Can you explain the significance of the storm in King Lear?

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It was a dark and stormy night . . .

The rumblings of the famous storm in Shakespeare's King Lear began long before the thunder and lightning appeared in act 2, scene 4 and continued into act 3, scene 4. There's been a storm brewing in Lear—the play and the...

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It was a dark and stormy night . . .

The rumblings of the famous storm in Shakespeare's King Lear began long before the thunder and lightning appeared in act 2, scene 4 and continued into act 3, scene 4. There's been a storm brewing in Lear—the play and the king—since long before the events of the play started to unfold.

At the very beginning of the play, Lear's daughters, Goneril and Regan, remark to each other that they've noticed that for quite some time, Lear has been at odds with himself (and nearly everyone around him), and that Lear's inner conflict has manifested itself with his treatment of his favorite daughter, Cornelia.

GONERIL: You see how full of changes his age is; the observation
we have made of it hath not been little: he always loved our
sister most; and with what poor judgment he hath now cast
her off appears too grossly.

REGAN: 'Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he
hath ever but slenderly known himself.

GONERIL: The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash;
then must we look to receive from his age, not alone the
imperfections of long-engraffed condition, but therewithal
the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them. (1.1.315–325)

By the time the storm appears in the play in act 2, scene 4, the turmoil in the play and inside Lear are being played out in earnest. Goneril and Regan have manipulated Lear out of his entire retinue, and Lear proudly refuses to go to either of their homes:

LEAR: . . . No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose
To be a comrade with the wolf and owl,—
To wage against the enmity o' the air . . . (4.2.223–225)

Goneril coldly responds:

GONERIL: At your choice, sir. (4.2.233)

As Lear, the Fool, and Kent leave Gloucester's castle, Cornwall remarks,

CORNWALL: Let us withdraw; 'twill be a storm. (4.2.309)

He's not wrong.

As other educators have noted, the storm symbolizes the tempest in Lear's own mind (4.2.16), his fall from King to commoner, how he's been manipulated by those around him, and how he's been caught up in his own prideful and foolish decisions that led to him being in such a deplorable state that he's driven to his knees to beg his daughter Regan to take him in.

The storm is absolutely necessary to the play. It's an ordeal of mind and body that Lear must endure, and only a raging tempest, a true force of nature, can cause the force of nature who is Lear to rise to the level of the tragic hero in the play.

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The storm in King Lear serves a dual purpose. First, it is intended to show how Lear, a frail old man, has been rendered homeless by his two daughters. Second, the storm is intended to represent visually and dramatically the turbulent emotions that Lear is experiencing. He is not the least bit afraid of the storm or troubled by the cold and wet. His inner feelings are so powerful that he is indifferent to any physical discomfort. His conflicting emotions include rage, frustration, remorse, and humiliation. He expresses all these feelings in his soliloquy in Act 3, Scene 2. He also indicates that for the first time in his life he is beginning to realize how his most humble subjects feel. This is a lesson which he will continue to ponder on throughout the play because he realizes he is one of them. The storm eventually forces him to take shelter in a hovel with his Fool and Edgar who is pretending to be Poor Tom, a homeless lunatic. There they have a discussion of the wretchedness of human existence while the storm continues to rage outside. The fact that Lear is now inside and is communicating with others suggests that the worst of his wild frenzy has subsided and he is now becoming more resigned and rational.

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