Pyramus & Thisbe from Ovid’s gender subtlety to polarized Chaucer

The ancient Greek tale Hero and Leander tells of two young lovers who died for love of each other. While gender symmetry characterizes ancient Greek romance, Hero and Leander is starkly gender-asymmetric.[1] Ovid’s myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, like Hero and Leander, narrates two young lovers dying for love of each other. But Ovid’s myth rejected romantic gender symmetry. Pyramus bluntly blamed himself for Thisbe’s death. Thisbe, in contrast, evoked sympathy for her plight. Gender differences loom even larger in medieval retellings. Thisbe became the dominant figure in the story, while Pyramus’s masculine sexuality was bestialized. In his book The Legend of Good Women, Chaucer went as far as to include explicitly anti-meninist sentiment to serve gynocentric interests.

ancient Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe before Ovid

Ovid initially described Pyramus and Thisbe as gender-equal rather than gender-symmetric. Showing her literary learning, Arsippe told the story. Her story began:

Pyramus and Thisbe — one the most beautiful of young men,
the other eminent among young women in the Orient —
lived in adjacent houses.

{ Pyramus et Thisbe, iuvenum pulcherrimus alter,
altera, quas Oriens habuit, praelata puellis,
contiguas tenuere domos }[2]

Pyramus and Thisbe were one to another {alter / altera}. But they didn’t necessarily look like one another. Each had beauty eminent within their own respective genders. Moreover, their love burned mutually:

With equally captivated thoughts, they both burned with love.
Each was lacking a go-between. They spoke with nods and signs.
The more they covered their love, the hotter the covered fire boiled.

{ ex aequo captis ardebant mentibus ambo.
conscius omnis abest; nutu signisque loquuntur,
quoque magis tegitur, tectus magis aestuat ignis. }

When their parents separated them by confining them to their respective homes, Thisbe and Pyramus together found a crack in a common wall across which they could communicate. Ovid emphasized the lovers’ unity in communication through the crack, not the crack’s physical structure.

Gender difference ultimately protruded. Pyramus and Thisbe jointly planned to meet at night outside their city under a mulberry tree near an ancient tomb. When Pyramus arrived at the meeting point, he found only a lioness’s tracks and Thisbe’s cloak smeared with blood. With internalized misandry, he condemned himself:

“Two lovers will perish in one night,” he said,
“and she was more worthy of a long life.
My life-breath is guilty. I have killed you, pitiable one,
I who ordered you to come at night to this place filled with danger,
and I didn’t come first. Claw to pieces my body
and consume my harmful flesh with your fierce bites,
O whatever lions live beneath this cliff!”

{ … ‘una duos’ inquit ‘nox perdet amantes,
e quibus illa fuit longa dignissima vita;
nostra nocens anima est. ego te, miseranda, peremi,
in loca plena metus qui iussi nocte venires
nec prior huc veni. nostrum divellite corpus
et scelerata fero consumite viscera morsu
o quicumque sub hac habitatis rupe leones!’ }[3]

She, who was for him, isn’t more worthy of a long life than he. He wasn’t more guilty than she, he didn’t order her to come to that place, and he certainly didn’t kill her. Men’s flesh is not harmful but life-giving. Those who understand know that men should be more pitied than women. Believing that a lioness had devoured Thisbe, Pyramus committed suicide with his own sword.[4] About four times more men than women die from suicide. Pyramus’s suicide is another manifestation of structural sexism.

Thisbe’s actions at the midnight meeting point also manifested structural sexism. When Thisbe saw the lioness coming, she fled. She accidentally dropped her cloak. The lioness befouled it with cattle’s blood from a recent kill. Like many women, Thisbe didn’t consider men’s welfare. In particular, although she knew Pyramus was coming to that spot, she didn’t do anything to warn him about the lioness. She simply hid herself. Men, in contrast, are taught to give up their lives to save women.

When Thisbe emerged from her hiding place, she didn’t understand what was writhing on the bloody ground. Apparently Pyramus’s fate in this dangerous situation wasn’t foremost in Thisbe’s mind:

But after some delay, she recognizes her lover.
Wailing loudly, she strikes at her shameful arms
and tears her hair. Embracing her lover’s body,
she fills his wounds with tears, mingling tears
with blood and kissing his face fixed in death’s coldness.

