Pyramus and Thisbe
By Ovid (43 BC-AD 17)
From Book IV of Metamorphoses
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site
Type of Work
Cultural Background
Writing Style
Verse Format
Free Text: Latin, English
Questions and Essay Topics
Ovid Biography
Plot Summary
Based on a 1717 English Translation by John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Others
By Michael J. Cummings © 2008
. .
.......In Babylon during the reign of Queen Semiramis, Pyramus and Thisbe live in separate houses sharing the same roof. Of all the young men in the region, Pyramus has no equal in the magnificence of his looks, and Thisbe is fairer than the fairest nymph. 
.......When they grew up, their acquaintance turned into friendshipand friendship into burning love. But their parents now stand between them, forbidding them to see each other or even to speak of their love. However, "The fire of love the more it is supprest, /
The more it glows and rages in the breast." When the wall dividing their homes was built, shrinkage in the cement left a crack in the wall that went unnoticed except by the two lovers. Through it, they whisper their sorrows and joys. Desperate with love, they attempt to kiss, but the crack is too small. Even so, they often remain at the wall through the night.
.......In time, they decide to run away and meet at the tomb of Ninus, next to a tree bearing white berries. During the hours before their planned nighttime escape, they are “impatient for the friendly dusk” to appear and “chide the slowness of departing day.” After the sun sinks in the western sea, Thisbe steals away, her face veiled, and quickly arrives at the tomb. And then "a lioness rush’d o’er the plain,
Grimly besmear'd with blood of oxen slain."
.......The frightening sight quickens her thirst, and she runs to a nearby brook to drink, losing her veil along the way. Afterward, in a nearby cave, she calms down as she awaits the arrival of Pyramus. Meanwhile, the lion roams back across the plain, discovers the veil, “and mouthing it all o’er, / With bloody jaws the lifeless prey she tore.”
.......Pyramus, who had to delay his departure until he could sneak past the watchful eyes in his home, arrives late. In the moonlight, he sees the paw prints of the lioness and, to his horror, finds the torn and bloody veil near the tomb. He upbraids himself
'Tis I am guilty, I have thee betray'd,
Who came not early, as my charming maid.
Whatever slew thee, I the cause remain,
I nam'd, and fix'd the place where thou wast slain.
.......He kisses the veil and cries over it, then withdraws his sword and plunges it into his chest. When he falls back onto the ground, blood spurts so high that it stains the white berries on the tree. They turn deep red, and the roots of the tree alter themselves so that they will produce only purple berries henceforth. 
.......After Thisbe leaves the cave to search for Pyramus, she hears him sighing near the tomb. When she arrives there, she recognizes the tomb and the tree. But the color of the berries bewilders her. And then she finds the body of Pyramus, quivering. “She shriek'd, she tore her hair, she beat her breast."
.......She takes Pyramus in her arms, bathes him in her tears, and kisses him, asking “Whence sprung thy cruel fate?” He opens his eyes for a moment, then closes them and dies. When Thisbe sees the bloody veil and the sword, she realizes what happened. She then says she hopes that the cruel parents of her and Pyramus will witness the results of a prayer she recites: "Oh! see our ashes in one urn confin'd, / Whom love at first, and fate at last has join'd."
.......She then asks that the tree display the blood of not only Pyramus but also her own. And then
              in her bosom [she] plung'd the sword,
All warm and reeking from its slaughter'd lord.
The pray'r, which dying Thisbe had preferr'd,
Both Gods, and parents, with compassion heard.
The whiteness of the mulberry soon fled,
And rip'ning, sadden'd in a dusky red:
While both their parents their lost children mourn,
And mix their ashes in one golden urn.
The action is set in Babylon in the Ninth Century BC during the reign of Semiramis (Greek name for Sammu-ramat). Babylon was the capital of Babylonia, a country in southern Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Ruins of Babylon, said to be the largest city in the world when it was at the height of its power and glory, exist about 55 miles south of Baghdad.

Pyramus: Handsome youth of Babylon who falls in love with his neighbor, Thisbe.
Thisbe: Beautiful young girl of Babylon who returns Pyramus's love.
Parents of Pyramus and Thisbe: They oppose a relationship between Pyramus and Thisbe for reasons not explained in the story. The parents play no active role in the story.
Semiramis: Queen of Babylon and the subject of myths and legends. After the death of her husband, Ninus, she ruled Babylon for many years. Semiramis is the Greek name for Sammu-ramat. Semiramis plays no active role in the story.
Ninus: King of Assyria and late husband of Semiramis. He plays no active role in the story. However, it is at his tomb that Pyramus and Thisbe meet after running away.

