Last month I choose a line from one of William Shakespeare’s sonnets:
"Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May."
(Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?)
It was the third time I had chosen one of the Bard’s writings for the “Weather Quote of the Month” and I have written one Almanac essay in which his work, The Tempest, was featured (Connections: A Storm, An Island, A Play, A Princess – September 1999). Several other quotes have been sprinkled amongst the Elders Speak pages of weather. With all these references to Shakespeare, I thought it was time to focus an essay and Elders’ page on “Shakespearean Weather.”
Shakespeare was no scientist nor are there indications that he was a weather aficionado as we know it today, but like all in his day, weather and the seasons were an important part of his world, even more perhaps than it is to us today. He lived during the climatic period we now call “The Little Ice Age,” reaching manhood about the beginning of the stormiest and coldest stretch within that period. The 1590s, when most of his most famous plays were performed was the coldest decade in England of that century. Storminess also reached a peak during this time,
It was a time when the first scientific understandings of weather and climate had begun, yet, most people still believed weather and climate were either under the control of God or of evil agents such as witches. Brian Fagan, in his book The Little Ice Age, and Wolfgang Behringer, in his tome A Cultural History of Climate, both comment that the period was one of “intense debate over the authority of God over the weather.” Indeed, the witch hunts and trials roughly coincided with this period, with the late 1580s the peak years, as many believed they were responsible for making the bad weather.
In his works, Shakespeare often uses the tension between the expected smooth changes of day-to-day weather and the raging of storms as a sign of portentous events such as the death of Caesar or the turmoil within as with King Lear. He also used the moods of the weather to allude to the moods of his characters or their emotional states, a common literary device in the writings of poets and playwrights to this day.
Since Shakespeare is know to most of us as a playwright, I spend most of the words below on weather references and devices in a number of his plays. It is by no means all-encompassing as I image each play has some, albeit brief, mention of weather.
Shakespeare used the weather on many occasions to set the mood for the action or the mind of a main character. The stage directions often set a scene as one with a storm raging around the action. The fear of storms during the Elizabethan era was common, particularly as Britain began to flex its muscles on the high seas, and the small ocean-going vessels set out across the stormy North Atlantic Ocean.
Wm Shakespeare's Plays by Sir John Gilbert 1849
Shakespeare’s plays often used the supernatural, the weather and other natural phenomena as dramatic devices. For example, in Julius Caesar, as the assassination plot begins, the day is filled with strange and unusual natural occurrences. The weather is very strange and violent, and fire falls from the sky as Casca and Cicero meet on a Roman street. Of these Casca declares, no one could possibly believe that they are natural occurrences:
“I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with the threatening clouds:
But never till to-night, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.
Either there is a civil strife in heaven,
Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,
Incenses them to send destruction.”
While Casca believes that the weather is a bad omen for all, Cassius disagrees. He believes the unusual weather is only a threat to evil men. He responds to Casca:
“For my part, I have walk'd about the streets,
Submitting me unto the perilous night,
And, thus unbraced, Casca, as you see,
Have bared my bosom to the thunder-stone;
And when the cross blue lightning seem'd to open
The breast of heaven, I did present myself
Even in the aim and very flash of it.
… Now could I, Casca, name to thee a man
Most like this dreadful night,
That thunders, lightens, opens graves, and roars
As doth the lion in the Capitol,”
(indirectly referring to Caesar.)
Even Caesar’s wife Calpurnia fears this night of thunder and lightning, seeing it as an evil omen for her husband: “When beggars die, there are no comets seen;/ The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” But Caesar ignores her fears and the warnings of the soothsayer and goes to the Forum the next day, there to die at the hands of Brutus and others.
In Macbeth, Shakespeare brings the witch/weather connection into the stage directions. Whenever the witches appear on stage, the weather is chaotic with raging lightning and thunder. In fact, the play begins with lightning and thunder as the three hags gather: First Witch
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain? Second Witch
When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.
As the three witches brew up portents of unrest and tragedy, they chant.
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
Macbeth later confronts the weird sisters amid more thunder and wishes an answer to his burning question:
“Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders' heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature's germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.”
Shakespeare uses stormy weather in King Lear to emphasize Lear’s inner turmoil as he sees the smallness of man in the grand scheme. In the third act, Lear wanders with his Fool through the storm, challenging it to do its worst
Lear.: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
King Lear and the Fool in the Storm by William Dyce, 1851
Lear.: Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children,…
Lear.: Love not such nights as these; the wrathful skies
Gallow the very wanderers of the dark,
And make them keep their caves; since I was man,
Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder,
Such groans of roaring wind and rain I never
Remember to have heard: man's nature cannot carry
Th' affliction nor the fear.
Many Shakespearean scholars believe that the Bard of Avon found the inspiration for The Tempest in the accounts of the storm, shipwreck and survival written by Silvester Jourdain and William Strachey. In the western Atlantic a hurricane struck the “Third Supply” relief fleet to the struggling Jamestown Colony in Virginia. The connection to this story I have documented in Connections: A Storm, An Island, A Play, A Princess.
