Based on a 1717 English
Translation by John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Others
By Michael J. Cummings ©
Babylon during the reign of Queen Semiramis, Pyramus and Thisbe live in
separate houses sharing the same roof. Of all the young men in the region,
Pyramus has no equal in the magnificence of his looks, and Thisbe is fairer
than the fairest nymph.
they grew up, their acquaintance turned into friendship—and
friendship into burning love. But their parents now stand between them,
forbidding them to see each other or even to speak of their love. However,
"The fire of love the more it is supprest, /
The more it glows and rages
in the breast." When the wall dividing their homes was built, shrinkage
in the cement left a crack in the wall that went unnoticed except by the
two lovers. Through it, they whisper their sorrows and joys. Desperate
with love, they attempt to kiss, but the crack is too small. Even so, they
often remain at the wall through
time, they decide to run away and meet at the tomb of Ninus, next to a
tree bearing white berries. During the hours before their planned nighttime
escape, they are “impatient for the friendly dusk" to appear and “chide
the slowness of departing day." After the sun sinks in the western sea,
Thisbe steals away, her face veiled, and quickly arrives at the tomb. And
then "a lioness rush’d o’er the plain,
Grimly besmear'd with blood
of oxen slain."
frightening sight quickens her thirst, and she runs to a nearby brook to
drink, losing her veil along the way. Afterward, in a nearby cave, she
calms down as she awaits the arrival of Pyramus. Meanwhile, the lion roams
back across the plain, discovers the veil, “and mouthing it all o’er, /
With bloody jaws the lifeless prey she tore."
who had to delay his departure until he could sneak past the watchful eyes
in his home, arrives late. In the moonlight, he sees the paw prints of
the lioness and, to his horror, finds the torn and bloody veil near the
tomb. He upbraids himself
'Tis I am guilty,
I have thee betray'd,
kisses the veil and cries over it, then withdraws his sword and plunges
it into his chest. When he falls back onto the ground, blood spurts so
high that it stains the white berries on the tree. They turn deep red,
and the roots of the tree alter themselves so that they will produce only
purple berries henceforth.
Who came not early, as my
Whatever slew thee, I the
I nam'd, and fix'd the place
where thou wast slain.
Thisbe leaves the cave to search for Pyramus, she hears him sighing near
the tomb. When she arrives there, she recognizes the tomb and the tree.
But the color of the berries bewilders her. And then she finds the body
of Pyramus, quivering. “She shriek'd, she tore her hair, she beat her breast."
takes Pyramus in her arms, bathes him in her tears, and kisses him, asking
“Whence sprung thy cruel fate?" He opens his eyes for a moment, then closes
them and dies. When Thisbe sees the bloody veil and the sword, she realizes
what happened. She then says she hopes that the cruel parents of her and
Pyramus will witness the results of a prayer she recites: "Oh! see our
ashes in one urn confin'd, / Whom love at first, and fate at last has join'd."
then asks that the tree display the blood of not only Pyramus but also
her own. And then
in her bosom [she] plung'd the sword,
All warm and reeking from
its slaughter'd lord.
The pray'r, which dying
Thisbe had preferr'd,
Both Gods, and parents,
with compassion heard.
The whiteness of the mulberry
And rip'ning, sadden'd in
a dusky red:
While both their parents
their lost children mourn,
And mix their ashes in one
The action is set in Babylon
in the Ninth Century BC during the reign of Semiramis (Greek name for Sammu-ramat).
Babylon was the capital of Babylonia, a country in southern Mesopotamia
(present-day Iraq). Ruins of Babylon, said to be the largest city in the
world when it was at the height of its power and glory, exist about 55
miles south of Baghdad.
Handsome youth of Babylon who falls in love with his neighbor, Thisbe.
Beautiful young girl of Babylon who returns Pyramus's love.
of Pyramus and Thisbe: They oppose a relationship between Pyramus and
Thisbe for reasons not explained in the story. The parents play no active
role in the story.
Queen of Babylon and the subject of myths and legends. After the death
of her husband, Ninus, she ruled Babylon for many years. Semiramis is the
Greek name for Sammu-ramat. Semiramis plays no active role in the story.
