Star-crossed lovers in classic literature: Depictions of historical relationships in times of social distancing

Love thwarted by outside forces is a common literary theme. It can be found in many cultures and time periods – from Europe, India and China through South America to the Middle East. Often these tragic relationships are forbidden by parents, existing marriages, differences in social or financial status, warring countries, or fairytale barriers.

We will highlight five stories of love made impossible by physical distance – stories of longing, heartache, and yearning in European literature and art – a feeling a lot of us might get to know well in these times of quarantine and social distancing. Today we bring you the first two, and next week we’ll feature two more love stories.

Pyramus & Thisbe

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is often seen as the blueprint for the classic play Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare coined the term star-crossed lovers – Pyramus and Thisbe were prime examples.

Pyramus and Thisbe live in neighboring houses. Their parents have a long-standing quarrel with each other. This dispute does not prevent Pyramus and Thisbe from falling madly in love with each other. Their only way to communicate is through a small crack in the wall adjoining their houses, through which they profess their love for each other. 

Pyramus und Thisbe I (Verworfene Platte), Max Klinger, 1879. Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, Germany, CC BY-NC-SA.

As with most tragic love stories, this one doesn’t end well. There are not many depictions of Pyramus and Thisbe showing how they whispered to each other through the wall. Most focus on how they both take their own lives. 

Pyramus und Thisbe, 1530. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany, CC BY-NC-SA. 
Thisbe from BL Royal 16 G V, f. 15, Giovanni Boccaccio, 1430-1449. The British Library, United Kingdom, Public Domain. 
Pyramus en Thisbe, Stefano della Bella, 1620-1664. Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands, Public Domain. 
The suicides of Pyramus and Thisbe: Thisbe and Pyramus lying dead in front of Ninus’ tomb, having stabbed themselves with the sword next to them. Line engraving by V. Vangelisty after G. Reni. Wellcome Collection, United Kingdom, CC BY. 

Aeneas & Dido

In the Aeneid, the Ancient Greek epic, we find yet another love story ending in tragedy. 

Written by Virgil in the 1st century BCE, it follows the story of Aeneas, a Trojan hero, who – by the fates of the god – becomes enamoured with Dido, the Queen of Carthage. A storm has just wrecked Aeneas’ fleet, and he meets Dido and wins her favour in the temple of Juno in Carthage where Aeneas has taken shelter. Aeneas spends time with Dido and recounts his past travels and adventures to her, making them fall in love.

Dido ontvangt Aeneas, 1612. Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands, Public Domain. 
Aeneas vertelt Dido over zijn lotgevallen, Gerard de Lairesse, 1668. Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands, Public Domain. 

This is where the story ideally would have ended, but that would not have taken the jealousy of King Iarbas into account, whose love for Dido stayed unrequited. Iarbas prays to his father, the god Jupiter, cursing Dido for not answering his love but falling head over heels for Aeneas instead. Jupiter answers Iarbas’ prayer by ordering Mercury to send Aeneas to conquer the lands of Italy.

‘Mercurius herinnert Aeneas aan zijn verplichting naar Italië te reizen’, uit de reeks wandtapijten van Aeneas en Dido van het Nijmeegse stadhuis, geweven in het atelier van Michiel Wauters, 1679. Regionaal Archief Nijmegen, the Netherlands, CC0. 

Aeneas, dutiful as ever, begrudgingly follows Mercury’s guidance and leaves by ship in the night. Some accounts say he was too heartbroken to actually tell Dido he had to leave. Others show his tearful goodbyes from Dido. 

Abschied des Aeneas von Dido. Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, Germany, CC BY-NC-SA. 
‘Afscheid van Dido en Aeneas’, uit de reeks wandtapijten van Aeneas en Dido van het Nijmeegse stadhuis, geweven in het atelier van Michiel Wauters, 1679. Regionaal Archief Nijmegen, the Netherlands, CC0
Dido verwijt Aeneas dat hij haar verlaat. Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands, Public Domain.

Dido’s insurmountable sadness leads her to build a funeral pyre for herself and stabbing herself to death with a sword given to her by Aeneas. 

Dido treurt om Aeneas, Arnold Houbraken, 1700-1750. Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands, Public Domain. 
Dido op haar brandstapel, Sébastien Bourdon, 1713. Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands, CC0.
Dido and Aeneas from BL King’s 24, f. 101v, 1483-1485. The British Library, United Kingdom, Public Domain. 
Dido op de brandstapel, 1783 – 1851. Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands, Public Domain. 

Next week: Hero and Leander, and Troilus and Cressida, more tales of heartache and tragedy. 

By Jolan Wuyts, Europeana

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