Type of Work
The story is part of the fourth book of Metamorphoses, a long narrative poem by Ovid about mythological, legendary, and historical characters and circumstances that undergo a transformation. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is one of the most famous in the fifteen books that make up Metamorphoses


Pronunciations of key words in this study guide are as follows: Ovid (Ah vid), Pyramus (PEER uh mihs), Thisbe (THIZ be), Semiramis (suh MEER uh mihs), Ninus (NEE nuhs).

Cultural Background: Parental Control of Children
In Babylonian society, parents retained absolute legal control of their children while they were growing up. For example, the fathers and mothers had the right to choose spouses for their sons and daughters and even had the right to sell their children into slavery, although they seldom did so. Hence, after the parents of the mythical Pyramus and Thisbe forbade a relationship between them, the only recourse open to the young lovers was to abscond. 

All-Consuming Love

The love between Pyramus and Thisbe is so strong that they defy the will of their parents and run away.


Bad luck (or the power of fate) thwarts the plans of the young lovers when the lioness finds Thisbe's lost veil and chews at it with jaws stained with the blood of another animal.

The climax occurs when Pyramus finds Thisbe’s bloody veil and, believing her dead, kills himself in despair, causing Thisbe to kill herself after she finds his body. 

Style and Verse Format
.......Although he based the tales in Metamorphoses on existing stories, Ovid presents them with a freshness and originality that made them uniquely his own. His writing is vivid, elegant, and succinct, with the storiesincluding "Pyramus and Thisbe"generally moving swiftly from beginning to end without tedious digressions or inflated language. Metamorphoses was highly popular with readers of the Augustan age (27 BC to AD 14, when Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire) and became one of the best read books of the Renaissance, influencing Shakespeare and other prominent writers. The themes and motifs are as timely today as they were 2,000 years ago. 
.......Ovid wrote Metamorphoses in heroic hexameter, the dignified verse format of ancient epic poetry. Heroic hexameter consists of unrhymed lines that each contain six feet. Each foot is either a dactyl (a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables) or a spondee (two stressed syllables). The number of syllables per line varies depending on the number of dactyls and spondees in it. 
A dactyl tends to accelerate the narrative in the same way that an allegro and a presto accelerate music; a spondee tends to slow the narrative like an adagio in music. Ovid chose dactyls more often than spondees so that the narrative moves along briskly. 

