Star-Crossed Lovers from Around the World

For millennia, stories of impossible love have enjoyed a prominent place in oral and literary traditions around the globe. Here is a small sampling of some of these great tragedies.

Pyramus and Thisbe: In this tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, two Babylonian lovers woo each other through a crack in the wall between their families’ houses. They arrange to meet, but Pyramus misreads the signs at their meeting place, believes Thisbe dead, and kills himself. Thisbe finds him and follows him in death. (The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is featured in Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was written around the same time as Romeo and Juliet.)

Layla and Majnun: This classic love story from the Persian and Arabic traditions recounts how a young man goes mad when the father of his beloved prevents them from marrying.

Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl: A Nahuatl legend describes two star-crossed lovers who are transformed into the two volcanoes that overlook the Valley of Mexico.

The Butterfly Lovers: In this Chinese folktale, a young woman disguises herself as a man to pursue her academic studies but then falls in love with one of her fellow students. After dying together, the lovers are transformed into butterflies.

Tristan and Iseult: In this medieval tale, the Cornish knight Tristan is tasked with ferrying the Irish princess Iseult to marry the Cornish King Mark. On the journey to Cornwall, a love potion causes Tristan and Iseult to fall in love. When their secret is discovered, banishment and death ensue. (This story inspired Richard Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde.)

Paolo and Francesca: The historical Francesca da Rimini, a contemporary of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, fell in love with her husband’s brother, Paolo. In Dante’s epic poem The Inferno, Francesca and Paolo have been consigned to hell because of their sinful love. It’s worth noting that, in Dante’s telling, Francesca and Paolo fell in love while sitting under a tree and reading the story of another (in)famous pair: Lancelot, one of King Arthur’s knights of the round table, and Arthur’s wife, Guinevere.

Johnson Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy: The real-life courtship of these 19th-century American lovers did nothing to quell the bad blood between their feuding families, the Hatfields and McCoys of Kentucky and West Virginia.