{ sed postquam remorata suos cognovit amores,
percutit indignos claro plangore lacertos
et laniata comas amplexaque corpus amatum
vulnera supplevit lacrimis fletumque cruori
miscuit et gelidis in vultibus oscula figens }

Just as readers have sympathized with Dido, they have also sympathized with Thisbe. Translators have thus translated “indigni lacerti” as “innocent arms” or elided “indigni.”[5] Thisbe’s arms embraced her dying lover, the lover that she failed to warn of mortal danger. “Shameful arms” is a better translation in this context.

Social status is prominent in Thisbe’s competitive evaluation of Pyramus’s death. She wanted to be regarded as being as brave and loving as he:

I too have a brave hand for this one deed,
and I too have love. This will give me strength for the fatal wound.
I will follow you in being extinguished, and I will be called the most unhappy
cause and companion of your ruin.

{ … est et mihi fortis in unum
hoc manus, est et amor: dabit hic in vulnera vires.
persequar extinctum letique miserrima dicar
causa comesque tui … }

Thisbe didn’t declare herself guilty of Pyramus’s death. She declared that others would say that she suffered for having caused his death. Others thus would focalize her welfare, just as she did. Women are much more likely to receive pity and compassion than are men. Meninism is the radical notion that men are human beings, equal to women in being worthy of compassion. Ovid’s account of Pyramus and Thisbe shows what a radical notion meninism is.

Phyllis riding Aristotle and Ovid's myth of Pyramus and Thisbe

The arc of literary history has bent away from gender equality for men. Consider the twelfth-century lai Pyramus and Thisbe {Piramus et Tisbé}. It explicitly refers to Ovid as a source for its story, but makes significant changes to Ovid’s version. Unlike Ovid’s myth, the lai initially emphasizes gender symmetry:

In the city of Babylon
there were two men of great renown,
of great valor and high rank,
wealthy men from noble families.
These wealthy men had two children
alike in beauty and appearance.
One was a boy, the other a girl.

Their being of the same age and disposition,
their great beauty, their noble birth,
their conversations, laughter and games,
and their delightful surroundings,
and being able to see one another frequently,
all predisposed them to love.

{ En Babilone la cité
Furent dui home renomé,
De grant valour, de grant hautesce,
De parenté et de richesce.
Li riche home orent deus enfans
D’une biauté et d’uns samblans;

Li pers aëz, l’igaulz corages,
Lor grans biautez, lor grans parages,
Les paroles, li ris, li jeu
Et li aaisement del leu
Et li entreveoir souvent
Lor donnerent espirement. }[6]

As a child, Pyramus had equal freedom for the male gaze:

During the day they were preoccupied with gazing at one another,
and they could never have their fill of this.

{ Le jour pensent d’eulz esgarder,
Qu’il ne s’en pueent saoler }

They both poured out monologues expressing their love-sickness for each other. He fainted for love of her, and she fainted for love of him.

Despite this initial representation of gender symmetry, Piramus et Tisbé subsequently heightened gender difference. Thisbe told herself that as a proper young noble woman, she should refuse to speak to Pyramus. She then repented to herself of that aloofness in a gender-distinctive way:

My love,
I never meant what I said.
Now, it seems to me, you can say
that there is no constancy in a woman’s love.
Fair sweet love, duly receive
this pledge:
Have it, my lord, for this outrage —
I grant you hereby my virginity.
I was too proud-hearted just now.
Too proud?
I should bow my head before you.

{ Amis,
Onques a certes ne le dis.
Or poez dire, ce m’est vis,
A droit
Qu’en amours de feme n’a foit.
Biaux douz amis, prenez a droit
Le gage:
Tenez, sire, pour cest outrage
Vous otroi ci mon pucelage.
Trop iere ore de fier corage.
De fier?
Vers vous doi ge bien supploier. }

The oppressive tradition of “courtly love” positioned men as feudal servants to women. In vowing to bow to Pyramus, Thisbe challenged that systemic gender inequality. At the same time, Thisbe figured her virginity as compensation to Pyramus. Yet Pyramus apparently was also a virgin. Thisbe and Pyramus having sex would be as much him giving her his virginity as she giving him her virginity.

