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,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
Lear on the heath, King Lear, III.2
Violent storms are humbling events, testing our priorities, our commitment to the social contract, our perception of leadership. Shakespeare liked to use storms as symbols of transformation, a catastrophic breaking point from which some emerge with a deeper understanding of how the world really works.
In King Lear, as Lear reels from his oldest daughters’ betrayals and the sense that his entire universe is coming apart around him, he wanders out onto the health where a storm assaults him. The storm reflects his rage as well as his impotence. But after the storm, as he stumbles feebly into a peasant’s hovel, he starts to see the world in non-egotistical terms for the first time. He expresses empathy for the peasants who had to live their entire lives where he is taking temporary shelter. In turn, these reflections humble him enough that he can, thereafter, at least make peace with his one loving daughter whom he has gratuitously wronged.
The Tempest begins with a storm. But this one is conjured up by the lead character, Prospero. The storm is a device Prospero employs to take charge of his destiny. He, not nature, transforms his fate, permitting him a chance to confront his enemies by having their ship crash on the island where he has been stranded for a dozen years. He then takes the opportunity to get his old job as Duke of Milan back and to set his daughter up with a royal husband who is almost worthy of her charm and wit.
The Winter’s Tale has the oddest, most shamelessly symbolic storm. A storm breaks out as Antigonus, a member of the court of Sicilia, is in the midst of carrying out orders from his crazed King to abandon a new born baby to die of exposure. The King has given this horrific order because he is convinced, absent any evidence, that the child born to his Queen is illegitimate. As Antigonus abandons the newborn, he sees the storm coming and says to the infant:
The day frowns more and more: thou'rt like to have
A lullaby too rough: I never saw
The heavens so dim by day. A savage clamour!
Well may I get aboard! This is the chase:
I am gone for ever.
Antigonus is then promptly killed by a marauding bear. Then, in the very next moment, a goofy Shepherd enters, muttering to himself about the waywardness of youth. Apparently, some pesky youngsters have let some of his sheep out and now he has to track them down before they are lost in the storm:
I would there were no age between sixteen and
three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the
rest; for there is nothing in the between but
getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry,
The Shepherd stops in his tracks—“Hark you now!”—as he spies the abandoned baby. He is convinced that the poor babe must be the product of some dalliance:
though I am not bookish, yet I can read
waiting-gentlewoman in the 'scape. This has been
some stair-work, some trunk-work, some
behind-door-work: they were warmer that got this
than the poor thing is here.
The Shepherd decides to “take it up for pity.” Next enters the Shepherd’s son, whom Shakespeare merely names “Clown.” Without warning, what has been a relentlessly bitter tragedy for three Acts has suddenly turned into a pastoral comedy. The Shepherd and Clown marvel at the storm, at the bear-mutilated corpse of Antigonus, and at the babe’s luck in having survived all the commotion. They then exit, vowing to “do good deeds.” Then, weirder still, the next character that enters is called “Time.” Time makes but one brief appearance to deliver a zippy monologue, delivered directly to the audience. Time explains that the action of the play is going to skip ahead sixteen years just because he feels like it:
I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror
Of good and bad, that makes and unfolds error,
Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
To use my wings. Impute it not a crime
To me or my swift passage, that I slide
O'er sixteen years and leave the growth untried
Of that wide gap, since it is in my power
To o'erthrow law and in one self-born hour
To plant and o'erwhelm custom.
As if to suggest that time heals all, Time then explains what has happened in the intervening years since the storm struck. The baby, now a young beauty named “Perdita,” has “grown in grace” and what becomes of this “shepherd's daughter” is to be revealed in the remainder of the play. Time ends his little ditty with a lame joke about how he hopes the audience will allow the play to continue because he assumes they have spent their time even more foolishly before and if not, he “wishes earnestly [they] never may.”
Right about now, I wish Time would just skip ahead and show that the raw sewage engulfing Hoboken has been removed, that the miraculous NYC subway system has been restored, and that the millions of folks responsible for so much of this country’s vitality in the great Northeast have not only withstood Sandy, but flourished in the storm’s wake.