Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
The miniature on this page shows a scene from the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe and their forbidden love: Thisbe finds the body of Pyramus by a fountain and kills herself by falling on a sword. Shakespeare parodies this tale in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a rough but well-meaning performance by a crew of workmen at the wedding of the Duke. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of tales from Greek and Roman mythology on the theme of transformation and change, which was hugely influential on Shakespeare.
This is a page and detail from a late-15th-century manuscript from the South Netherlands entitled ‘Ovide Methamorphose’. The text is in French and is a prose paraphrase of Ovide Moralisé, an early-14th-century verse adaptation in French of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovide Moralisé retold Ovid through a chivalric and allegorical lens.
Shakespeare and other English readers of his day could have come into contact with Ovid’s Metamorphoses in a number of ways. As well as the Latin text, readers could have encountered French adaptations such as this manuscript, or come across individual tales in English through writers like Chaucer and Gower, who adapted the stories into their own works. The first full English version of Metamorphoses was by William Caxton (c. 1422–c. 1492) out of a French adaptation, although this only survives in a single manuscript.
The first widely available English translation (and the first to be translated directly from the Latin) was by William Golding. Golding printed The Fyrst Fower Bookes of P. Ovidius Nasos Worke, Entitled Metamorphosis in 1565, completing the 15 books in 1567. A revised edition came out in 1575, followed by further editions over the next 30 years that testify to the book’s popularity. Golding’s use of fourteeners (14-syllable lines of verse) can be difficult to appreciate with modern ears, but his translation was very popular in its time and was read by and influenced writers, including Spenser and Shakespeare. Shakespeare is believed to have read Metamorphoses in a number of versions, including the original Latin.
Ovid is widely agreed to have been Shakespeare’s favourite author. He is the only classical author to be named in any of Shakespeare’s works (in Love’s Labour’s Lost, 4.2.123), and of the few specific books read by Shakespeare’s characters, Metamorphoses appears twice (in Titus Andronicus and Cymbeline).
Shakespeare’s narrative poems (Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece) are his most explicitly Ovidian works, but the corpus of plays also shows the influence of Ovid, and particularly Metamorphoses, throughout. Ovid can be heard in linguistic echoes (both of the Latin and of Golding’s translation), and the flavour of his sweet and witty rhetoric can be discerned in Shakespeare’s own playful and inventive style. He is found as a source for some of Shakespeare’s plots, for example Romeo and Juliet, which takes inspiration from the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. Metamorphoses is also a key point of reference for the classical allusions with which Shakespeare adds further layers of meaning to his text. For example, Orsino alludes to the story of the hunter Actaeon (who saw the goddess Diana naked and was transformed into a stag and chased and killed by his own dogs) by describing himself ‘turn’d into a hart’ and pursued by the hounds of his own desire on seeing Olivia (Twelfth Night, 1.1.20). There are also broader, more thematic shared concerns between the two writers, such as the treatment of sexuality, the meaning and mechanism of transformation, and the function of myth. As ever though, rather than just rehashing an old story or mimicking a style, Shakespeare takes on board these influences and transforms them into something very much his own.
When the Mechanicals perform Pyramus and Thisbe at the Duke’s wedding, Shakespeare parodies the famous story of forbidden love from Book 4 of Metamorphoses and makes it most un-Ovidian. The literalism of Quince’s production precludes even the transformative magic of theatre and the tale itself ends with the death of the lovers, leaving out Ovid’s metamorphosis of the mulberry tree, the gods staining its fruit purple in honour of Pyramus and Thisbe’s love. This contrasts with the highly Ovidian world that Shakespeare creates in the rest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which abounds with nature symbolism; animal transformation; powerful supernatural beings and their interactions with the human world; entanglements of love, sex, pursuit and flight; a mythic sense of causation; and most of all, a world that changes its inhabitants.
The most striking verbal echo of Ovid in Shakespeare is the famous speech where Prospero renounces his ‘rough magic’ in The Tempest (5.1.50). This is closely based on the words of Medea the witch in Book 7 of Metamorphoses. In Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid, Medea addresses ‘Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone / Of standing Lakes’ (sig. 83v), while Prospero calls to ‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves’ (5.1.33). Both proclaim their power to move trees and direct the winds, but they also admit to a darker power to ‘call up dead men from their graves’ (Metamorphoses, sig. 83v) or command graves to wake ‘their sleepers’ (The Tempest, 5.1.49).