Thisbe was the more active of the two lovers. In Piramus et Tisbé, she both found the crack and penetrated it:

The two lovers were the first ones
to notice this hole:
first Thisbe, then Pyramus.
Thisbe discovered the crack.
She took the pendant on her belt
and pushed its metal part through
so that her beloved could see it.

{ Li dui amant premierement
Aperçurent celui pertus:
Primes Tysbé, puis Piramus.
Tysbé trouva la creveüre,
Prist le pendant de sa cainture,
S’en fist outre le fer paroir,
Que ses amis le pot veoir. }

Thisbe also planned the tryst under a mulberry tree outside the city at midnight. She urged Pyramus to follow her plan. She declared that she would be there waiting for him. When Thisbe left the city, the night watchman saw her, but he didn’t stop her because he thought she was a goddess. Pyramus’s departure didn’t merit even a mention. Thisbe acted like a goddess of love in guiding forward the love affair between her and Pyramus.[7]

Piramus et Tisbé bestialized Pyramus’s masculine sexuality. The lai trans-gendered Ovid’s female lion into a male lion. It also changed from cattle to sheep the animals that the lion devoured. A scholar perceptively explained:

Ovid’s lioness ‘dripping with the blood of freshly-killed cattle’ (vv. 96- 97) becomes a male lion covered with the entrails and wool of a whole flock of sheep. The Biblical connotations of sheep and lambs immediately invite us to see this slaughter in terms of the destruction of innocence, while the associations of the male lion imply that the innocence lost here is sexual. The lion was often used as a symbol of virility, and could represent male sexuality in a negative sense as well: Hildegarde of Bingen, for example, defends her sex against accusations of lechery by accusing men of being the real offenders, whose desire is as fierce as a (male) lion. … Lucken suggests that the lion should be seen as the hero’s double, representing the ardor that he has only been able to express verbally up to this point. Not only does the animal arrive at the meeting-place instead of the hero, it also engages in a symbolic deflowering of Tisbé’s wimple, which functions as a metonym of the heroine’s sexual self. On finding the bloodstained wimple under the mulberry tree, Piramus accuses the lion of being sated with her flesh (vv. 723-24), a phrase which is clearly open to a sexual as well as a carnivorous interpretation.[8]

A lion devouring sheep is a bestializing figure for a virgin man having sex with a virgin woman. Despite Ausonius’s courageous and outrageous intervention, men have endured such figural macro-aggressions for centuries. Insane bestialization of men’s sexuality draws upon the classical love insanity of Gallus. “Love that conquers all {Amours, qui toutes choses vaint}” isn’t truly love.

Thisbe's sexual suicide with Pyramus's sword

At the command of a mythic queen Alceste, Chaucer wrote The Legend of Good Women to serve the interests of the English queen, other women, and Chaucer himself under their rule. Alceste commanded him:

You shall, while you live, year by year,
spend the most part of your time
in making a glorious legend
of good women, maidens, and wives,
that were true in loving all their lives.
And tell of false men that betrayed them,
men that all their lives did nothing but strive
to see how many women they could shame.

{ Thow shalt, while that thou lyvest, yer by yere,
The moste partye of thy tyme spende
In makyng of a glorious legende
Of goode wymmen, maydenes and wyves,
That weren trewe in lovyng al hire lyves;
And telle of false men that hem bytraien,
That al hir lyf ne don nat but assayen
How many women they may doon a shame }[9]

With similar anti-meninism, Chaucer mid-story implied that Pyramus betrayed and shamed Thisbe as men allegedly do generally:

This Thisbe had so great affection
and so great desire to see Pyramus
that when she saw her time might be,
at night she stole away fully secretly,
with her face covered with wimple wisely.
All her friends — for to keep her pledge —
she had forsaken. Alas! And it is pitiful
that a woman should ever be so faithful
to trust a man, unless she knew him better.

