Act III, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
The groundwork has already been laid by the Gentleman in the previous scene informing us of Lear’s struggle against the fierce storm on the heath. As the scene opens, Lear fervently calls upon the winds to blow, the lightning to “Spit, fire,” the rain to “drench the steeples,” and the thunder to crack open “nature’s moulds” and spill the seeds that make “ingrateful man.” The Fool counsels Lear to submit to his daughters’ authority over him and beg to be taken out of the storm. He reasons that it would be better to “court holy-water,” or, in other words, flatter his daughters, than to continue braving the stormy night. Ignoring the Fool’s pleas, he addresses the elements, telling them he will show them no unkindness since he never gave them his kingdom, and, therefore, they owe him nothing. His mood quickly swings, however, as he rails against the rain, wind, thunder, and lightning, suspecting that they are, after all, only the “servile ministers” of his “pernicious daughters” fighting a battle against him.
The Fool, continuing his jesting in rhyme, again censures the King, telling him that the person who has “a house to put ‘s head in” has a good brain. In a strained attempt to control his passions, Lear swears he will be the epitome of patience.
Kent enters with expressions of terror at the night sky that is unparalleled in his memory. Lear calls on the gods to wreak their stormy vengeance on criminals who have never been brought to justice. He considers himself above them, stating that he is “More sinn’d against than sinning.” Kent gently guides the “bare-headed” Lear into a hovel that provides shelter from the storm. He talks of turning back to Gloucester’s castle with the intention of forcing them to receive him.
Lear tells the Fool his wits are beginning to turn. For the first time he shows compassion for him, asking him whether he is cold. The Fool delays the end of the scene, quoting a long prophecy in rhymed verse.
In the sixteenth century, the theaters were relatively devoid of stage props. Shakespeare’s setting of the storm on the heath is, therefore, largely dependent upon the strong and vigorous imagery of Lear’s language. Though the Fool disagrees, preferring a “dry house” to the stormy night, Lear calls upon the elements to wreak their vengeance on “ingrateful man.” With metaphors, he paints an image of rain, wind, thunder, and lightning that provide the setting for the storm.
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 sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head!
Personifying the elements, Lear sees them as “servile ministers” to his daughters who are engaging them in a battle to destroy him. Hence, the storm outside becomes analogous to Lear’s inner struggle in his chaotic world where the political forces, who are now his daughters, threaten to destroy him. Having lost his powers when he gave away his kingdom, he is as vulnerable to his daughters’ vengeance as he is to the all-encompassing storm when he roams bareheaded on the wild and barren heath.
Lear calls on the all-shaking thunder to “Crack nature’s moulds” and spill the seeds that create “ingrateful man.” J. F. Danby notes that the thunder acts as the King’s agent that carries out the “King’s desires in annihilating the corrupted world of man” (Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature, p. 183). Lear, however, cannot, at this point in the drama, identify with that corruption. He still feels he is “More sinn’d against than sinning.”
In ancient times people were in constant fear that they would, by some inadvertent act, anger the gods who would, in turn, threaten to destroy them. Though King Lear is set in pre-Christian times, Shakespeare’s audience would have held similar...
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