Fear No More

Shakespeare was born on this day in 1564. WQXR was celebrating with songs from Shakespeare and speeches read by Julliard students. Caller number twelve who correctly identified the source won a little parcel of plays. I was one for three only: Othello.

But I’ve been thinking about Cymbeline today, since that’s the play that’s quoted in Mrs. Dalloway. WQXR played a really gorgeous setting of the song “Fear no more,” the very song that links Clarissa and Septimus in the novel. I found a folksy version of it on iTunes to download. Then, with the play on my mind, a postcard arrived from BAM. They’re doing Cymbeline the first two weeks of May…Oh, how I long to go. Here, then, is the gorgeous dirge, sung over what the singers believe to be a dead body. He need fear the sun’s heat no more, for he is dead:
Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
And that final couplet is so glorious, so poignant. Yes, chimney-sweepers, covered in dust, remind us that we are made of dust and to dust must return but, the song reminds us, even golden lads and girls share that fate.

I saw a gorgeous production of Cymbeline in Oxford when I was twenty-four. When I was twenty-three and taking my orals, John Hollander examined me on Shakespeare. He asked me if I could talk for a minute about how plays-within-plays worked. Somehow, thanks to Woolf, I had already grown fond of Cymbeline and I was canny enough to guess that a vaguely competent answer on that play would stand me in better stead than a pedestrian answer on Hamlet. So, I said, “Well, the play-within-a-play in Hamlet is the obvious place to go, but what I find really interesting is the one in Cymbeline as it takes the form of a Jacobean masque within a romance…”

I think that was the moment in the ninety-minute exam where I passed. The subsequent hour was just confirmation. So I always feel grateful to Shakespeare, to Tennyson for loving the play and teaching Woolf to love it, and to Woolf who taught me to love it and helped me pass my exams to become a professor.

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!