrational thinking as a result of Eros in the Dream, such as Helena’s infatuation with Demetrius in spite of his torrent of insults and threats. She betrays her best friend by giving up Hermia and Lysander’s plans to Demetrius because she thinks this will cause Demetrius to fall in love with her, failing to foresee the more logical outcome that he will pursue the woman he is betrothed to. Before magic is woven into the plot and their desires, Demetrius is explicit in his rejection of Helena, “I love thee not, therefore pursue me not” and yet she remains fixated on and obsessed with him.

“And even for that do I love you the more. I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius, The more you beat me, I will fawn on you: Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me, Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave, Unworthy as I am, to follow you.” Love has rendered Helena irrational to the extent where she becomes so desperate for Demetrius’s attention that she aspires to be treated as a dog, wishing away her own humanity and abasing herself as she longs to become a mere appendage to him. The extended metaphor of her as his hound, emphasised with the possessive pronoun “your” twice, is interjected with harsh imperative verbs such as “spurn”, “strike”, “neglect” and “lose”– she is commanding him to treat her violently and cruelly – and are all followed by the personal pronoun “me”. This repetition establishes a cyclical rhythm that suggests she is trapped in a state of hysteria.

Just as Pyramus and Thisbe were unable to see the flaws in their actions, she is unable to recognise the lack of sound judgement in hers. Both texts also include a love that is forbidden. This commonality may be less subtle than that of the first, however this increases the likelihood of the audience making the connection whilst watching the play and may have acted as an instigator for more links to be made between the play within the play, and consequently with Ovid’s original text which the wedding performance imitates. In spite of the numerous alterations made by the Mechanicals, the refusal by Pyramus and Thisbe’s parents to permit their marriage remains true to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the original forbidden love. Similarly, the love between Hermia and Lysander is prohibited by her father, Egeus, who decrees she must marry Demetrius in an act of patriarchal dominance, treating her as a possession. Parents dictating who their children will be allowed to love and marry causes the four lovers to abscond to the forests and, more direly, Pyramus and Thisbe’s deaths.The Mechanicals’ play is included to illustrate the consequences of rash behaviour, since the four young lovers managed to avoid any substantial harm in spite of their numerous rash and unmeditated decisions, for instance disobeying Egeus. Whilst poor execution by Quince and his troupe may lead to the gravity of the message being inadequately communicated to the young lovers at the Duke’s wedding, the use of a pre-existing and widely-known story such as Pyramus and Thisbe ensures that the audience of the Dream would have understood the reference and appreciated the danger of hasty choices.

Shakespeare may well have assumed, due to the popularity of Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses at the time, that it would only take the mention of Pyramus and Thisbe’s names to invoke the recall of their tragic deaths and the moral of the story that brought them about in the minds of the audience. This would allow him more flexibility with the Mechanicals’ portrayal and provide him with the opportunity to create a humorous scene for both the characters and audience to enjoy. But what makes the performance so comical? Primarily, the amateur actors are laughed at because of their lower class standing and lack of formal education. By using the simple poetic device of writing their production in clumsy and often absurd rhymed verse, the included puns are emphasised, and immediately the artisans seem less intelligent, and present as illiterate and simple mannered. They come across as particularly foolish as they attempt to use more sophisticated vocabulary, but do so incorrectly; for example, Bottom means to say “seemly” but mistakenly uses “obscenely” 1:2:94, and “devoured” instead of “deflowered” 5:1:280, whilst Flute says “Helen” rather than “Hero” in 5:1:194, and Quince means to say “paragon” but instead says “paramor” in 4:2:10. In combination with the frequent usage of “and” and “if”, the actors are made to seem as if they are unable to correctly form sentences and lack the patience to gather their thoughts before they begin to speak, noted by Theseus when he says, “This fellow doth not stand upon points.” as soon as Quince delivers the Prologue. Additionally, they emphasise unnecessary details, such as the type of beard that Bottom will wear. Their preoccupation with minor costume particulars rather than the quality of acting contributes to the disastrous final performance, and the comically elongated noun phrases and compound adjectives, culminating in a pun by which Bottom means to refer to the colour of a coin but Quince interprets it to mean a Frenchman’s head sets the precedent for their roles to be humorous even in rehearsals. With Starveling playing the moon, “This lantern doth the horned moon present”, Snout embodying the wall, and Snug as the lion, the tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe becomes comedy – often the hilarious finale of modern productions. If their repeated breaking of the fourth wall to reassure the audience that they shouldn’t be scared of their convincing acting wasn’t evidence enough of this, perhaps Bottom’s final line as Pyramus, “Now die, die, die, die, die” could cement this hypothesis, or even their oxymoronic title by itself “The Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe” could prove that Shakespeare intended the explicit use of Pyramus and Thisbe to be comedic. The performance may have supplied the young lovers, as well as the audience, with an opportunity to laugh as they ridiculed it, but the subconscious reminder of the potentially fatal consequences of young love shows, even in a comedy, that Shakespeare knew well that not every young love ends as happily as they do in the Dream.

