Study Guide

Pyramus and Thisbe Analysis

  • Context

    The most famous, straight-up version of the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe comes from our main man Ovid, who lays out the whole sad story in his Metamorphoses.

    But then, of course, Shakespeare had to come along and steal the limelight when he included another version of the story in his mega-popular comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream. In this fairy-filled romp, some working class actors, called the Mechanicals, perform their own amateurish version of the tragic love story at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Besides Ovid's version, this play-within-a-play is probably the most well known telling of the tale.

    Oh, and you might've heard of another little play by Billy Shakes called Romeo and Juliet. No one knows for sure exactly which source Shakespeare directly drew from to create the well-known tragic romance. But it's pretty clear that somewhere along the way there was some major influence happening.

    Can't get enough of the tale? There have been plenty more adaptations from the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer and all sorts of operatic masters. And while they may not have gotten their own big Hollywood movie (yet), Pyramus and Thisbe live on as the archetypes for pretty much every pair of tragic lovers that weep their way across the big screen.

  • Setting

    Babylon

    Unlike a lot of Greek and Roman myths, the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe isn't set in Greece, the Italian Peninsula, or even anywhere on Mediterranean Sea. Instead, the tragedy of these young lovers takes place in the super ancient city of Babylon. This place was legendary even to the people who made up all legends we know today.

    One of the first major cities ever in the history of Earth, Babylon sprouted up between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in an area often called "the Cradle of Civilization." Why? Well, let's take a look:

    • The Babylonians are credited with inventing cuneiform, one of the world's first written languages, which was recorded on clay tablets. Pretty big deal, right?
    • Hammurabi, one of the earliest kings of Babylon, also created one of the earliest versions of written law, called by archaeologists "the Code of Hammurabi." (Very creative, archaeologists.)
    • Another famous ruler of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, is a villain in the Judeo-Christian tradition because he sacked Jerusalem. Legend says that Nebuchadnezzar also built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
  • The Hero's Journey

    The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.

    The story of Pyramus and Thisbe doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

    Ordinary World

    Pyramus and Thisbe are two kids in neighboring houses in the big city of Babylon. Sounds pretty normal to us. Except for the Babylon thing, but that's just the 21st-century American in us speaking.

    Call To Adventure

    When Pyramus and Thisbe fall in love, their formerly peaceful life is bound for some serious drama.

    Refusal Of The Call

    Hmmm. The two young lovers sure don't refuse the call. But their neighboring families hate each other, and won't let Pyramus and Thisbe get together.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Nothin' doin' here.

    Crossing The Threshold

    Pyramus and Thisbe make a plan to meet at a tomb under a mulberry tree and head off into the wild blue yonder to elope.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    The worst enemy for these two Babylonians in love turns out to be a random bloody-faced lioness, who scares Thisbe away from the tomb and rips up the veil she leaves behind.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    When Pyramus arrives at the tomb, he sees the lioness and the bloody veil, and he unfortunately assumes the worst.

    Ordeal

    Thinking Thisbe has been devoured, Pyramus stabs himself through the heart with his sword. Unlike in a typical ordeal, our hero doesn't survive this encounter with his own grief.

    Reward

    Yeah, there's no reward in this tragedy.

    The Road Back

    And… there's no road back, either. All roads end at the tomb for these doomed lovers.

    Resurrection

    When Thisbe shows back up at the tomb and figures out what happened, she's overcome with grief of her own and kills herself with Pyramus's sword.

    Return With The Elixir

    Though Pyramus and Thisbe don't make it through their adventure alive, their blood stains the berries of the mulberry tree red. To this day, the berries are still blood-colored as an eternal monument to their tragic love.

  • Romeo and Juliet

    Mr. Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers is widely believed to have been inspired in some part by the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. Why? Well, there are definitely some parallels that are hard to miss. Both couples

    • are young and desperately in love.
    • are kept apart by their families who hate each other.
    • plan to elope despite their parents (though Romeo and Juliet succeed).
    • plan to meet at a tomb so they can run away together.
    • are kept apart by a series of highly unfortunate misunderstandings.
    • kill themselves with the same blade.

    Yeah, we're going to go ahead and call that a similar story.

  • King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere

    King Arthur: have you heard of him? He was an awesome king who basically invented chivalry and recruited a bunch of noble knights to bring justice to England.

    Trouble came, though, when his best knight, Lancelot, and his gorgeous wife, Guinevere, fell in love. In many versions of the story, the affair that resulted ended up destroying Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Camelot itself.

    For more on this tale, check out Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.

  • King Mark, Tristan, and Iseult

    Plenty of people think that this popular medieval tale might have actually influenced the Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere story. It's a convincing argument, given that it sounds mighty familiar.

    In this myth, King Mark's trusted nephew and awesome knight, Tristan, is sent to Ireland to bring Iseult back as a bride for Mark. Unfortunately, Iseult and Tristan accidentally drink a love potion on the way back to England and fall in love. Their secret passion ends up causing all kinds of problems, and in many versions, it leads to the deaths of all three.

  • The Wall

    Okay, so you've got two young lovers whose families won't let them anywhere near each other. The only way they can communicate is through a crack in the wall that separates their neighboring houses. Is it just us, or does the wall that separates them seem like a pretty blatant symbol of the families that are keeping them apart?

    It's a little ironic, though, because the wall that separates these two households is also one of the few things they share. Though the families hate each other, there's not much they can do about the fact that their houses share a wall and that their children share an immense affection for each other.

    That means that the wall can be seen as a symbol of the hatred that divides Pyramus and Thisbe as well as the love that brings them together. Fancy.