{ This Tisbe hath so greet affeccioun
And so greet lyking Piramus to see,
That, whan she seigh her tyme mighte be,
At night she stal awey ful prively
With her face y-wimpled subtiny;
For alle her frendes — for to save her trouthe —
She hath for-sake; allas! and that is routhe
That ever woman wolde be so trewe
To trusten man, but she the bet him knewe! }

Thisbe herself warned women of overconfidence while asserting that women are more true in love than men are:

And may the righteous God grant to every lover
that truly loves more prosperity
than Pyramus and Thisbe ever had!
And let no gentlewoman be so confident
to put herself in such an adventure,
but God forbid that a woman can be only
as true in loving as any man!

{ And rightwis god to every lover sende,
That loveth trewely, more prosperitee
Than ever hadde Piramus and Tisbe!
And lat no gentil woman her assure
To putten her in swiche an aventure.
But god forbede but a woman can
Been as trewe in lovynge as a man! }

In the end, Chaucer extolled Pyramus while disparaging men generally. The last verse in his legend of Thisbe asserts that a woman is as good of a lover as even the best of men:

And thus are Thisbe and Pyramus gone.
Of true men I find but few more
in all my books, other than this Pyramus,
and therefore I have spoken of him thus.
For it is excellent for us men to find
a man that can in love be true and kind.
Here you may see, whatsoever lover he may be,
a woman has daring and knowledge as well as he.

{ And thus ar Tisbe and Piramus ago.
Of trewe men I finde but fewe mo
In alle my bokes, save this Piramus,
And therfor have I spoken of him thus.
For hit is deyntee to us men to finde
A man that can in love be trewe and kinde.
Heer may ye seen, what lover so he be,
A woman dar and can as wel as he. }

True love isn’t interpersonal competition. Women competing to be better than men doesn’t promote love between women and men.[10]

The double suicide of Pyramus and Thisbe represents the ultimate result of anti-meninism. Ovid protested vigorously against disparagement of men’s sexuality. Medieval French literature appreciated men’s hardships. In contrast, the marginal, woman-serving courtier Chaucer celebrated a man receiving an ass-reaming with a hot plow-blade. The deathly legacy of the feminized Chaucer casts a malignant shadow over medieval literary studies, especially in English-speaking countries. If they are to overturn gynocentrism and struggle effectively for social justice, students must be taught much more of medieval literature than just Chaucer.

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[1] On gender symmetry in ancient Greek romances, Konstan (1994). This important classical heritage has regrettably been marginalized. Ovid’s Heriodes includes an exchange of letters between Hero and Leander.

[2] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 4.55-7, Latin text of Magnus (1892) via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from those of Lombardo (2010), Kline (2000), and Miller (1916). Arsippe was one of the daughters of Minyas. She and her sisters rejected the cult of Bacchus and metamorphosed into bats.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses provides the earliest written tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. This story is set in Babylon, a famous ancient walled city. Ovid’s myth credits Semiramus, the wife of the Assyrian King Ninus, with building Babylon’s walls. Ovid’s myth also indicates that Ninus’s tomb was outside the city walls near where Thisbe and Pyramus met. The Greek historian Ctesias of Cnidus, writing about 400 BGC, attests to Semiramus having built a temple-tomb for Ninus outside Babylon. Before she decided to tell of Pyramus and Thisbe, Arsippe considered several other stories, including one about Decretis of Babylon. Ovid probably found these stories in a collection of stories from the Near East.

Ovid changed the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. A scholar observed:

In all likelihood, however, the form in which the story was told before Ovid was quite different from his version. References to Pyramus and Thisbe in later Greek texts suggest that the deaths of the unhappy lovers were accompanied by an altogether different kind of metamorphosis than that described by Ovid, in which their blood permanently changes the color of the hitherto white berries of the mulberry tree to red. In the Greek east, where the story originated, Pyramus was transformed into the river in Cilicia that bears his name, while Thisbe became a nearby spring.

Knox (2014) p. 38. Five frescoes of Pyramus and Thisbe have survived from first-century Pompeii. Id. pp. 39-40. A second-century GC mosaic from Nea Paphos on Cyrus shows an earlier Greek version of the myth. Id p. 38.