King of Assyria and late husband of Semiramis. He plays no active role
in the story. However, it is at his tomb that Pyramus and Thisbe meet after
The story is part of the
fourth book of Metamorphoses, a long narrative poem by Ovid about
mythological, legendary, and historical characters and circumstances that
undergo a transformation. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is one of the
most famous in the fifteen books that make up Metamorphoses.
Pronunciations of key words
in this study guide are as follows: Ovid (Ah vid), Pyramus (PEER uh mihs),
Thisbe (THIZ be), Semiramis (suh MEER uh mihs), Ninus (NEE nuhs).
Background: Parental Control of Children
In Babylonian society, parents
retained absolute legal control of their children while they were growing
up. For example, the fathers and mothers had the right to choose spouses
for their sons and daughters and even had the right to sell their children
into slavery, although they seldom did so. Hence, after the parents of
the mythical Pyramus and Thisbe forbade a relationship between them, the
only recourse open to the young lovers was to abscond.
The love between Pyramus
and Thisbe is so strong that they defy the will of their parents and run
Bad luck (or the power of
fate) thwarts the plans of the young lovers when the lioness finds Thisbe's
lost veil and chews at it with jaws stained with the blood of another animal.
and Verse Format
The climax occurs when Pyramus
finds Thisbe’s bloody veil and, believing her dead, kills himself in despair,
causing Thisbe to kill herself after she finds his body.
he based the tales in Metamorphoses on existing stories, Ovid presents
them with a freshness and originality that made them uniquely his own.
His writing is vivid, elegant, and succinct, with the stories—including
"Pyramus and Thisbe"—generally
moving swiftly from beginning to end without tedious digressions or inflated
language. Metamorphoses was highly popular with readers of the Augustan
age (27 BC to AD 14, when Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire) and became
one of the best read books of the Renaissance, influencing Shakespeare
and other prominent writers. The themes and motifs are as timely today
as they were 2,000 years ago.
wrote Metamorphoses in heroic hexameter,
the dignified verse format of ancient epic poetry. Heroic hexameter consists
of unrhymed lines that each contain six feet. Each foot
is either a dactyl (a stressed syllable followed
by two unstressed syllables) or a spondee
(two stressed syllables). The number of syllables per line varies depending
on the number of dactyls and spondees in it.
A dactyl tends to accelerate
the narrative in the same way that an allegro and a presto accelerate music;
a spondee tends to slow the narrative like an adagio in music. Ovid chose
dactyls more often than spondees so that the narrative moves along briskly.
and Thisbe in Latin and English
Introduction to the Texts
translating Latin classics into English, writers generally interpret the
Latin words rather than presenting a verbatim rendering of them. One reason
for this approach is that Latin inflection and word order differ substantially
from English inflection and word order.
Another reason is that there
is no Latin equivalent of the English definite article (a, an,
or the). Consider the following Latin phrase:
means eye, and dexter means right. However, the phrase in English
does not mean eye right; rather, it means the right eye.
As you can see, Latin places the adjective after the noun, not before it,
and it does not use an article before the noun. In addition, a verb in
a Latin sentence or phrase usually has a different position than a verb
in an English phrase or sentence. Consider the following Latin sentence:
puellam amat. A word-for-word literal translation renders it as Poet
girl loves. However, its correct translation is The poet loves the
are many other differences—too
numerous to discuss here—between
Latin and English.
a result of these differences, translators of Latin literary works try
to capture the spirit of them rather than presenting a literal rendering
of them. In addition, they may change the meter of a verse work and add
rhyme to it. For example, the following English translation of "Pyramus
and Thisbe" uses pentameter with iambic
feet rather than hexameter with dactylic or spondaic feet. It also contains
Lines 55-166 of Book IV of Metamorphoses
From a 1717 Translation of Metamorphoses
by John Dryden,
Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison,
William Congreve, and Others
Pyramus et Thisbe, iuvenum
altera, quas Oriens habuit,
contiguas tenuere domos,
ubi dicitur altam
coctilibus muris cinxisse
notitiam primosque gradus
60 tempore crevit amor;
taedae quoque iure coissent,
sed vetuere patres: quod
non potuere vetare,
ex aequo captis ardebant
conscius omnis abest; nutu
quoque magis tegitur, tectus
magis aestuat ignis.
