Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanes, 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, and germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
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,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul!
Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear” is a detailed description of the consequences of one man’s decisions. This fictitious man is Lear, King of England, whose decisions greatly alter his life and the lives of those around him. As Lear bears the status of King he is, as one expects, a man of great power but he surrenders all of this power to his daughters as a reward for their demonstration of love towards him. This untimely abdication of his throne results in a chain reaction of events that send him through a journey of hell. In the selected passage, which is a resulting event of Lear giving his kingdom to his two ‘pernicious’ daughters, Lear is out on the heath facing the storm after being treated abusively by Regan and Goneril. One can say that the major theme depicted in this passage is the natural and unnatural. Shakespeare paints the character of King Lear in vivid detail and puts this character through a series of life-altering events. By examining the events and the change that Shakespeare presents, the concept of natural and unnatural behavior can be better understood.
In this passage, as the storm continues on the heath. Lear’s mood matches the intensity of nature’s turbulence as he rages against his daughters’ abusive treatment. Lear is trying to face down the powers of nature, an attempt that seems to indicate both his despair and his increasingly confused sense of reality. Both of these strains appear in Lear’s famous speech to the storm, in which he commands, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! / You cataracts and hurricanes, spout / Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!”. Lear’s attempt to speak to the storm suggests that he has lost touch with the natural world and his relation to it— or at least, that he has lost touch with the ordinary human understanding of nature. In a sense, though, his outburst against the weather embodies one of the central questions posed by King Lear: namely, whether the universe is fundamentally friendly or hostile to man. Lear asks whether nature and the gods are actually good, and, if so, how life can have treated him so badly.
The audience observes how Lear copes with the swell of problems besieging him; which have resulted due to his own actions. As he calls upon the storm to unleash its fury on the world, he also cries out for the destruction of ungrateful man: “Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once / That make ingrateful man!”. By destroying the molds that nature uses to create men, the genetic code of life will be lost. In this instance, Lear is without hope; his hopelessness and dejection is so great that it approaches nihilism, a belief in nothing. One can see that, Lear, who is unused to such harsh conditions, soon finds he is symbolically stripped bare. He has already discovered that his cruel daughters can victimize him; now he learns that a king caught in a storm is as much subject to the power of nature as any man. The storm is important due to its symbolic connection to the state of mind of the people caught in it.
Shakespeare’s use of pathetic fallacy—a literary device in which inanimate objects such as nature assume human reactions—amplifies the tension of the characters’ struggles by elevating human forces to the level of natural forces. Although, the main theme depicted in this passage is the natural and unnatural, there are also instances which show the theme of chaos, in Lear’s world. Lear’s speeches establish and reflect the properties of the storm. They are full of anger and distress, as the mad king swiftly moves from one topic to another. The violence of the imagery Lear employs reflects his state of mind. Lear’s isolation is shown by his lack of interaction with the other characters on the stage, which also indicates that he is now engaged in an internal struggle; he is battling to preserve his wits. The storm serves as a metaphor for Lear—and England’s—plight. The chaotic storm depicts the chaos in England’s current monarchy. Lear’s obsession with justice and criminal behavior, introduced in this passage, is maintained until the end of the play.
The king has started to consider issues he took too little care of as ruler; his journey towards greater understanding of himself and the world around him has begun. The storm marks one of the first appearances of the apocalyptic imagery that is so important in King Lear and that will become increasingly dominant as the play progresses. The chaos reflects the disorder in Lear’s mind, and the apocalyptic language represents the projection of Lear’s rage and despair onto the outside world: if his world has come to a symbolic end because his daughters have stripped away his power and betrayed him, then, he seems to think, the real world ought to end too. As it has been seen, the chaos in nature also reflects the very real political chaos that has engulfed Britain in the absence of Lear’s authority. Moreover, the style and structure of Lear’s speeches convey the king’s confused and violent state of mind. One can see anger, a desire for revenge, egotism, and more positively, humility and recognition of previous mistakes.
Lear’s speeches also reflect the movements of the storm. Lear’s opening line, “Blow, winds…Rage, blow” I like a crack of thunder, suggesting that Shakespeare is using Lear’s language to create the effects of the storm for the audience. I feel that, Lear is the storm. His actions have led to misrule in his kingdom, and nature reflects his chaos. Lear has made others suffer; now the storm makes him suffer. Lear wants to see the world destroyed by ‘cataracts and hurricanes’ because of the treachery of ‘ingrateful man’. These last two words indicate that Lear blames Goneril and Regan for his suffering. But he also seems to welcome his own destruction when he yells, “Singe my white head!”. I believe that, perhaps this is an acknowledgement of his sins, a desire to be punished for his folly. However, Lear continues to act out the role of mighty monarch, as he wants to maintain his position in the “Great chain of being”, as is natural for a king to do so. His first speech is a long list of commands. He expects the storm and tempest to do his biding. Lear’s second speech is less explosive, but still full of rage: “I tax not you elements…Your horrible pleasure”. Now Lear recognizes that he cannot rule the elements.
He says with crazy egotism—that they owe him ‘no subscription’. Along with Lear’s increasing despair and projection, one can see his understandable fixation on his daughters, which is natural for an angry father to do so: “Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters: / I tax you not, you elements, with unkindness”. Lear tells the thunder that he does not blame it for attacking him because it does not owe him anything. But he does blame his “two pernicious daughters” for their betrayal. The use of the word ‘pernicious’ is unnatural, as it is unnatural for daughters to abusively treat their father, as Goneril and Regan are doing so in the play. Despite the apparent onset of madness, Lear exhibits some degree of rational thought—he is still able to locate the source of his misfortune. Furthermore, Lear’s words convey the self-pity he feels: “Here I stand, / A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man”.
This description might be seen as the accurate self-assessment of a man who is beginning to see himself more clearly. All the adjectives are bleak, with a particularly blunt final choice: despised. Lear’s reference to himself as a ‘slave’ is significant too. Now he begins to see that he has—indeed is—nothing. His paranoid delusion that the storm is in league with his ‘pernicious daughters’ seems to confirm his arrogant vulnerability. Lear willingly submits to the strength of the storm rather than seeking shelter or fighting for his sanity. He has fallen so far from the strong monarch who began the play that he has strength only to wish for utter destruction. In spite of his pitiful state, Lear is revealed as a complex man, one whose punishment far exceeds his foolish errors, and thus, Lear is deserving of the audience’s sympathy.
In conclusion, this passage is significant for several reasons. It shows us Lear in the first stages of his madness and we see the outcome which was expected at the end of Act II. It is learnt that Lear is preoccupied by thoughts about ingratitude from his daughters but also considers broader questions as he struggles to retain his intellect. He is seen to start to move towards greater self-awareness in spite of his continued egotism. The storm reflects the terrible state England is now in, ruled by “cruel monsters”. The hostile setting and violent imagery increase the audience’s fears about events to come and make the audience fear for Lear’s safety.