It is worth bearing in mind that Shakespeare’s stage was bare. Scenery was unusual, props and costumes thin on the ground, artificial lighting non-existent until late in his career, and the opening of the Blackfriars indoor theatre. Music alone could be used – intermittently, no doubt – to add to the force and impact of the words, to set a scene or convey an atmosphere. Simulating meteorological conditions must have proved something of a challenge.
Nonetheless, the weather plays a significant role in Shakespeare’s plays. At times, meteorological phenomena are used merely to advance the plot – for example, in those various plays that open with a storm: ‘Twelfth Night’ is a case in point, introducing Viola, fresh from the raging waters ‘after our ship was split’ by the waves, marooned in Illyria, a country of which she knows little. Similarly, ‘Pericles’ opens its second act with the stage direction ‘Enter PERICLES, wet’ before the hero reveals that ‘the sea hath cast me on the rocks’, and ‘bereft a prince of all his fortunes’ (except, oddly, a suit of armour). Both Viola and Pericles will have to make their way as best they can, strangers in strange lands.
Prospero is a third exile, though in ‘The Tempest’ the storm is his to control, subject to his broader strategy of bringing his traitorous brother to heel and regaining his place as Duke of Milan. His daughter Miranda immediately suspects who is to blame for the storm blowing up at sea: ‘If by your art, my dearest father, you have / Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them’ she pleads in her opening remark, but the storm has already served its purpose, and it only remains for Alonso, Gonzalo and the rest to emerge from the waves for events to proceed as Prospero plans.
The storm that sinks the Turkish fleet in ‘Othello’, thus releasing the eponymous warrior to face, not the enemies of the state but the ‘motiveless malignity’ of Iago, belongs to the same category as the three storms already mentioned: it advances the plot but has no symbolic function. Indeed the destruction of the Turkish enemy is forgotten quite quickly as events begin to accelerate in narrower ways. Elsewhere, however, the weather is invested with a more resonant symbolism in Shakespeare’s plays.
True, the distinction is not always easily drawn. When for example in the opening scene of Act Three of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Benvolio advises Mercutio to keep a low profile lest they run into trouble – ‘I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire: / The day is hot, the Capulets abroad, / And if we meet we shall not scape a brawl; / For now these hot days is the mad blood stirring’ – it isn’t clear how symbolic the warm weather is meant to be for the looming crisis. The implication is, perhaps, that it is no more than cause and effect.
But it is clear in ‘King Lear’ that the storm to which the former monarch is exposed on the heath reflects his inner turmoil at the events that have undone him – though he may not always see it that way: ‘Rumble thy bellyful!’ he berates the elements. ‘Spit, fire! Spout, rain! / Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters’, and he calls on the storm to ‘let fall / Your horrible pleasure’ though the storm seems to have conspired with his daughters to assault him. Nonetheless, it is impossible not to engage with the symbolism of the storm as Lear’s crisis deepens.
It may be that the symbolism of the weather is at its most acute in ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Julius Caesar’. In the former, Macbeth’s opening remark – ‘So fair and foul a day I have not seen’ – reflects the moral ambiguity he is about to trigger: ten lines later, the witches confront him for the first time. More dramatic is the scene that follows Duncan’s murder, in which we learn ‘dark night strangles the travelling lamp’, perhaps because, as Ross speculates, it is ‘troubled with man’s act’. Thus ‘darkness does the face of earth entomb’ as heaven’s rejoinder for the king’s demise: a universe turned upside down, and fair is now indeed foul.
As Ross gropes for an explanation for the meteorological aberrations he observes, so Casca in Act One Scene Three of ‘Julius Caesar’ stumbles towards an understanding of events over his head in both senses: ‘I have seen tempests’, he tells Cicero, and ‘I have seen / The ambitious ocean swell; and rage and foam,’ but what he’s observing today is different – and he aims to explain it: ‘Never till tonight’, he notes, ‘Did I go through a tempest dropping fire’. And now comes the analysis, the symbolism: ‘Either there is civil strife in heaven, / Or else the world, too saucy with the gods, / Incenses them to send destruction’.
Altogether improbable, one wants to suggest, and there may be evidence that this is Shakespeare’s view too. In ‘Henry IV Part One’, the comically self-important Owen Glendower is negotiating with Hotspur the spoils of the victories they anticipate once war with Henry IV is won. Glendower’s amour-propre has been piqued, and he has news for Hotspur – ‘I say the earth did shake when I was born’ – to which Hotspur responds with a more level-headed if disappointing explanation: ‘Diseased nature’, he notes, ‘oftentimes breaks forth / In strange eruptions’. Glendower is unsatisfied: ‘at my birth’, he repeats, ‘The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes, / The goats ran from the mountains, and the herds / … to the frighted fields’. It’s a formidable set of omens, but Hotspur is not impressed: ‘I think there’s no man speaks better Welsh’, he replies dismissively. ‘I’ll to dinner.’
Did Shakespeare himself believe that the murder of a king might inflame the heavens? It seems likely that if pressed he might have taken Hotspur’s part and moved the conversation on. Nevertheless as a dramatic instrument for audiences new to drama, new to complex narrative – as Shakespeare’s audiences must have been – tales of storms and meteorological mayhem must have seemed to him emphatically powerful dramatic instruments. In those circumstances, realism is a secondary consideration: the play’s the thing.