65 fissus erat tenui rima,
quam duxerat olim,
cum fieret, paries domui
id vitium nulli per saecula
quid non sentit amor?—primi
et vocis fecistis iter,
tutaeque per illud
70 murmure blanditiae minimo
saepe, ubi constiterant
hinc Thisbe, Pyramus illinc,
inque vices fuerat captatus
"invide" dicebant "paries,
quid amantibus obstas?
quantum erat, ut sineres
toto nos corpore iungi
75 aut, hoc si nimium est,
vel ad oscula danda pateres?
nec sumus ingrati: tibi
nos debere fatemur,
quod datus est verbis ad
amicas transitus auris."
talia diversa nequiquam
sub noctem dixere "vale"
80 oscula quisque suae non
postera nocturnos Aurora
solque pruinosas radiis
ad solitum coiere locum.
tum murmure parvo
multa prius questi statuunt,
ut nocte silenti
85 fallere custodes foribusque
cumque domo exierint, urbis
quoque tecta relinquant,
neve sit errandum lato spatiantibus
conveniant ad busta Nini
lateantque sub umbra
arboris: arbor ibi niveis
90 ardua morus, erat, gelido
pacta placent; et lux, tarde
praecipitatur aquis, et
aquis nox exit ab isdem.
Callida per tenebras versato
egreditur fallitque suos
95 pervenit ad tumulum dictaque
sub arbore sedit.
audacem faciebat amor. venit
caede leaena boum spumantis
depositura sitim vicini
fontis in unda;
quam procul ad lunae radios
100 vidit et obscurum timido
pede fugit in antrum,
dumque fugit, tergo velamina
ut lea saeva sitim multa
dum redit in silvas, inventos
forte sine ipsa
ore cruentato tenues laniavit
105 serius egressus vestigia
vidit in alto
pulvere certa ferae totoque
Pyramus; ut vero vestem
quoque sanguine tinctam
repperit, "una duos" inquit
"nox perdet amantes,
e quibus illa fuit longa
110 nostra nocens anima
est. ego te, miseranda, peremi,
in loca plena metus qui
iussi nocte venires
nec prior huc veni. nostrum
et scelerata fero consumite
o quicumque sub hac habitatis
115 sed timidi est optare
necem." velamina Thisbes
tollit et ad pactae secum
fert arboris umbram,
utque dedit notae lacrimas,
dedit oscula vesti,
"accipe nunc" inquit "nostri
quoque sanguinis haustus!"
quoque erat accinctus, demisit
in ilia ferrum,
120 nec mora, ferventi moriens
e vulnere traxit.
ut iacuit resupinus humo,
cruor emicat alte,
non aliter quam cum vitiato
scinditur et tenui stridente
eiaculatur aquas atque ictibus
125 arborei fetus adspergine
caedis in atram
vertuntur faciem, madefactaque
purpureo tinguit pendentia
Ecce metu nondum posito,
ne fallat amantem,
illa redit iuvenemque oculis
130 quantaque vitarit narrare
utque locum et visa cognoscit
in arbore formam,
sic facit incertam pomi
color: haeret, an haec sit.
dum dubitat, tremebunda
videt pulsare cruentum
membra solum, retroque pedem
tulit, oraque buxo
135 pallidiora gerens exhorruit
quod tremit, exigua cum
summum stringitur aura.
sed postquam remorata suos
percutit indignos claro
et laniata comas amplexaque
140 vulnera supplevit lacrimis
miscuit et gelidis in vultibus
"Pyrame," clamavit, "quis
te mihi casus ademit?
