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.
The new director of the Globe Theatre, Emma Rice, said on the Today Programme today that she was willing to cut the difficult bits from Shakespeare, and modernise some of his language. In this famous and beautiful song from Cymbeline, she replaces ‘chimney-sweepers’ with ‘dandelions’, because, she says, in the early 16th Century dandelions were called chimney-sweepers and audiences today won’t know that and won’t know chimneys were swept before the industrial revolution.
It’s not hard to see how the weed got its nickname:
The life of a flower is short and its shortness is poignant – a well-worked trope for the transitory nature of youth, beauty, and life itself. Children sent up narrow chimneys with their brushes were not likely to last long either.
The songs mourns the death of a golden girl. The ‘chimney-sweepers’ in it can refer to both a flower and a child at once; and can make the child a sort of flower and flower a sort of child. It’s not just one or the other and it’s not just another flower metaphor. To appreciate that this is the sort of thing that Shakespeare does is to begin to be aware of the scale of his genius – to make unseen connections, to illuminate the familiar with the less familiar. The song recognises that death comes to all: flowers, golden people, soot-covered people, and yet there’s a comfort because he calls death ‘home’ and fear is gone.
Why sacrifice the richness of ‘chimney-sweepers’ in a modern production of the play? Why make the image two dimensional instead of three? It is insulting to an audience to water down Shakespeare’s language. How difficult is it to grasp multiple meanings?
Complexity, nuance, ambiguity are to be treasured, as are ‘all things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled…’ A simplified, binary world just of off/on, with me or against me, black and white, is a vile place.