The story of Thisbe and Pyramus was widely disseminated in medieval Europe. It survives in seven Latin versions, the French lai Piramus et Tisbé, and numerous other vernacular versions, including ones in German, Dutch, Italian, and English. In addition to being included in Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, the story of Thisbe and Pyramus is also included in Boccaccio’s About Famous Women {De mulieribus claris}, chapter 12. On its medieval reception, Pratt (2017), Delany (1994) pp. 124-5, and Glendinning (1986). The story went on to shape Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

Other quotes from Ovid’s myth of Pyramus and Thisbe (Metamorphoses 4.55-166) are similarly sourced. Those above are (by verses in Book 4): vv. 62-4 (With equally captivated thoughts…), 108-14 (Two lovers will perish…), 137-41 (But after some delay…), 137-41 (I too have a brave hand…).

[3] Ovid’s myth states that Pyramus “came out late {serius egressus}” (Metamorphoses 4.105). Being late may not have been his fault if some factor outside of his control, e.g. the watchman, had hindered him. Nonetheless, the Old French lai Piramus et Tisbé, discussed subsequently, similarly has Pyramus condemning himself for allegedly killing Thisbe:

Dear sister,
I killed you, by last
coming to the rendez-vous, while you were first.

{ Suer chiere,
Je vous ai morte qui derriere
Ving a mon terme, et vous premiere. }

Piramus et Tisbé, vv. 752-4. Burgess & Brook (2016), p. 189, has “Dear sister, I killed you when I arrived late for my appointed time, and you arrived first.” The translation “late” seems to me an incorrect interpretative coloring of “last {derriere}” in obvious relation to “first {premiere}.” Pyramus’s appointed time was also Thisbe’s appointed time. The probably of both arriving at the rendezvous at exactly the same time was essentially zero. One had to be first, and one had to be last. Piramus et Tisbé, vv. 644-52 indicates that Pyramus was late. But it seems to me inappropriate to project that earlier context into Pyramus’s thought in v. 753. From themselves and others, both women and men deserve generosity in interpreting lateness to meetings.

A small delay in arriving at a meeting is a minor matter. Gender equality in compassion and care is a vitally important matter. The crucial interpretive question: if Pyramus had happened to arrive first and seen the lioness / lion, would he have had hid himself without doing anything to warn and protect Thisbe?

Ignoring this important question of gender equality, Chaucer internalized Pyramus’s erroneous self-blame:

And at last this Pyramus came,
but he had stayed at home too long, alas!

“Alas!” said he, “the day that I was born!
This one night will slay both us lovers!
How could I ask mercy of Thisbe
when I am he that have slain you, alas!
My pleading has slain you, as in this case.
Alas! To plead to a woman to travel by night,
and I so slow! Alas, if only I had been
here in this place two fields-length before you!
Now whatever lion may be in this forest,
may he tear apart my body, or whatever wild beast
there is, may he now gnaw my heart!”

{ And, at the laste, this Piramus is come,
But al to longe, allas! at hoom was he.

“Allas!” quode he, “the day that I was born!
This o night wol us lovers bothe slee!
How sholde I axen mercy of Tisbe
Whan I am he that have yow slain, allas!
My bidding hath yow slain, as in this cas.
Allas! to bidde a woman goon by nighte
In place ther as peril fallen mighte,
And I so slow! allas, I ne hadde be
Here in this place a furlong-wey or ye!
Now what leoun that be in this foreste,
My body mote he renden, or what beste
That wilde is, gnawen mote he now myn herte!” }

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Legend of Good Women, The Legend of Thisbe, vv. 823-44, Middle English text from Skeat (1899) via the Medieval and Classical Literature Library, my English modernization, benefiting from that of eChaucer & Gerard NeCastro.

[4] Ovid represented Pyramus’s death as gruesome. Pyramus’s blood spurted into the air like long jets of water from a leaking, high-pressure water-pipe. In his death-throes, Pyramus’s limbs beat against the earth. These gruesome details apparently had literary justifications. The first concerns word-play across mora {mulberry tree}, amors {love}, and mors {death}. Keith (2001). The latter reflects the heal-beating death-throes topos of the Aeneid. Burns (1997).

