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The Story of Pyramus and Thisbe
Pyramus and Thisbe, an Ancient Story of Doomed Love
Pyramus and Thisbe is a romantic tale recorded by the Roman poet Ovid (43BCE-17CE), in his Metamorphoses, a great poetic compendium of myths about living beings undergoing magical transformations. He tells of women turned into birds, of how the crow, once white turned black, men turned into wolves or stags and many other variations on the theme.
Pyramus and Thisbe is also famously the play within a play performed in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the entertainment of Theseus and the Lady Hippolyta.
The story of Pyramus and Thisbe takes place in the great city of Babylon, already ancient by Ovid’s time.
Pyramus and Thisbe were a boy and a girl who lived next door to each other and grew up to fall in love. Their fathers did not agree to their marriage but the young couple could not restrain their feelings for each other.
There was a tiny crack in the party wall separating their two houses and Pyramus and Thisbe would whisper to each other, all day, through that narrow opening, cursing the wall for acting as a barrier between them, yet kissing the wall in farewell, each night.
One day, their patience ran out and Pyramus and Thisbe agreed to run away that very night, meeting outside the city walls, by the tomb of Ninus, an ancient king of Babylon.
That night, Thisbe silently let herself out of the house and made her way through the darkness to Ninus’ tomb, where she waited under a mulberry tree. To her horror, by the light of the moon Thisbe saw a lioness, her jaws slathered with blood from a recent kill, come to a nearby stream to drink. Terrified, Thisbe fled to the shelter of a neighbouring cave, but she left her long veil behind.
Finding the veil, the lioness took it in her bloody jaws and began to play with it, in catlike fashion, before growing bored and wandering off.
Shortly afterwards, Pyramus appeared. He saw the beast’s footprints, found Thisbe’s bloodied, torn veil but could not see Thisbe. It seemed all too clear that Thisbe had been devoured by the lion.
Lamenting, he blamed himself for having let Thisbe wait here alone, instead of reaching their meeting place first. He called on the lions to come and eat him too. Then, he went to sit under the mulberry tree and wept over Thisbe’s veil, before finally drawing his dagger and stabbing himself, causing his bright blood to spurt and cover the berries of the mulberry tree, turning the white berries now to deepest red.
At that moment, Thisbe bravely emerged from her cave to see if Pyramus had yet arrived at their meeting place. She was confused to see that the tree had dark berries, instead of white and at first, thought she had come to the wrong place. Then she saw a movement under the tree, a twitch of Pyramus’ dying limbs. Finding her love at the point of death, she screamed and beat her breast, tore her hair in mourning, before taking her lover in her arms and weeping over him. He looked at her with eyes from which the light was fading and then closed them, forever.
Seeing her torn veil, the empty scabbard at Pyramus’ side, Thisbe worked out what had happened.
Swearing she would join him in his death, Thisbe called aloud to their parents to inter them both in the same tomb and to the mulberry tree to always bear red berries rather than white, from now on, in commemoration of their deaths.
Then, taking Pyramus’ dagger, Thisbe stabbed herself fatally below the breast.
Her prayers did not go unanswered; the grief-stricken parents interred the ashes of the tragic young couple in one urn and by decree of the gods, the mulberry tree from then on bore berries of the deepest purple.