Romeo and Juliet

As previously mentioned, it is believed that Romeo and Juliet was written alongside the Dream in 1595-6. If we assume that the story of Pyramus and Thisbe was a source for the Dream, evident by its appearance at the Duke’s wedding, then it is logical to presume that Ovid’s tale was also on Shakespeare’s mind whilst writing his most famous tragedy. The likeness between Pyramus and Thisbe and Romeo and Juliet seems undeniable for many reasons.Both stories consist of a young love forbidden by the families concerned as a result of longstanding tensions between them. A higher emphasis is put on the familial feud by Shakespeare, first establishing it in the Prologue “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny” then concluding the play with the words of Capulet, “O brother Montague, give me thy hand”, as a symbol of peace and the end of their longstanding war due to their children’s deaths, “with their death bury their parents’ strife”. The lovers’ relationship is the catalyst for change in Romeo and Juliet, bringing the two enemies together; beyond the plot, the play serves to share the message that arguments should be resolved in order to prevent other such deaths. Ovid’s Metamorphoses includes significantly less detail about the rivalry between the young lovers’ families, Golding translating the only comment on the matter as “their fathers had forbidden them”. The story aims more to comment on the nature of young love than family feuds. Nonetheless the impact is the same on the pairs of young lovers, both deciding their only chance of being together is to elope. As a consequence of their parents’ conflicts, the lovers in both stories resort to communicating and meeting in secret. Romeo and Juliet correspond primarily through the Nurse and the Friar. In Act 2 Scene 2, the famous balcony scene, Juliet says “send me word tomorrow/ By one that I’ll procure to come to thee”, knowing they cannot be seen talking to one another so must use a trusted messenger. Their meetings take place in private, including in Friar Lawrence’s cell with a protocol in place to ensure they are not discovered, “Arise; one knocks; good Romeo, hide thyself” and never in the public eye where their love is threatened. Pyramus and Thisbe also take precautions to protect their relationship, talking only through a crack in the wall that joins their houses which had otherwise been undiscovered. “A way whereby to talk togither secretly, and through the same did goe their loving whisprings verie light and safely to and fro”. When planning to flee together, they agree to meet in secret by the mulberry bush outside Ninus’ tomb, Thisbe sneaking out first to be followed by Pyramus later, cautious as to evade their parents.

In Ovid and Shakespeare’s tales alike, subterfuge is required to avoid exposure and the punishments that would follow.Perhaps the clearest link between the two texts is the double suicide of the two lovers, first the male then the female, as a consequence of their hastily made decisions. Pyramus happens upon the veil of Thisbe, bloodied by the lioness, and immediately jumps to the conclusion that his love is dead, so kills himself. The reader despairs, if only he had the patience and clarity of thought to evaluate the situation, perhaps he would have found Thisbe and they could have eloped successfully.

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