Pyrame, responde! tua te
nominat; exaudi vultusque
145 ad nomen Thisbes oculos
a morte gravatos
Pyramus erexit visaque recondidit
Quae postquam vestemque
suam cognovit et ense
vidit ebur vacuum, "tua
te manus" inquit "amorque
perdidit, infelix! est et
mihi fortis in unum
150 hoc manus, est et amor:
dabit hic in vulnera vires.
persequar extinctum letique
causa comesque tui: quique
a me morte revelli
heu sola poteras, poteris
nec morte revelli.
hoc tamen amborum verbis
155 o multum miseri meus
ut, quos certus amor, quos
hora novissima iunxit,
conponi tumulo non invideatis
at tu quae ramis arbor miserabile
nunc tegis unius, mox es
160 signa tene caedis pullosque
et luctibus aptos
semper habe fetus, gemini
dixit et aptato pectus mucrone
incubuit ferro, quod adhuc
a caede tepebat.
vota tamen tetigere deos,
165 nam color in pomo est,
ubi permaturuit, ater,
quodque rogis superest,
una requiescit in urna.
Babylon, where first her queen [Semiramus], for state
walls of brick magnificently great,
Pyramus, and Thisbe, lovely pair!
found no eastern youth his equal there,
she beyond the fairest nymph was fair.
closer neighbourhood was never known,
two the houses, yet the roof was one.
grew, th' acquaintance they improve
friendship, friendship ripen'd into love:
had been crown'd, but impotently mad,
parents could not hinder, they forbad.
with fierce flames young Pyramus still burn'd,
grateful Thisbe flames as fierce return'd.
in words their thoughts they dare not break,
silent stand; and silent looks can speak.
fire of love the more it is supprest,
more it glows, and rages in the breast.
the division-wall was built, a chink
left, the cement unobserv'd to shrink.
slight the cranny, that it still had been
centuries unclos'd, because unseen.
oh! what thing so small, so secret lies,
scapes, if form'd for love, a lover's eyes?
in this narrow chink they quickly found
friendly passage for a trackless sound.
they told their sorrows, and their joys,
whisper'd murmurs, and a dying noise,
turns to catch each other's breath they strove,
suck'd in all the balmy breeze of love.
as on diff'rent sides they stood, they cry'd,
wall, thus lovers to divide!
thou should'st a-while to us give place
lock, and fasten in a close embrace:
if too much to grant so sweet a bliss,
at least the pleasure of a kiss.
scorn ingratitude: to thee, we know,
safe conveyance of our minds we owe.
they their vain petition did renew
night, and then they softly sigh'd adieu.
first they strove to kiss, and that was all;
kisses dy'd untasted on the wall.
as the morn had o'er the stars prevail'd,
warm'd by Phoebus, flow'rs their dews exhal'd,
lovers to their well-known place return,
they suffer, and alike they mourn.
last their parents they resolve to cheat
to deceive in love be call'd deceit),
steal by night from home, and thence unknown
seek the fields, and quit th' unfaithful town.
to prevent their wand'ring in the dark,
both agree to fix upon a mark;
mark, that could not their designs expose:
tomb of Ninus was the mark they chose.
they might rest secure beneath the shade,
boughs, with snowy fruit encumber'd, made:
wide-spread mulberry its rise had took
on the margin of a gurgling brook.
for the friendly dusk they stay;
chide the slowness of departing day;
western seas down sunk at last the light,
western seas up-rose the shades of night.
loving Thisbe ev'n prevents the hour,
cautious silence she unlocks the door,
veils her face, and marching thro' the gloom
arrives at th' assignation-tomb.
still the fearful sex can fearless prove;
they act, if spirited by love.
lo! a lioness rush'd o'er the plain,
besmear'd with blood of oxen slain:
what to the dire sight new horrors brought,
slake her thirst the neighb'ring spring she sought.
by the moon, when trembling Thisbe spies,
with her fear, swift, as the wind, she flies;
in a cave recovers from her fright,
drop'd her veil, confounded in her flight.
sated with repeated draughts, again
queen of beasts scour'd back along the plain,
found the veil, and mouthing it all o'er,
bloody jaws the lifeless prey she tore.
youth, who could not cheat his guards so soon,
came, and noted by the glimm'ring moon
savage feet, new printed on the ground,
cheeks turn'd pale, his limbs no vigour found;
when, advancing on, the veil he spied
with blood, and ghastly torn, he cried,
night shall death to two young lovers give,
she deserv'd unnumber'd years to live!
