How might weather have impacted the way Shakespeare uses weather in his plays?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Always it is essential to consider the Elizabethan Chain of Being when reading Shakespeare's plays, for the structure of the plot, the mental states of the characters, the imagery and fate all are informed by this established order of the universe. Thus, the calm or turbulence of the weather is an effect of the balance or imbalance of this universe. Disruptions in the Chain of Being are, then, reflected in disruptions in what is beneath the moon and in nature.

In Julius Caesar, for instance, after Cassius convinces Brutus to enter into the conspiracy against Caesar, their leader, supernatural happenings begin--heaven dropping fire, an owl hooting in the marketplace at noon, etc. Then, on the night before Caesar's assassination, his wife Calpurnia dreams of "horrid sights": "A lioness hath whelped in the streets"; "...graves have yawned, and yielded up their dead"; "ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets...."(2.2). These are all a result of the upsetting of the balance of the universe.

And, yet, while the weather disturbances are consequential, they can also be prophetic as, for example, in Othello. In Act II, Scene 1, there is a storm, signifying the diabolical intentions of Iago and symbolizing, as well as presaging, the turbulence to come in the lives of Othello and Desmonda:

Cassio’s comment that “Tempests themselves … the guttered rocks … congregated sands, / Traitors … as having a sense of beauty, do omit / Their mortal natures” personifies a treacherous sea with a benevolent nature in sparing Desdemona. This image contrasts the malevolent nature of Iago who is a traitor sparing no one to undo Othello [Enotes]

Certainly, in Macbeth, there is demonstrated the three interlocking parts of the Chain of Being that correspond to each other--

  1. the Macrocosm - Heavenly Bodies, the supernatural 
  2. the Microcosm -  the semi-divine king, humans
  3. the Body Politic - the kingdom acts as a social institute and includes the citizens and the government--

and, it is paramount to realize one's place in this hierarchy and not seek to rise above it through "unholy ambition." Hubris, therefore, is against the harmony of the universe and its structure. So, when Macbeth is tempted by the supernatural forces to aspire to being a king, he commits the egregious act of "unholy ambition." Moreover, the worst kind of pride, his regicide of Duncan, causes a great disturbance in the Macrocosm as well as disruption of the Microcosm. Therefore, much of the action in Macbeth takes place in the "thick night" of dark castles as shadowy figures appear, storms brew, woods move, and "nothing is what is not."

Macbeth's "vaulting ambition" and "villainies of nature," spurred by the prophesies of the "three sisters," ignite storms and phantasmagoric realms. In fact, whenever the evil sisters meet there are storms:

When shalll we three meet again? 
In thunder, lightning, or in rain? (1.1.1-2)

On the night that Macbeth murders Duncan, there are storms, signifying the disruption of the Chain of Being. Outside Macbeth's castle, Ross alludes to the unnaturalness of the weather to an Old Man:

Ha, good father,
Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threatens his bloody stage. By th' clock ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp.
Is ’t night’s predominance or the day’s shame
That darkness does the face of Earth entomb
When living light should kiss it? (2.4)
Again, the weather is prophetic as before he is killed, Banquo declares, "It will rain tonight" (3.3.15). Again, in Act IV, cloudy skies suggest murder and betrayal as Macbeth perceives a bloody child, "And sleep in spite of thunder" (4.1.86). Indeed, each time the witches appear, they are accompanied by storms and turbulent weather. Truly, in Macbeth, the Chain of Being, the order of the Microcosm and the Body Politic are greatly disrupted and storms are the manifestation of this disorder.
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