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The Play Within the Play

Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' and Shakespeare's 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

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Image ID: 1562027  Les malheurs de Pirame et Thisbé.  [The sorrows of Pyramus and Thisbe.] (1925)

Image ID: 1562027 Les malheurs de Pirame et Thisbé. [The sorrows of Pyramus and Thisbe.] (1925)

NYPL Digital Gallery
"Shakespeare himself has shown that he was proud to be Ovid's successful ape."
by R. K. Root *

Demetrius, with Helena in hot pursuit, pedals through a forest where an under-skilled amateur repertory group rehearses and a handful of fairies lives. Sound almost familiar? It's the nineteenth century setting of the 1999 movie release (starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Calista Flockhart) of Midsummer Night's Dream, one of Shakespeare's comedies that owes a great debt to the Romans.

While Shakespeare may have been the world's greatest writer, originality in storyline wasn't his forte. Instead of inventing stories, he embellished ones he borrowed -- principally from other renowned storytellers, like Vergil and Ovid, who retold familiar myths in their major works, Aeneid and Metamorphoses.

"The classical equivalent of the Bible, though without canonical authority."
McCarty, "Implicit Patterns in Ovid's Metamorphoses"

Neatly interweaving 15 books of stories -- telling the entire mythological history of mankind since the creation -- may have been Ovid's greatest achievement in Metamorphoses. Taking the story-in-a-story element from Ovid's version, Shakespeare recast the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe seamlessly into his own medium, as a play within a play for wedding entertainment.

Both versions have an audience:

  • In Ovid's, Alcithoe and her sisters choose not to honor Bacchus but instead stay at home doing their chores and listening to stories. Given a choice they first opt to hear the tale of the metamorphosis of the mulberry (aka Pyramus and Thisbe).
  • In Midsummer Night's Dream, where the love flower that changes color through Cupid's ministry is love-in-idleness (a pansy), the play is also chosen from a list of mythological alternates and then performed very badly for the highly critical audience of Hippolyta and Theseus.

Theseus, like Alcithoe, rejects the ways of Bacchus. Love is unimportant to Theseus. Hermia's father wants his daughter to marry Lysander, although everyone knows she and Lysander are in love. Theseus asserts that it's the father's right to choose his daughter's husband. If she chooses to disobey, Theseus warns, the consequences will be just as loveless.

Hermia
...
But I beseech your grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.

Theseus
Either to die the death or to abjure
For ever the society of men.

Act I Scene i Midsummer Night's Dream

To escape impossible terms, Hermia flees with Lysander into the forest.

It's been suggested that even the fairies, albeit borrowed from English and French traditions, may also owe a debt to Ovid. Jeremy McNamara** says the fairies are modernized gods:

"Like Ovid's gods, Shakespeare's fairies are menacing and powerful, with a control over nature and men, even if they are ultimately more benign."

Metamorphosis (transformation), central to Ovid's opus, is clearly represented in Midsummer Night's Dream by Bottom's partial transformation to a fêted donkey (a reference to another Metamorphoses, that of the 2nd century A.D. novelist Apuleius). More subtle metamorphoses can be seen in the many love-relationships among fairies and mortals.

But there are even closer similarities in the plots, close enough to make it hard to determine whether Shakespeare went straight to Ovid or to his translator, Golding.

Titania represents Classical mythology in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Like Oberon she is a nature deity. She tells Bottom this in Act III scene 1, when she informs him that "I am a sprit of no common rate. / The summer still doth tend upon my state," Her power over nature is also reflected in the disruptions in weather patterns in Act II scene 1, caused by her argument with Oberon.

The derivation of her name is uncertain. Ovid used it in Metamorphoses (iii, 173) as a epithet of Diana and later of Latona and Circe. However, this did not appear in the translation available to Shakespeare.* Either he read it in the original, or his use of the name is a coincidence. Another possible derivation is from the Titans of Greek mythology.

~ Source: below***.

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Resource accessed May 4, 1999:
* http://www.monm.edu/academic/History/ faculty_forum/OVID.htm
**http://www.monm.edu/academic/History/faculty_forum/OVID.htm
***http://quarles.unbc.edu/midsummer/myth.html

Pyramus and Thisbe

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