A Shakespearian Winter

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When I got up this morning – not all that early – the temperature was minus ten centigrade and six inches of snow covered the ground, with more forecast. This set me thinking about Shakespeare and weather. There’s a lot of it around in his works. Even the persona of Sonnet 34 wishes he’d taken a raincoat with him when he went for a walk: ‘Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day, / And make me travel forth without my cloak, / To let base clouds o’er take me in my way, / Hiding thy brav’ry in their rotten smoke?’ ‘Rotten smoke’ sounds like an early version of smog. And the plays are so full of weather that one can only pick and choose a few random examples.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is an outdoor play, radiant with sunshine until the entry of Mercadé, messenger of death. Then ‘the scene begins to cloud’ (5.2.714), and the comedy ends with a song of winter, ‘When icicles hang by the wall’ – but it’s a Breughelesque scene, alleviated by the hissing of crab-apples in a steaming bowl of wine. In As You Like It weather gains symbolical force; Duke Senior welcomes ‘the icy fang / And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind’ as a reminder of the reality that is too often concealed from him by the ‘flattery’ of his courtiers (2.1.6-10). Amiens too finds that the ‘winter wind’ is ‘not so unkind as man’s ingratitude’ and that the sting of the ‘bitter sky’ is ‘not so sharp as friend remembered not’ (2.7.175-190). The future that Hymen predicts for Touchstone and Audrey, who ‘are sure together / As the winter to foul weather’ (5.4.134-5), seems less than idyllic.

In King Lear the forest of Ardenne of As You Like It turns into the bleak and inimical heath where the King is subjected to what Edgar calls ‘the wind and persecutions of the sky.’ (2.2.175) Like Duke Senior, Lear’s Fool knows that ‘That sir that serves for gain / And follows but for form, / Will pack when it begins to rain, / And leave thee in the storm.’ (2.2.251-2) In one of the most weather-packed scenes of all, Lear defiantly invokes all the terrors of the storm – wind, cataracts, hurricanoes, thunderbolts, fire, rain – as enemies that are as nothing compared to the torments inflicted by ‘ingrateful man.’ (3.2.1-9) The impact of thunder and lightning on the heavens depicted in the storm scenes is subliminally recalled as Lear, entering with his dead daughter’s body in his arms, declares ‘had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so / That heaven’s vault should crack.’ (5.3.233-4)

Weather surfaces in the very title of The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last sole-authored play, and, as G. Wilson Knight discerned long ago in his seminal book The Shakespearian Tempest, it’s in the late romances that symbolism based on storm and tempest is most potently invoked. Somewhat like Lear, Pericles aboard ship, as his wife gives birth to their daughter, calls upon the ‘deaf’ning dreadful thunders’ to quench their ‘nimble sulph’rous flashes.’ (Sc. 11, 5-6) Later in the play that daughter, Marina, recalls how, ‘born in a tempest when my mother died’, she finds the world ‘but a ceaseless storm ‘whirring me from my friends.’ (Sc. 15, 70-72) In The Winter’s Tale it is during a storm so fierce that ‘betwixt the firmament’ and the sea it is impossible to ‘thrust a bodkin’s point’ that the baby Miranda is abandoned on the shore of Bohemia. (3.3.83-4) The vision of an apocalyptic coming together of sea and sky recurs in The Tempest when Miranda says that ‘The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch, / But that the sea, mounting to th’welkin’s cheek, / Dashes the fire out.’ (1.2.3-5) But the play ends more serenely with the promise of ‘calm seas, auspicious gales, / And sail so expeditious that shall catch / Your royal fleet far off.’ (5.1.318-320)

At present, though, as we look forward to ‘that season …Wherein our saviour’s birth is celebrated’ (Hamlet, 1.1.139-140), ‘’tis bitter cold’ (Hamlet, 1.1.6), and the gales that blow outside seem far from auspicious.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website

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