In The Tempest, Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, uses illusion and skillful manipulation of the weather in an attempt to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place. To do so, he conjures up a storm to lure his usurping brother Antonio and the complicit Alonso, King of Naples, to a remote island. Again, we have Shakespeare linking severe weather with the supernatural.
The Tempest wrecks the ship of King Alonso: An engraving based off of a painting by George Romney. 1797
As with other plays, Shakespeare begins with a storm scene as the ship battles the conjured storm. A boatswain cries:
“A plague upon this howling! they are louder than
the weather or our office.”
On the island, Miranda cries to her father:
“If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to the welkin's cheek,
Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash'd all to pieces.”
Miranda, The Tempest : by John William Waterhouse,1916
Later in the first act, Shakespeare describes St Elmo’s Fire engulfing the ship, though he ascribes it to a visit from the spirit Ariel:
“I boarded the king's ship; now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flam'd amazement: sometime I'd divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and boresprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join. Jove's lightnings, the precursors
O' the dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary
And sight-outrunning were not; the fire and cracks
Of sulphurous roaring the most mighty Neptune
Seem to besiege and make his bold waves tremble,
Yea, his dread trident shake.”
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Not all of Shakespeare’s uses of weather are in his tragedies. In A Midsummer Night's Dream he sets the romance on a seasonal event of note: the night preceding the summer solstice or as the day was then called: Midsummer. While weather is not a major device in this work, he uses the belief that on Midsummer’s Eve, spirits roamed the land. The Bard uses weather metaphor extensively in this work, such as in these passages describing true love:
Lysander: “Making it momentany as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say, ‘Behold!’
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.”
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William_Blake._c.1786
Titania: “These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer's spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,…
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb'd our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:…
The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems' thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The chilling autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world
By their increase, now knows not which is which.”
Shakespeare uses lightning as a metaphor for love in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet describes Romeo’s advances as:
“It is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say it lightens.”
In Othello, Shakespeare has Iago conjure a storm at sea through evil forces. Later, he compares Othello’s return from battle to his wife as the aftermath of a storm:
“It gives me wonder great as my content
To see you here before me. O my soul's joy!
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have waken'd death!”
In As You Like It, he has Duke Senior remark:
“The seasons' difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold,…”
as he sees direct, harsh words as a contrast to the overly flattering words of his courtiers.
Amiens later remarks: “Blow, blow, thou winter wind,/Thou art not so unkind/As man's ingratitude;.. Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,/That dost not bite so nigh...”
At play’s end, Hymen joins the four couples — Orlando and Rosalind, Oliver and Celia, Phoebe and Silvius, and Touchstone and Audrey — in wedlock with “You and you no cross shall part;/You and you are heart in heart;/You to his love must accord,/Or have a woman to your lord;/You and you are sure together,/As the winter to foul weather./ Whiles a wedlock-hymn we sing …”
Weather metaphor fills Falstaff’s desire for bodily pleasures in The Merry Wives of Windsor when he cries: “Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves, hail kissing-comfits [breath fresheners] and snow eringoes [candied roots of sea-holly, considered a potent aphrodisiac].”
In Love’s Labour Lost, Shakespeare ends with two songs, to the seasons of Spring and Winter, the latter begun with the phrase “When icicles hang by the wall…”
Cymbeline is best known for its lines: “The game is up.” (Act III, Scene III), and
“I have not slept one wink.” (Act III, Scene III). However in the same act, Belarius uses a weather and nature reference to describe his fall from favor: “Then was I as a tree Whose boughs did bend with fruit; but in one night A storm, or robbery, call it what you will, Shook down my mellow hangings, nay, my leaves, And left me bare to weather.”
In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare describes Sicily thus: “The climate’s delicate, the air most sweet. And in Richard II, he says: “Men judge by the complexion of the sky/The state and inclination of the day…” which is a rather common notion in weatherlore. Later he notes: “Since the more fair and crystal is the sky,/The uglier seem the clouds that in it fly.”
Other works include many references to weather and the above notes are but a few of Shakespeare’s weather words in those plays.
Weather in Verse
In Shakespeare’s sonnets and other poetic works, weather and the seasons are a prime tool and metaphoric device. Poets and other writers of the time often drew comparisons between the state of human emotions and feelings and the weather. The Bard was no exception.
Perhaps most famous are two lines from Sonnet 18 “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?” The title line is actually the opening line (Shakespeare did not give titles to his sonnets) and later he observes: “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May…”
In Sonnet 6, he compares natural seasons to the periods of a human life:” — another common literary device that fills many of the sonnets: “Then let not winter's ragged hand deface,/In thee thy summer, ere thou be distilled.”
In Sonnet 34, we read:
“Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o'ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?
'Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,…”
He writes in Sonnet 73:
“That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.”
In The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare speaks of fleeting happiness:
“O happiness enjoy'd but of a few!
And, if possess'd, as soon decay'd and done
As is the morning's silver-melting dew
Against the golden splendor of the sun!”
Finally, in Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare describes the ending of the glory of dawn with these words:
“Even as the sun with purple-coloured face
Had ta'en his last leave of the weeping morn, …
The Bard of Avon was a master of metaphor and allusion in all his works and those related to weather, climate and the seasons continue to treat us with the poetry of weather.
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