The play within the play: Ovid's "Metamorphoses" and Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Term Paper, 2006

10 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1 Introduction

2 The Shakespearian Ovid

3 Pyramus & Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

4 Conclusion

5 Literature

1 Introduction

“[By Reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Elizabethans could](…) dig beneath its layers of fiction in an effort to recover the most precious secrets of the ancient world, whether moral, philosophical, historical, or scientific.”[1]

It is beyond all doubt, that the great poetry of Ovid (43 BC – 17 AD) had a strong influence on William Shakespeare’s work. Understandably enough, as Ovid’s work is a classical masterpiece of Latin literature. It fascinates with its formal perfection, urban humour and Ovid’s creative fantasy. His outstanding opus is of course the Metamorphoses, the magnificent epic poem containing about 250 transformation legends of Greek and Roman mythology. Ovid’s interests in myths show also the heroides, which include fictitious love letters. Love – this is undoubtedly a central theme in Ovid’s literature. His writings Amores, Ars amatoria and Remedia amoris display that. Although Ovid’s literature was banished from public libraries by emperor Augustus after the poet’s death, his posthumous fame could not be prevented – fortunately. Ovid’s work had a great influence on medieval literature and during renaissance his mythological stories had been example for many novellas[2].

The role of Ovid’s greatest opus, the Metamorphoses in Shakespeare’s work, especially in his comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is going to be discussed in this paper. At first the focus lies on Ovidian literature in Elizabethan times. Then, the parody of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be analysed. A special kind of metamorphosis – the one of Bottom brings up the third main emphasis.

By the way – what is a metamorphosis? It is said to be a process in which somebody or something changes completely into something different[3] – for example a caterpillar that becomes a beautiful butterfly…

2 The Shakespearian Ovid

The works of Ovid had been typically read in school during Elizabethan times. The standard epos was of course the Metamorphoses, but the pupils got to know the Heroides, the Fasti other pieces of Ovidian literature as well. Translation, parse, metrically examination and explanation were part of the daily classroom work. Doing this, the Metamorphoses were used as means of introducing boys to Latin versification in the upper forms of grammar schools[4]. The premier Elizabethan translation of the Metamorphoses was done by Arthur Golding and published in 1565 during a real “translation movement” in the 1560’s and ‘70’s. Nevertheless one can assume, that Shakespeare got to know Golding’s translation only after his schooldays.[5]

Ovid is said to have been Shakespeare’s favourite classical poet since he had been a schoolboy. Especially the Metamorphoses were fascinating the young Shakespeare. One reason might have been the constantly changing landscape and Ovid’s deep knowledge of female psychology in extreme moments of passion[6]. The Metamorphoses tell of great beauty, love and tragedy and thereby ask “fundamental questions about man’s place in the world, his relationship to the gods, to nature, to birth and death, to human functions such as sex or feedings[7]. Shakespeare might have appreciated that the Metamorphosis are both sophisticated and childish.

In so many of Shakespeare’s works references to Ovid can be found, that only a tiny part can be mentioned here. He was most “Ovidian” at the beginning and the end of his career. The love poems in Amores are among the key models for Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The principal source for The Rape of Lucrece was provided by Ovid’s Fasti. And by reading out “Hic ibat Simois, hic est Sigeia tellus, / Hic steterat Priami regia celsa senis”[8], which is part of Penelope’s love letter to Odysseus out of Ovid’s Heroides, Lucentio tries to conquer the heart of his beloved Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew.

The influence of these shorter works of Ovid does really not stand comparison to his Metamorphoses. About 90 % of Shakespeare’s insinuations to classical mythology refer to stories included in this epic collection of tales. He frequently referred to them as parallels or paradigms for the emotional chaos of his characters. Where Ovid told of physical metamorphoses created by extremes of passion, Shakespeare translated these into psychological transformations and vivid metaphors.[9]

The great influence of Ovidian literature (and especially the Metamorphoses) can be seen best in one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here, the flower “love-in-idleness” has a metamorphic power. In addition, when Bottom puts on the ass’s head, it plays on animal transformation. And last but not least the parody of “Pyramus and Thisbe” is a comical performance of one of Ovid’s most tragic stories of hopeless and condemned love[10]. These issues are going to be discussed on the following pages.


[1] Maslen 2000: 16

[2] cf. Microsoft® Encarta® Enzyklopädie Professional 2003

[3] cf. Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary

[4] cf. Maslen 2000: 17

[5] cf. Taylor 2000: 1ff.

[6] cf. Maslen 2000: 4

[7] Maslen 2000: 4

[8] Act III, Scene I, 28-29

[9] Dobson 2001: 334

[10] the tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe can be seen as model for Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet

Excerpt out of 10 pages


The play within the play: Ovid's "Metamorphoses" and Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
University of Erfurt
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Ovid, Metamorphoses, Shakespeare, Midsummer, Night, Dream
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Mandy Busse (Author), 2006, The play within the play: Ovid's "Metamorphoses" and Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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