This play takes its source material the doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, who communicate through a crack in the wall between their homes. The beginnings of the neoclassic obsession with passion and its destructive power is placed at the center, but it is also a pointed critique of monarchy. The king, who is also in love with Thisbe dispatches some assassins to kill Pyramus, and when his aide scoffs at the immorality and illegality of his actions, the king responds that kings are above the law. There is a lot to dig into here concerning passion, duty, and the beginnings of proper neoclassical forms, but I would like to take a neoplatonist perspective on this. Neoplatonism meaning that pure love is an intellectual aspiration for the perfect form that sheds the sinful nature of physical love. The problem of the play is not merely the passions that drive the characters to illogical and destructive ends, but their pursuit of physical fulfillment of those desires. Pyramus and Thisbe’s relationship through the wall is passionate, but pure because it aspires to the spiritual. The king will not be satisfied until he can possess Thisbe physically, and thus is consumed by physical passion. The couple’s decision to meet does not have explicitly sexual connotations, but their reactions to the perceived or real death of the other is the consequence of their physical passions and the impossibility of their fulfillment. In this respect, Pyramus and Thisbe are not the victims of fate or misunderstanding, but of their own physical desires. Neither can imagine a physical world without the other, forgetting the spiritual (according to neoplatonists) connection of their souls. This play is an early example of attempts by 17th century writers to adapt pagan tales from antiquity to a christian audience.
This play is unique in that it is a historical play that was performed contemporaneously with the events it portrays. It follows the scandal of Marie de Medici and her two Italian courtiers after the assassination of Henri IV and the assumption of her son, Louis VIII, to the throne. The two courtiers are convicted of sorcery and killed, and this is basically the entire plot, but what strikes me is the flagrant propaganda of this play. The final act begins with the line:
“Quelles harpes, quels luths mariés à nos voix, Chanteront maintenant l'honneur du roi des Rois”
Which one could loosely translate to “What harps, what lutes paired with our voices, will now sing the honor of our king of kings?” One might think this is referring to Jesus Christ, but in fact it is referring to the French king, who speaks this line himself. He goes on to compare himself ordering the assassination of this widowed female courtier to the triumph of David over Goliath. It is hard to tell here if that is sexism in the perceived sorcery of powerful women, or pure xenophobia against Italians (keeping in mind that Louis VIII’s mother was Marie de Medici, who was very much Italian.) Given the fact that the play was produced the same year that the courtiers were assassinated, one must think about the political culture that produced this play and what purpose it served. It is clearly propaganda, but who funded the production and where was it performed and what effect did it have on its audience? These questions surrounding the play strike me as far more interesting than a purely textual analysis.
I consider this play impossible to be read in a modern feminist context, not because of controversial gender issues, but because the modern shift towards gender equality negates any sort of tension to the plot. Aristotle held that a tragedy's most important component is the reversal of fortune of a hero who has one hamartia, or fatal flaw. In the original context, Meleager's flaw is his passion for Atalanta, a huntress who he invites on the hunt of the Calydonian boar. Because she draws first blood, he gives her the hide of the boar, angering his uncles whom he eventually kills. As a result, his mother in anger, retaliates and kills Meleager. The problem is that in a modern context, it's hard to find a flaw in Meleager's decision. Even if he is overcome by passion for Atalanta, his only action is to give her a present that by all counts she deserves. This brings the play closer to the realm of melodrama, where the main protagonists have no flaws and are preyed upon by purely evil people. Without outdated gender roles, Meleager has no harmartia, and therefore as Aristotle would say, there is no pity in his reversal of fortune but instead outrage at the injustice inherent in the story. That is not to stay that injustice has no place in drama, but simply that Renaissance tragedy tries to emulate the Greek style in which good people are rewarded and bad people are punished because that is in concurrence with the laws of nature. In this way, Méléagre fails in the goals it set out for itself.