A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by: William Shakespeare

Shakespeare, Ovid, and the Adaptation of “Pyramus and Thisbe”

The most significant source forA Midsummer Night’s Dream is Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an epic poem that weaves together many Greek and Roman myths. Shakespeare alludes to many of the stories from Metamorphoses, but the story with the most obvious importance for his play is that of Pyramus and Thisbe. Originally appearing in Book IV of Ovid’s poem, this story tells of two lovers who long to marry against their parents’ wishes and who come to a tragic end in the attempt to do so. Shakespeare adapts this story for Midsummer’s play-within-a-play, performed in the final act by a group of craftsmen. The theatrical ineptitude of this troupe undermines the seriousness of their subject matter. What results is an ironically comedic performance that delights rather than saddens the audience of Athenian nobles. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the craftsmen’s retelling is just how un-Ovidian their play is, and how this un-Ovidian spirit contrasts with the very Ovidian nature of the rest of Midsummer. Whereas the main storyline of Midsummer involves an engaging series of transformations and supernatural beings, the craftsmen’s production offers a dull, bare-bones retelling.

Significantly, the craftsmen’s production of “Pyramus and Thisbe” also parallels the main plot of Shakespeare’s play. Just as Theseus bans Hermia from marrying Lysander, so too do the fathers of Pyramus and Thisbe ban their union. Furthermore, just as Lysander and Hermia flee Athens and its harsh laws, so too do Pyramus and Thisbe flee Babylon to safeguard their love. One obvious difference between Midsummer and the story of Pyramus and Thisbe is that the former is a comedy and the latter is a tragedy. Nevertheless, Shakespeare manages to play comedy and tragedy against each other in such a way that draws the two stories into a mirrored relationship. Thus, just as the craftsmen set out to perform a tragedy but end up in the midst of a comedy, so too does the main story of Midsummer begin with the threat of tragedy (i.e., unhappy marriage or death) but ends with all of the lovers alive and in their preferred pairings.

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe also inspired another play that Shakespeare wrote around the same time as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this time a genuine tragedy: Romeo and Juliet. In Romeo Shakespeare makes numerous alterations to Ovid’s work, such as shifting the action from Babylon to Venice and providing the background of feuding families. But the basic pattern of Ovid’s original remains the same: Pyramus (i.e., Romeo) mistakenly believes that Thisbe (Juliet) is dead and kills himself. Thisbe (i.e., Juliet) soon finds his body and, grief stricken, follows him in death. Furthering the comparison between the two plays, in the opening scene of Midsummer does Shakespeare introduces the theme of star-crossed lovers that drives the plot of Romeo and Juliet. When Hermia says “If then true lovers have been ever crossed, / It stands as an edict in destiny,” (I.i.) her words echo the prelude to Romeo and Juliet, where the chorus describes the main characters as “a pair of star-crossed lovers.”