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 Theme 5: Death
Poem 1: Fear No More  >
poem, commentary, criticism, analysis, exegesis

William Shakespeare     >


Henry Singleton scene from Cymbeline


Cymbeline, Act IV, Scene 2. (1623, d7)
composed around 1610 (46)

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.

Fear no more the frown o' the great;
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan;
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

the reed and the oak: refers to the little parable which compares the mighty oak with the puny reed, explaining that when the high wind arrives, it is the oak that breaks, not the reed, which is able to bend. It asks the question which is therefore the stronger. Shakepeare is explaining that the answer to this question is immaterial now.
thunder stone: it was thought that primitive axe and arrow heads found in the countryside were actually deposited there in thunderstorms. Country people clearly went in constant fear that one of them might one day fall on their head.

The above song is taken from Shakespeare's late play Cymbeline (Act IV, Scene ii, lines 2656 to 2680). The first two stanzas are spoken (not sung) alternately by the two brothers Guiderius and Arviragus. They then take it in turns to recite each line of the remaining two stanzas alternately, except the final two lines of each stanza, which they recite together. Guiderius and Arviragus are the sons of Cymbeline, abducted as babies by Belarius, and brought up as woodsmen. They recite the song over the corpse of Fidele, who they think is a man, but who is in fact Imogen, their sister, who they have never seen, and who is actually not dead, but who has drunk a draught of a poison the effect of which puts her into a state which resembles death. I hope that is clear.

The play itself has been much criticised, most particularly by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) who wrote 'to remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation', though he does allow that there are some 'just sentiments' and 'pleasing scenes'.

In fact, the play is actually something of a pantomime, though there is much serious matter accompanying the reversals, disguises, misapprehensions, and absurdities, and the little song above is a fine example. It is a serious evocation of the reasons why death may not be so bad after all, given the vicissitudes of life. The most remarkable thing about the song, however, is the complete lack of any form of Christian sentiment. The first three stanzas are simply filled with the practical circumstances that indicate that one might be better off dead, while the final stanza, which takes the form of an incantation, is wholly pagan in its import, rhythm and sentiment. It is a spell to keep away evil spirits, and the only wish is for 'quiet consummation' and a 'renownèd grave', there being no thought whatsoever of an afterlife, or a heaven, or indeed a hell.

It is very much in the manner of Blow, blow thou Winter Wind, and also reminiscent of the strange piece of doggerel verse on Shakespeare's own tombstone: 'Good friend, for Jesus´ sake forbeare / To digg the dust enclosèd here! / Blest be ye man that spares thes stones / And curst be he that moves my bones.'

Shakespeare has departed from the scenes of his worldly triumph, from the court of which he was a part, and left behind the styles and false values that accompany it, returning to his roots, in the country, in nature, and in folklore, though the drama of Cymbeline hovers between the two worlds, court and country, in a quasi-magical land of Shakespear's own creation, which gives free play to his imagination. It is a world which sensible men, like Samuel Johnson, will eschew, but it is also a world which opens up the possibility of addressing fundamental and universal questions about life and its possibilities.

It was shortly after writing this play that Shakespeare returned to Stratford, and effectively gave up writing, as far as we know.

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