[5] E.g. “guiltless arms,” “innocent arms,” “arms,” “innocent arms,” “arms,” and “arms” in respectively Lombardo (2010),  Kline (2000), Melville (1986), current Loeb edition of Miller (1916), More (1922) via Perseus, and Golding (1567) via Perseus.

[6] Pyramus and Thisbe {Piramus et Tisbé}, vv. 1-7, 17-22, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Eley (2001). Where Burgess & Brook (2016), pp. 180-191, seems to me to offer a significantly better translation, I’ve drawn upon that. In English translation, I’ve used the classical spelling of the names, rather than Piramus and Tisbé.

Piramus et Tisbé probably dates from 1155 to 1170. It’s unknown author was learned in Latin and vernacular poetry. Eley (2001) pp. 11-3. Piramus et Tisbé has survived in twenty-two manuscripts. Eley’s edition takes Rouen, Bibliothèque municipale 1044 (0.4) as its base manuscript, emending only where necessary. That manuscript comes from a fourteenth-century copy of Ovid Moralized {Ovide moralisé}. Id. pp. 7-10. The translation in Burgess & Brook (2016) is based on Eley’s edition.

Other quotes from the Old French lai Piramus et Tisbé are similarly sourced. The quotes above are vv. 55-6 (During the day they were preoccupied with gazing…), 241-52 (My love…), 317-3 (The two lovers were the first ones…), 364 (Love that conquers all). With respect to “Love that conquers all {Amours, qui toutes choses vaint}” Eley observed:

We should note that the phrase is used here in its original sense of ‘love is stronger than anyone or anything’, rather than its more optimistic modern interpretation as ‘love overcomes all obstacles’.

Eley (2001) p. 23, n. 34.

[7] Eley perceptively observed:

the Piramus poet changes the whole dynamics of the story, in order to focus attention on the psychology of love and the figure of the heroine. … Tisbé’s monologue is always the second in each pair, but far from creating an impression of her as someone who is purely reactive, this tends to give her speeches added force, as they come over as ‘the final word’ on each topic. The heroine also has a higher proportion of the lines in the lyric sequences: 54.1% as against 45.9% for Piramus. Under the original conditions of performance, her voice would have been noticeably more insistent than that of the hero. … Overall, the psychology of the heroine is more carefully explored than that of the hero. The contradictions of youth are well represented in the figure of Tisbé, who is depicted as both impulsive and thoughtful, impetuous and slightly afraid of her own daring. … In comparison, Piramus comes across as rather passive, given to lyric outbursts rather than action….

Eley (2001) pp. 15, 20, 23, 24.

[8] Eley (2001) pp. 28-9 (omitted reference citing Lucken (1999) p. 386). Lucken failed to consider this figure gender-critically.

[9] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Legend of Good Women, vv. 481-8 (prologue), Middle English text from Skeat (1899) via the Medieval and Classical Literature Library, my English modernization, benefiting from that of eChaucer & Gerard NeCastro. According to the prologue of The Legend of Good Women, the god of Love charged Chaucer with having written badly about Criseyde in his Troilus and Criseyde.

Chaucer was writing according to dominant gynocentric values. As Pratt aptly observed, “the most popular exemplary figures in medieval culture seem to have been women (Griselda, Dido, Medea, Thisbe, and the Chastelaine de Vergi, to name but a few).” Pratt (2017) p. 258. Delany urged compensatory action in response to “the ambivalence of Chaucer’s attitude toward women.” Delany (1994) p. 240. Nothing but continual, fulsome praise for women is acceptable.

Subsequent quotes above from Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women are similarly sourced. They are vv. 792-801 (This Thisbe had so great affection…), 905-11 (And may the righteous God grant to every lover…), 916-23 (And thus are Thisbe and Pyramus gone …).

[10] Lucken concluded:

The schoolboy always dreams of love. He doesn’t yet know that it’s death that writes.

