Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Romeo and Thisbe? Pyramus and Juliet?

Anybody that knows Midsummer Night's Dream will recognize the parallels between the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, as portrayed by Bottom and his fellow mechanicals, and Romeo and Juliet.  Two lovers who can not be together because their families hate each other. A misunderstanding about the death of one leads to the real death of the other, which in turn leads to the real death of both of them.  The families realize the error of their ways and the wall that parted them comes down, happily ever after.  There's even a prologue to explain the story ahead of time.

I've always assumed that there was some sort of connection, but never knew what it was.  Apparently neither did Mr. Asimov
(who I am now trying read for research into my wedding project), who speculates that either Shakespeare was working on the comedy version and decided to try his hand at telling a more serious version ... or that he'd written the serious version and now wanted to poke some fun at himself.  Once Mr. Asimov has answered a question (in this case as being unanswerable) I no longer have motivation to waste time trying to answer it myself :).

But it does offer up a place for opinion.  What do you think the relationship is between the two plays, in Shakespeare's mind?  Was he working on them both at the same time? Which came first, and fed the other? Or are they really independent and the overlap has more to do with the common source material he drew from, nothing more?

Personally I like to think that he did R&J first and then satirized himself in Dream. But I have no evidence to back that up one way or the other.


Haley said...

I always took it as him simply incorporating a well-known story most educated men. He incorporates Ovid's Metamorphoses repeatedly in the plays, so I never saw it as some major coincidence for it to show up in MSND and be an influence for RJ.

Much Ado contains elements of Romeo and Juliet and Taming of the Shrew, and it should since it was written after them and he was probably borrowing from himself.

JM said...

Chronologically speaking, it's a good bet that R&J came first, although the "known" dates do overlap, R&J 1594-5, Midsummer 1595-6. (Chambers)

Shakespeare took and has taken a lot of heat for mixing comedy with tragedy in R&J (a subject of discussion here before). I have the sneaky suspicion he was doing a little tongue-in-cheek at some of his detractors with Pyramus and Thisbe.
But there are a couple of more evident things he was doing with all of the scenes the Rude Mechanicals play. Showing what he would later describe as "sawing the air too much" and "letting one's Clowns speak more than is set down for them", among other things. In other words, he intentionally writes badly in order to show what it can be if certain "rules" are not adhered to.
And yes, I'm going to mention punctuation once again. Although it has been "doctored" punctuation-wise by the "fixer-uppers" in modern versions, if you look at the speech as punctuated in the Folio, you can see how intentionally bad the punctuation is, particularly in Quince's Prologue. It's what prompts the responses "His speech was like a tangled chain...etc." and "He knows not the stop." (what one is, and/or, where to place the period in the sentence)" An indication of how seriously he took punctuation--he directed his actors with it.
I think Shakespeare had many different purposes in mind which crossed paths with his creation of the "Bad Actors". And I do believe it was in some way a comment on R&J as well.