Pyramus and Thisbe in Latin and English
Introduction to the Texts

.......When translating Latin classics into English, writers generally interpret the Latin words rather than presenting a verbatim rendering of them. One reason for this approach is that Latin inflection and word order differ substantially from English inflection and word order. 
Another reason is that there is no Latin equivalent of the English definite article (a, an, or the). Consider the following Latin phrase:
oculus dexter. Oculus means eye, and dexter means right. However, the phrase in English does not mean eye right; rather, it means the right eye. As you can see, Latin places the adjective after the noun, not before it, and it does not use an article before the noun. In addition, a verb in a Latin sentence or phrase usually has a different position than a verb in an English phrase or sentence. Consider the following Latin sentence: Poeta puellam amat. A word-for-word literal translation renders it as Poet girl loves. However, its correct translation is The poet loves the girl.
.......There are many other differencestoo numerous to discuss herebetween Latin and English. 
.......As a result of these differences, translators of Latin literary works try to capture the spirit of them rather than presenting a literal rendering of them. In addition, they may change the meter of a verse work and add rhyme to it. For example, the following English translation of "Pyramus and Thisbe" uses pentameter with iambic feet rather than hexameter with dactylic or spondaic feet. It also contains end rhyme. 
Original Latin
Lines 55-166 of Book IV of Metamorphoses
From a 1717 Translation of Metamorphoses by John Dryden, 
Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, William Congreve, and Others
Pyramus et Thisbe, iuvenum pulcherrimus alter,
altera, quas Oriens habuit, praelata puellis,
contiguas tenuere domos, ubi dicitur altam
coctilibus muris cinxisse Semiramis urbem.
notitiam primosque gradus vicinia fecit,
60 tempore crevit amor; taedae quoque iure coissent,
sed vetuere patres: quod non potuere vetare,
ex aequo captis ardebant mentibus ambo.
conscius omnis abest; nutu signisque loquuntur,
quoque magis tegitur, tectus magis aestuat ignis.
65 fissus erat tenui rima, quam duxerat olim,
cum fieret, paries domui communis utrique.
id vitium nulli per saecula longa notatum--
quid non sentit amor?primi vidistis amantes
et vocis fecistis iter, tutaeque per illud
70 murmure blanditiae minimo transire solebant.
saepe, ubi constiterant hinc Thisbe, Pyramus illinc,
inque vices fuerat captatus anhelitus oris,
"invide" dicebant "paries, quid amantibus obstas?
quantum erat, ut sineres toto nos corpore iungi
75 aut, hoc si nimium est, vel ad oscula danda pateres?
nec sumus ingrati: tibi nos debere fatemur,
quod datus est verbis ad amicas transitus auris."
talia diversa nequiquam sede locuti
sub noctem dixere "vale" partique dedere
80 oscula quisque suae non pervenientia contra.
postera nocturnos Aurora removerat ignes,
solque pruinosas radiis siccaverat herbas:
ad solitum coiere locum. tum murmure parvo
multa prius questi statuunt, ut nocte silenti
85 fallere custodes foribusque excedere temptent,
cumque domo exierint, urbis quoque tecta relinquant,
neve sit errandum lato spatiantibus arvo,
conveniant ad busta Nini lateantque sub umbra
arboris: arbor ibi niveis uberrima pomis,
90 ardua morus, erat, gelido contermina fonti.
pacta placent; et lux, tarde discedere visa,
praecipitatur aquis, et aquis nox exit ab isdem.
Callida per tenebras versato cardine Thisbe
egreditur fallitque suos adopertaque vultum
95 pervenit ad tumulum dictaque sub arbore sedit.
audacem faciebat amor. venit ecce recenti
caede leaena boum spumantis oblita rictus
depositura sitim vicini fontis in unda;
quam procul ad lunae radios Babylonia Thisbe
100 vidit et obscurum timido pede fugit in antrum,
dumque fugit, tergo velamina lapsa reliquit.
ut lea saeva sitim multa conpescuit unda,
dum redit in silvas, inventos forte sine ipsa
ore cruentato tenues laniavit amictus.
105 serius egressus vestigia vidit in alto
pulvere certa ferae totoque expalluit ore
Pyramus; ut vero vestem quoque sanguine tinctam
repperit, "una duos" inquit "nox perdet amantes,
e quibus illa fuit longa dignissima vita;
110 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!
115 sed timidi est optare necem." velamina Thisbes
tollit et ad pactae secum fert arboris umbram,
utque dedit notae lacrimas, dedit oscula vesti,
"accipe nunc" inquit "nostri quoque sanguinis haustus!"
quoque erat accinctus, demisit in ilia ferrum,
120 nec mora, ferventi moriens e vulnere traxit.
ut iacuit resupinus humo, cruor emicat alte,
non aliter quam cum vitiato fistula plumbo
scinditur et tenui stridente foramine longas
eiaculatur aquas atque ictibus aera rumpit.
125 arborei fetus adspergine caedis in atram
vertuntur faciem, madefactaque sanguine radix
purpureo tinguit pendentia mora colore.
Ecce metu nondum posito, ne fallat amantem,
illa redit iuvenemque oculis animoque requirit,
130 quantaque vitarit narrare pericula gestit;
utque locum et visa cognoscit in arbore formam,
sic facit incertam pomi color: haeret, an haec sit.
dum dubitat, tremebunda videt pulsare cruentum
membra solum, retroque pedem tulit, oraque buxo
135 pallidiora gerens exhorruit aequoris instar,
quod tremit, exigua cum summum stringitur aura.
sed postquam remorata suos cognovit amores,
percutit indignos claro plangore lacertos
et laniata comas amplexaque corpus amatum
140 vulnera supplevit lacrimis fletumque cruori
miscuit et gelidis in vultibus oscula figens
"Pyrame," clamavit, "quis te mihi casus ademit?
Pyrame, responde! tua te carissima Thisbe
nominat; exaudi vultusque attolle iacentes!"
145 ad nomen Thisbes oculos a morte gravatos
Pyramus erexit visaque recondidit illa.
Quae postquam vestemque suam cognovit et ense
vidit ebur vacuum, "tua te manus" inquit "amorque
perdidit, infelix! est et mihi fortis in unum
150 hoc manus, est et amor: dabit hic in vulnera vires.
persequar extinctum letique miserrima dicar
causa comesque tui: quique a me morte revelli
heu sola poteras, poteris nec morte revelli.
hoc tamen amborum verbis estote rogati,
155 o multum miseri meus illiusque parentes,
ut, quos certus amor, quos hora novissima iunxit,
conponi tumulo non invideatis eodem;
at tu quae ramis arbor miserabile corpus
nunc tegis unius, mox es tectura duorum,
160 signa tene caedis pullosque et luctibus aptos
semper habe fetus, gemini monimenta cruoris."
dixit et aptato pectus mucrone sub imum
incubuit ferro, quod adhuc a caede tepebat.
vota tamen tetigere deos, tetigere parentes;
165 nam color in pomo est, ubi permaturuit, ater,
quodque rogis superest, una requiescit in urna.