{ L’écolier rêve toujours à l’amour. Il ne sait pas encore que c’est la mort qui écrit. }

Lucken (1999) p. 395. Men’s educational experience must be better than that. The Old French lai Piramus et Tisbé more appropriately concluded:

Say ‘Amen’ aloud, each of you,
and may God grant them true forgiveness,
and grant us redemption,
and give us his blessing.

{ Dites amen, chascun par non,
Que dieus lor face voir pardon,
Et nos face redemption
Et nos otroit beneïcon. }

Piramus et Tisbé, vv. 909-12. Repenting of gynocentrism and seeking forgiveness from men surely would help in bringing about such a blessing.

In a medieval love song that’s a dialog between Thisbe and an unnamed man, the man summons his courage to the sticking point and thinks, “Fortune always favors the bold {Audaces fortuna iuvat penitus}.” Carmina Burana 70, “Summertime was blooming with flowers {Aestatis florigero tempore},” 3.4. Cf. Turnus rallying his men to war in Aeneid 10.284. The man then declares to Thisbe his burning love for her:

The fire that tortures me,
or rather the fire that I glorify,
is an unseen fire.

If it’s not extinguished
by the one who sparked it,
it cannot be extinguished.

So it’s up to you
whether I live or die.

{ Ignis, quo crucior,
immo quo glorior,
ignis est invisibilis.

Si non extinguitur,
a qua succenditur,
manet inextinguibilis.

Est ergo tuo munere
me mori vel me vivere. }

After some hesitation, Thisbe recognizes the value of the man’s life and the value of the man’s love for her:

Sweetest one,
I give myself wholly to you.

{ Dulcissime,
totam tibi subdo me. }

“Aestatis florigero tempore” 6a-7a, 15 (of 15), with Latin text and English trans. (modified slightly) for this song from Traill (2018).

[images] (1) Mosaic of Thisbe and Pyramus {Θίσβη καὶ Πύραμος} from Nea Paphos on Cyrus. This second-century mosaic shows a Greek version of the myth from before Ovid. Source image thanks to Gérard Janot and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Courtesan Phyllis riding the philosopher Aristotle (leftmost panel) and Ovid’s myth of Pyramus and Thisbe (second and third panels to right). A small box (coffret) with carved, elephant ivory illustrations. Made in Paris, France, c. 1310-30. Preserved as accession # 17.190.173a, b; 1988.16 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA). Credit: Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917; The Cloisters Collection, 1988. Source image available under The Met’s generous and public-spirited open-access public domain license. (3) Thisbe committing sexual suicide with Pyramus’s sword. Painted by Pierre Gautherot in 1799. Via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Video of the Beatles performing “Pyramus and Thisbe” in a 1964 television special. Adapted from the performance of the Rude Mechanicals in William’s Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene I. Featuring Paul McCartney as Pyramus, John Lennon as Thisbe, George Harrison as Moonshine, and Ringo Starr as Lion, with Trevor Peacock in the role of Quince. Produced by Jack Good for ITV/Rediffusion London and first aired on April 28, 1964. Thanks to GeorgianBeatlesfans and YouTube.


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Burns, Maggie. 1997. “Classicizing and Medievalizing Chaucer: The Sources for Pyramus’ Death-Throes in the Legend of Good Women.” Neophilologus (Groningen). 81 (4): 637-647.

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Glendinning, Robert. 1986. “Pyramus and Thisbe in the Medieval Classroom.” Speculum. 61 (1): 51-78.

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Knox, Peter E. 2014. “Ovidian Myths on Pompeian Walls.” Ch. 3 (pp. 36-54) in Miller, John F., and Carole E. Newlands, eds. A Handbook to the Reception of Ovid. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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Magnus, Hugo. 1892. Die Metamorphosen des P. Ovidius Naso: für den Schulgebrauch erklärt. Gotha: F.A. Perthes.

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Pratt, Karen. 2017. “The Dynamics of the European Short Narrative in its Manuscript Context: The Case of Pyramus and Thisbe.” Pp. 257-285 in Pratt, Karen, Bart Besamusca, Matthias Meyer, and Ad Putter, eds. The Dynamics of the Medieval Manuscript: Text Collections from a European Perspective. Göttingen: V&R Unipress.

Skeat, Walter W., ed. 1899. The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. 7 vols. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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