Ovid, Shakespeare, and the Beatles

Imagine a story where two lovers secretly meet but are forbidden from marriage by the rivalry of their parents. So, they decide to run away. When they go to their secret meeting place, one lover believes the other lover has died and so ends his own life. The other lover returns to find her lover dead and so does the same.

If you think of Romeo and Juliet, you would not be wrong. However, this is the ancient Greek story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Romeo and Juliet is really simply the story of Pyramus and Thisbe re-imagined in another time and setting.

I have been listening to Peter Saccio’s lectures on William Shakespeare. In it, he noted that Ovid’s stories in his book Metamorphoses were one of the greatest inspirations for plays and stories in the Renaissance period.

This insight from Saccio was in line with what I had learned from Thomas Foster’s helpful book How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Foster explains that the writing of literature is not something that happens in a vacuum. It is the telling and re-telling of stories that have been told before. In Western literature, it is the Bible and Roman and Greek literature that provide the foundational story lines.

So, I began to read Ovid. I read stories that I knew and stories that I did not know. I could see, however, their significance for understanding Western literature. Then, I came to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. I could not believe it. There was the story of Romeo and Juliet in exact outline! It was a clear confirmation of Saccio’s insight. I read both stories to my homsechooled girls (a short version of Romeo and Juliet), and they easily saw the connection.

My oldest daughter decided to homeschool this year for her 12th grade year rather than attend the public school she has attended for the last three years. I am studying British literature with her. One of the stories she wanted to study was A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I started reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and what did I find in Act 1, Scene 2? Peter Quince, Bottom, and a group of common folks were preparing a play for the upcoming wedding of Thesus and Hyppolyta. And what is the play? Peter Quince tells us, “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby.” It is a humorous play within a play. The actors at first seem to know nothing of the story. One of the actors, Flute, asks, “What is Thisby? A wandering night?” The players are uneasy about doing a play where two lovers end their lives for a wedding. Their attempts to modify the play to make it more fit for a wedding feast are hilarious.

So, clearly, Pyramus and Thisbe made a big impact on Shakespeare. This is a clear confirmation of what Foster and Saccio had said. It also encourages me to continue reading broadly in Western literature, focusing on the most influential works such as Ovid’s Metamorpheses, Homer, and Shakespeare (who influenced later witers).

The telling of stories is no isolated activity. It is a community project. We can still go back to that community and draw inspiration for ourselves today. Apparently, that’s what the Beatles did. On television, they did their own performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. You can watch it below:


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