In Babylon, where first her queen [Semiramus], for state
Rais'd walls of brick magnificently great,
Liv'd Pyramus, and Thisbe, lovely pair!
He found no eastern youth his equal there,
And she beyond the fairest nymph was fair.
A closer neighbourhood was never known,
Tho' two the houses, yet the roof was one.
Acquaintance grew, th' acquaintance they improve
To friendship, friendship ripen'd into love:
Love had been crown'd, but impotently mad,
What parents could not hinder, they forbad.
For with fierce flames young Pyramus still burn'd,
And grateful Thisbe flames as fierce return'd.
Aloud in words their thoughts they dare not break,
But silent stand; and silent looks can speak.
The fire of love the more it is supprest,
The more it glows, and rages in the breast.
When the division-wall was built, a chink
Was left, the cement unobserv'd to shrink.
So slight the cranny, that it still had been
For centuries unclos'd, because unseen.
But oh! what thing so small, so secret lies,
Which scapes, if form'd for love, a lover's eyes?
Ev'n in this narrow chink they quickly found
A friendly passage for a trackless sound.
Safely they told their sorrows, and their joys,
In whisper'd murmurs, and a dying noise,
By turns to catch each other's breath they strove,
And suck'd in all the balmy breeze of love.
Oft as on diff'rent sides they stood, they cry'd,
Malicious wall, thus lovers to divide!
Suppose, thou should'st a-while to us give place
To lock, and fasten in a close embrace:
But if too much to grant so sweet a bliss,
Indulge at least the pleasure of a kiss.
We scorn ingratitude: to thee, we know,
This safe conveyance of our minds we owe.
Thus they their vain petition did renew
'Till night, and then they softly sigh'd adieu.
But first they strove to kiss, and that was all;
Their kisses dy'd untasted on the wall.
Soon as the morn had o'er the stars prevail'd,
And warm'd by Phoebus, flow'rs their dews exhal'd,
The lovers to their well-known place return,
Alike they suffer, and alike they mourn.
At last their parents they resolve to cheat
(If to deceive in love be call'd deceit),
To steal by night from home, and thence unknown
To seek the fields, and quit th' unfaithful town.
But, to prevent their wand'ring in the dark,
They both agree to fix upon a mark;
A mark, that could not their designs expose:
The tomb of Ninus was the mark they chose.
There they might rest secure beneath the shade,
Which boughs, with snowy fruit encumber'd, made:
A wide-spread mulberry its rise had took
Just on the margin of a gurgling brook.
Impatient for the friendly dusk they stay;
And chide the slowness of departing day;
In western seas down sunk at last the light,
From western seas up-rose the shades of night.
The loving Thisbe ev'n prevents the hour,
With cautious silence she unlocks the door,
And veils her face, and marching thro' the gloom
Swiftly arrives at th' assignation-tomb.
For still the fearful sex can fearless prove;
Boldly they act, if spirited by love.
When lo! a lioness rush'd o'er the plain,
Grimly besmear'd with blood of oxen slain:
And what to the dire sight new horrors brought,
To slake her thirst the neighb'ring spring she sought.
Which, by the moon, when trembling Thisbe spies,
Wing'd with her fear, swift, as the wind, she flies;
And in a cave recovers from her fright,
But drop'd her veil, confounded in her flight.
When sated with repeated draughts, again
The queen of beasts scour'd back along the plain,
She found the veil, and mouthing it all o'er,
With bloody jaws the lifeless prey she tore.
The youth, who could not cheat his guards so soon,
Late came, and noted by the glimm'ring moon
Some savage feet, new printed on the ground,
His cheeks turn'd pale, his limbs no vigour found;
But when, advancing on, the veil he spied
Distain'd with blood, and ghastly torn, he cried,
One night shall death to two young lovers give,
But she deserv'd unnumber'd years to live!
'Tis I am guilty, I have thee betray'd,
Who came not early, as my charming maid.
Whatever slew thee, I the cause remain,
I nam'd, and fix'd the place where thou wast slain.
Ye lions from your neighb'ring dens repair,
Pity the wretch, this impious body tear!
But cowards thus for death can idly cry;
The brave still have it in their pow'r to die.