I am guilty, I have thee betray'd,
came not early, as my charming maid.
slew thee, I the cause remain,
nam'd, and fix'd the place where thou wast slain.
lions from your neighb'ring dens repair,
the wretch, this impious body tear!
cowards thus for death can idly cry;
brave still have it in their pow'r to die.
to th' appointed tree he hastes away,
veil first gather'd, tho' all rent it lay:
veil all rent yet still it self endears,
kist, and kissing, wash'd it with his tears.
rich (he cry'd) with many a precious stain,
from my blood a deeper tincture gain.
in his breast his shining sword he drown'd,
fell supine, extended on the ground.
out again the blade lie dying drew,
spun the blood, and streaming upwards flew.
if a conduit-pipe e'er burst you saw,
spring the gushing waters thro' the flaw:
spouting in a bow, they rise on high,
a new fountain plays amid the sky.
berries, stain'd with blood, began to show
dark complexion, and forgot their snow;
fatten'd with the flowing gore, the root
doom'd for ever to a purple fruit.
poor Thisbe fear'd, so long she stay'd,
lover might suspect a perjur'd maid.
fright scarce o'er, she strove the youth to find
ardent eyes, which spoke an ardent mind.
in his arms, she hears him sigh
her destruction, which was once so nigh.
tomb, the tree, but not the fruit she knew,
fruit she doubted for its alter'd hue.
as she doubts, her eyes a body found
in death, and gasping on the ground.
started back, the red her cheeks forsook,
ev'ry nerve with thrilling horrors shook.
trembles the smooth surface of the seas,
brush'd o'er gently with a rising breeze.
when her view her bleeding love confest,
shriek'd, she tore her hair, she beat her breast.
rais'd the body, and embrac'd it round,
bath'd with tears unfeign'd the gaping wound.
her warm lips to the cold face apply'd,
is it thus, ah! thus we meet, she cry'd!
Pyramus! whence sprung thy cruel fate?
Pyramus!- ah! speak, ere 'tis too late.
thy own Thisbe, but one word implore,
word thy Thisbe never ask'd before.
Thisbe's name, awak'd, he open'd wide
dying eyes; with dying eyes he try'd
her to dwell, but clos'd them slow, and dy'd.
fatal cause was now at last explor'd,
veil she knew, and saw his sheathless sword:
thy own hand thy ruin thou hast found,
said, but love first taught that hand to wound,
I for thee as bold a hand can show,
love, which shall as true direct the blow.
will against the woman's weakness strive,
never thee, lamented youth, survive.
world may say, I caus'd, alas! thy death,
saw thee breathless, and resign'd my breath.
tho' it conquers, shall no triumph gain,
that divides us, still divides in vain.
both our cruel parents, hear my pray'r;
pray'r to offer for us both I dare;
see our ashes in one urn confin'd,
love at first, and fate at last has join'd.
bliss, you envy'd, is not our request;
when dead, may sure together rest.
tree, where now one lifeless lump is laid,
o'er two shalt cast a friendly shade.
let our loves from thee be understood,
witness in thy purple fruit our blood.
spoke, and in her bosom plung'd the sword,
warm and reeking from its slaughter'd lord.
pray'r, which dying Thisbe had preferr'd,
Gods, and parents, with compassion heard.
whiteness of the mulberry soon fled,
rip'ning, sadden'd in a dusky red:
both their parents their lost children mourn,
mix their ashes in one golden urn.
Questions and Essay Topics
would you react if your parents opposed your desire to marry someone they
did not like?.
Until modern times, it was customary for parents in many countries to arrange
marriages for their children. Write an essay explaining why parents insisted
on doing so. To prepare for this assignment, read "Parents
Arrange Marriages for Wealth and Social Status" in the Romeo and
Juliet study guide, then conduct further research.
Babylon was one of the most famous cities of antiquity, and it is mentioned
in the Bible. Write an informative essay describing the city and its culture.
Each story in Ovid's Metamorphoses reports a transformation. What
transformation takes place in "Pyramus and Thisbe"?
Ovid does not tell why the parents of Pyramus and Thisbe opposed a relationship
between the lovers. What do you think were the reasons for their opposition?