The Myth Maze

There is a lost myth on every street corner and in every children's nursery rhyme. This blog seeks to explore some of these with you.


As the year enters the second week of the second month it seems that life is returning to the barren earth and our thoughts inevitably turn to birth, renewal and love.

snowdrops in late winter

If you were asked to name the most famous lovers of history or literature, most of you would answer Romeo and Juliet . Shakespeare’s tragic lovers have inspired films, books, musicals and plays for generations, but where did Shakespeare’s own inspiration for this story come from ?

As is often the case with Shakespeare he drew his inspiration from the Greco-Roman mythic tales of gods, demi-gods and heroes. Before we sighed for Romeo and Juliet the Greeks and Romans cried with Pyramus and Thisbe.

Pyramus and Thisbe lived in the ancient city of Babylon, where the hanging gardens hung. They lived in adjoining palaces in the centre of the city and should have grown up as friends but they were the children of feuding families and were thus forbidden to speak or to play with each other. The feud lay in the far distant past and no one in the two families could remember the cause but still the feud was kept alive by resentment and bitterness.

Inevitably , as is the case often with forbidden fruit, they became attracted to each other and devised a secret way of communicating, through a chink in the wall between their two gardens. The chink was too small for them to touch but just large enough for them to whisper their love and their longing. The restraints on their love grew too much to bear and they decided to slip away from their guards and to meet by moonlight at the tomb of King Ninus .

Thisbe arrived first, disguised with a veil , but encountered a wild lion dripping with blood from a recent kill and fled in terror letting her veil fall to the ground as she ran. Pyramus arrived soon after and was horrified to find on the ground only a blood streaked veil, assuming the worst he plunged his sword into his breast crying out for his lost love and the cruelty of fate. Thisbe returned to find her dying lover, clutched him to her breast and in turn, bewailing fate and the cruelty of the gods, fell on Pyramus’ sword.

Thus the tragedy weaves its inevitable path and we sigh for the waste of young life and love brought down by the inexplicable hatred of feuding families. The tale is redeemed a little as the families on finding their poor sad children forget their feud and bury them together in the shade of a mulberry tree, which turns its berries purple for them in perpetual mourning.( Fry 2017).

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe can be found in Metamorphoses a work by the Roman writer Ovid. Ovid himself has a sad story to tell, he was born in 43BC , educated in Rome and despite being skilled in the law and rhetoric chose to specialize in love poetry. By AD8 he was a prominent literary figure in Roman society but was suddenly and inexplicably banished by Augustus to the provincial backwater of Tomis far away on the shores of the Black Sea. He lived out his days in this dismal unfriendly town finally dying there in AD17 but during his exile continued to write his glorious love poetry. He had devoted his career to the poetic rendering of love and its effects , celebrating the human experiences in all its variations.

Ovid Roman poet

Our own poet Shakespeare was also a great explorer of love in all its variations and wrote of its effects in many forms. Pyramus and Thisbe our tragic lovers, in addition to being the inspiration for Romeo and Juliet appear in a playlet within the magnificent comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream;  where their story is played out by the ‘hard-handed men‘ of Athens at the wedding celebrations of Theseus and Hippolyte. Hard-handed meaning simple working men , here we have Quince the carpenter, Bottom the weaver, Flute the bellows mender, Snug the joiner, Snout the tinker and Starveling the tailor, all trying rather clumsily to play the delicate lovers and their entourage of lions, walls and moons.

The simple working men should have given us farce and we should belly- laugh at their absurdity but instead they are strangely poignant and compelling in their retelling of the tragic tale. Following after the night of midsummer madness between Bottom and the Fairy Queen Titania the little playlet continues to weave a magic spell. There is little so heart stirringly poignant than little Thisbe, played by Flute wearing a ridiculous wig and using a farcical falsetto voice, clutching Pyramus to her bosom and crying:

What dead my dove?

O Pyramus arise!

Speak, Speak. Quite dumb?

Dead,dead? A tomb must cover thy sweet eyes.

These lily lips.

This cherry nose.

These yellow cowslip cheeks. are gone, are gone!

Shakespeare a Midsummer Night’s Dream
Thisbe dies as played by Sam Rockwell

Thus Thisbe ends Adieu, Adieu Adieu.

Young ( or even old) love when forbidden by family, class, culture, religion forms the backbone of some of our most celebrated literary triumphs over the centuries. From Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere, Cathy and Heathcliff, through to Marius and Cosette. The words of Colonel Brandon , as played by the inimitable and sadly missed Alan Rickman, in Ang Lee’s film of Sense and Sensibility spring to mind;-

the cruelty , the impolitic cruelty of dividing or attempting to divide , two young people, long attached to each other is terrible

Jane Austin. Sense and sensibility

As Jane Austin knew herself only too well.

Love , laugh and weep with all the world’s lovers this week and eat chocolate…………………

lots of chocolate!!

  • References:

Bate J. (Ed) 2008 Shakespeare. A Midsummer Nights ~Dream

Fry S 2017 Mythos

Johnson C (Ed) 2012 J Austin Sense and Sensibility

Martin C (Ed) 2010 Ovid. Metamorphoses.

Categories: Legends, myths, Shakespeare

Tags: , , ,

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