Then to th' appointed tree he hastes away,
The veil first gather'd, tho' all rent it lay:
The veil all rent yet still it self endears,
He kist, and kissing, wash'd it with his tears.
Tho' rich (he cry'd) with many a precious stain,
Still from my blood a deeper tincture gain.
Then in his breast his shining sword he drown'd,
And fell supine, extended on the ground.
As out again the blade lie dying drew,
Out spun the blood, and streaming upwards flew.
So if a conduit-pipe e'er burst you saw,
Swift spring the gushing waters thro' the flaw:
Then spouting in a bow, they rise on high,
And a new fountain plays amid the sky.
The berries, stain'd with blood, began to show
A dark complexion, and forgot their snow;
While fatten'd with the flowing gore, the root
Was doom'd for ever to a purple fruit.
Mean-time poor Thisbe fear'd, so long she stay'd,
Her lover might suspect a perjur'd maid.
Her fright scarce o'er, she strove the youth to find
With ardent eyes, which spoke an ardent mind.
Already in his arms, she hears him sigh
At her destruction, which was once so nigh.
The tomb, the tree, but not the fruit she knew,
The fruit she doubted for its alter'd hue.
Still as she doubts, her eyes a body found
Quiv'ring in death, and gasping on the ground.
She started back, the red her cheeks forsook,
And ev'ry nerve with thrilling horrors shook.
So trembles the smooth surface of the seas,
If brush'd o'er gently with a rising breeze.
But when her view her bleeding love confest,
She shriek'd, she tore her hair, she beat her breast.
She rais'd the body, and embrac'd it round,
And bath'd with tears unfeign'd the gaping wound.
Then her warm lips to the cold face apply'd,
And is it thus, ah! thus we meet, she cry'd!
My Pyramus! whence sprung thy cruel fate?
My Pyramus!- ah! speak, ere 'tis too late.
I, thy own Thisbe, but one word implore,
One word thy Thisbe never ask'd before.
At Thisbe's name, awak'd, he open'd wide
His dying eyes; with dying eyes he try'd
On her to dwell, but clos'd them slow, and dy'd.
The fatal cause was now at last explor'd,
Her veil she knew, and saw his sheathless sword:
From thy own hand thy ruin thou hast found,
She said, but love first taught that hand to wound,
Ev'n I for thee as bold a hand can show,
And love, which shall as true direct the blow.
I will against the woman's weakness strive,
And never thee, lamented youth, survive.
The world may say, I caus'd, alas! thy death,
But saw thee breathless, and resign'd my breath.
Fate, tho' it conquers, shall no triumph gain,
Fate, that divides us, still divides in vain.
Now, both our cruel parents, hear my pray'r;
My pray'r to offer for us both I dare;
Oh! see our ashes in one urn confin'd, 
Whom love at first, and fate at last has join'd.
The bliss, you envy'd, is not our request;
Lovers, when dead, may sure together rest.
Thou, tree, where now one lifeless lump is laid,
Ere-long o'er two shalt cast a friendly shade.
Still let our loves from thee be understood,
Still witness in thy purple fruit our blood.
She spoke, and in her bosom plung'd the sword,
All warm and reeking from its slaughter'd lord.
The pray'r, which dying Thisbe had preferr'd,
Both Gods, and parents, with compassion heard.
The whiteness of the mulberry soon fled,
And rip'ning, sadden'd in a dusky red:
While both their parents their lost children mourn,
And mix their ashes in one golden urn.
Study Questions and Essay Topics

1. How would you react if your parents opposed your desire to marry someone they did not like?
2. Until modern times, it was customary for parents in many countries to arrange marriages for their children. Write an essay explaining why parents insisted on doing so. To prepare for this assignment, read "Parents Arrange Marriages for Wealth and Social Status" in the Romeo and Juliet study guide, then conduct further research. 
3. Babylon was one of the most famous cities of antiquity, and it is mentioned in the Bible. Write an informative essay describing the city and its culture. 
4. Each story in Ovid's Metamorphoses reports a transformation. What transformation takes place in "Pyramus and Thisbe"?
5. Ovid does not tell why the parents of Pyramus and Thisbe opposed a relationship between the lovers. What do you think were the reasons for their opposition?