Saturday, February 14, 2004

Pyramus and Thisbe: Death do us not part

15 Febr 04 Pyramus and Thisbe: Death do us not part

On March 20, 43 BC in Salmo, Ovid was born into a knighted family. He was sent to study law in Rome, but disappointed parental expectations by developing into a poet. Seneca remembered him for not being good with logical arguments and writing briefs. Ovid rather failed at law, but succeeded with poetry, leaving a legacy of The Amores, Tristia and Metamorphoses. Rebelling against the establishment of Virgil and Horace, he associated with the rebels, Propertius, Tibullus and Catullus.

His affairs with the Emperor's daughter, didn't earn him brownie points. In 8 AD, he was packed off to the Black Sea , where he wrote the Tristia. The same year, he published the Metamorphoses. He helped to establish the romantic movement, passed down generation after generation, as medieval romances and Elizabethan literature drew from his writing. His works were standard exercitia tedia for students from the 12th-14th century alongside Petrarch, Virgil, Horace and Cicero. The first known English translation of Metamorphoses came from no one less illustrious than William Caxton, returned to England in 1480. His writing influenced just a few: Boccaccio, Petrarch, Chreten de Troyes, Chaucer and Shakespeare.

William Golding is oft accredited for the first English translation in 1567, but never mind. Dryden took him up tenderly in 1657 as a writer to be examined for the divinity of God in man.

Ovid is the crossroad between classical myth and modern romanticism as the emphasis of myth, presented in the Metamorphoses, is not superstition or etiological; but psychological study of man: a rich source for the Renaissance when man became the proper study of man.

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe appears in Book IV, introducing and ever memoralizing romantic love in the story of two neighbors, separated by a wall, who whisper through a chink.
Ach yes, who can ever forget the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet:

"Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair
Verona, where we lay the scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where cold blood makes civil hands unclean
From forth the fatal loins of those two foes
A pair of star-crossed lover's take their lives..."

However, Shakespeare reverses the roles. In Ovid, Pyramus takes his life first on discovery of the bloody cloak and Thisbe does likewise.

And yes, it does appear in Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V. Theseus and Hippolyta enter introducing the theme of romantic love:

"Theseus: More strange than true: I never may believe
These antik fables nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact—
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,--
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in the brow of
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives them airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.."

The rustics present the play, garbling the names as truly as any public schoolkid forced-fed Latin would. Remarkably close to the original, Shakespeare's version parodies. Whether Ovid meant his as a tragedy is doubtful. His wit is sharp, making Pyramus a coward, afraid of shadows and vainly killing himself. Shakespeare hams it up majestically:

"Pyramus: O wherefore, Nature, didst thou lions frame?
Since lions vile hath here deflower'd my dear:
Which is—no,no—which was the fairest dame
That lived, that loved, that liked, that lookt
with cheer

Come, tears, confound;
Out, sword and wound
That pap of Pyramus,--
Ay, that left pap,
Where heart doth hop:--

Thus die I, thus, thus, thus:
Now I am dead,
Now I am fled;
My soul is in the sky:
Tongue, lose thy light;
Moon, take thy flight:--

Now die, die, die, die, die."

Leaving Pyramus sprawled on the ground with his blood spurting over the mulberry, which then came only in basic white. Thisbe re-enters after dodging the lion:

"Asleep my love?
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:
Lovers make moan:
his eyes were green as leeks.
O Sisters Three,
Come, come to me,
With hands as pale as milk;
lay them in gore,
Since you have shore
With shears his thread of silk.

Tongue not a word:
Come, trusty sword;
Come blade, my heart imbrue.

And farewell friends,--
Thus Thisbe ends,--
Adieu, adieu, adieu."

This makes for great death scenes in all hot-blooded romances ever after, including Wagnerian ones with 45 minute duets. Gotterdammerung and Tristan und Isolde are relatively easy to spot even by the operatically uneducated.. And yes, Tristan and Isolde, Troilius and Cressida extend that far into classical mythology. In the Middle Ages nothing was more delightful than creating new classics akin to the Aeneid, but with the theme of Pyramus and Thisbe star-crossed love. Chretien de Troyes established the ideals of chilvalry. His romances translated into English via the roaming poet, Chaucer, erstwhile international diplomat, ambassador and what-all.

And if Chaucer, who was but a kitchen-page could reach such heights, then it should be no surprise that a few centuries later, another copied—but conveniently not getting shipped off to Italy for a war. Shakespeare fought his battles on the stage vicariously, not in the field.

In the last century, Ovid was spurned; but in the 1990's new scholarship blossomed. Used in psychology by Jung, incorporated into innumerable forms of literature, Ovid is very much alive and thriving once more.

And the theme? Never ends. Bernstein turned out West Side Story to improve on the dynamics of Wagner's static staging. The best thing about Wagnerian opera is that you can do your ironing and never miss anything on stage.

Ovid, 43 B.C. - 17 or 18 A.D.
The Metamorphases of Ovid; Translated by William Caxton, 1480. New York: G.
Braziller, in association with Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1968. 2 Volumes.

Reference : Kline, A. S., (poetry translation) “Ovid The Metamorphoses
enjoyable reading with an in-depth mythological index, fully hyper-linked. 4 MB .pdf 880 MR downloadable

Ovid Metamorphoses

Dryden, transl Metamorphoses

Book 4 with Pyramus and Thisbe
look for the side note that begins the section

University of Vermont Ovid Project
special Ovid exhibit with illustrated works from the 17th century German artist, Johann Wilhelm Bauer, depicting 150 scenes from the Metamorphoses with a brief description in Latin and German. plates from a 1640 edition, transl by George Sandys

Ovid Metamorphoses, transl Golding
The Fifteen Books of Ovid's Metamorphoses, 1567

The piteous tale of Pyramus and Thisbee doth conteine
The headie force of frentick love whose end is wo and payne. ... [Ep.110]
The snares of Mars and Venus shew that tyme will bring to lyght
The secret sinnes that folk commit in corners or by nyght.
Hermaphrodite and Salmacis declare that idlenesse
Is cheefest nurce and cherisher of all volupteousnesse,
And that voluptuous lyfe breedes sin: which linking all toogither
Make men to bee effeminate, unweeldy, weake and lither.

A reading list for Metamorphoses
from U of Leeds with hypertext links

special exhibit


Post a Comment

<< Home