Shakespeare’s King Lear examines the politics of betrayal and the awful costs paid by its victims. Nowhere in the play are these costs more apparent than in those scenes in which Lear and his exiled companions find themselves caught in the midst of a thunderstorm unsheltered. As King, Lear embodied the basic assumptions of monarchy, one being that the universe is ordered according to a divine logic. Within this ideological construct, natural phenomena works as the hand of God.
Therefore, thunderstorms, earthquakes, and floods are all extensions of God’s judgment- Biblical examples include the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Great Flood, the Parting of the Red Sea, etc., etc. Though King Lear is set in pre-Christian Britain, the dynamic enshrined in these examples operates here as well- the wicked shall be punished and the righteous shall be rewarded. This order of due punishment and reward is shocked when Lear is betrayed by his ungrateful daughters, Regan and Goneril. The ensuing storm is a manifestation of this order overthrown, and is as notable for its symbolic function as it is for its direct effect on King Lear.
Just as a storm will cover the sun’s rays, many of the characters left in the storm have been forced to cover or mask their true, righteous natures. Kent and Edgar both don the apparel and manners of unlearned beggars in order to help those they serve in a time of crisis. Lear similarly adopts the apparel of madness, though unlike the previously mentioned characters, he does so by compulsion rather than artifice. For Kent and Edgar, these transformations aren’t permanent, as the indignity symbolized by the storm does not conquer them. But for Lear, the storm is the last stand for his sanity. He’s simply unable to think of his daughters’ betrayal, for “that way Madness lies” (Act III, scene 4, line 21).
Another interesting parallel between the nature of the storm and that of Lear’s madness can be drawn here. A storm is by definition the release of pent-up energies, energies that either implode or explode but will not dissipate. As the horrible knowledge of his misjudgments dawns on Lear, this knowledge takes the form of psychosomatic energies which must either implode as madness or explode as acts of revenge.
Perhaps if Lear were a younger man, he might have tried at revenge, but madness is the seemingly inevitable result of such extreme misfortune at such advanced age. Just as the storm explodes with its torrential rains and its deafening thunder, Lear begins his implosion in counterpoint, descending into madness. As he cannot match the explosive rage of the storm with an act of revenge, he must mount an equally powerful attack on his own psyche.
His pain runs so deep by this point that the literal gales cannot compare to “the Tempest in [his] Mind” (III, 4, 12). Pragmatically, implosion serves not only the purpose of dispersing irrepressible psychosomatic energies, but also sets up a bulwark through which further pains cannot penetrate. Thus, the aforementioned “Tempest in [Lear’s] Mind / Doth from [his] Sense take all Feeling else / Save what beats there, Filial Ingratitude” (III, 4, 12-14).
Viewed from a different perspective, the storm can be seen as a challenge to Lear- can he show the strength and resolve that’s necessary to right the wrongs that have been done to him? His answer to that challenge is a resounding no. Though at some points he seems resolute, as when he calls out to the storm to “Pour on, I will endure,” his ensuing madness betrays such exclamations (III, 4, 16).
Lear does endure, but only behind the aforementioned shield of implosion, a purgatorial state in which neither engagement with reality nor death is possible. It’s only a little later that he effectively renounces what was left of his regal spirit, crying, “…-Take Physic, Pomp:/ Expose thy self to feel what Wretches feel,/ That thou mayst shake the Superflux to them/ And shew the Heavens more Just” (Lear, III, 4, 33-36). Though this statement could be interpreted as a positive call for royal humility in another context, here it is nothing more than a slightly veiled admission of surrender. In lowering himself to the level of a common “Wretch,” he does not take dignity with him, but leaves it a memory of his once-glorious past.
When considering the effects of the storm on Lear, one must consider not only the storm in itself, but the circumstances in which he experiences it. If he had experienced such a storm in even a poor peasant’s cottage, the deposed king might have been able to clutch onto a final shred of royal composure and dignity. But lost in the wilderness, Lear realizes that he has truly lost control of a land he once ruled, and of himself as well for that matter. To build a shelter for oneself from cold and wind and rain is at bottom an attempt to control the elements, to moderate their rule over one’s life.
Lear has, by this point, fallen so far from his earlier height that he no longer has this basic semblance of control to shield him from the whims of nature. The former king has effectively fallen from the highest station one could possess to the very lowest. This extreme transformation finds its expression in the extreme nature of the storm. It is not a polite storm but one in which “Sheets of Fire,…Bursts of horrid Thunder,…[and] Groans of roaring Wind and Rain” paint a picture of hell on Earth (Kent, III, 2, 46-47).
With these symbolic cues, one is meant to understand that Lear has fallen from the paradise of his court to the hell of a stormy wilderness. His fall bears some resemblance to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve who were tempted by the flattery and promises of Satan into actions forbidden by God and thus were expelled from paradise. Accordingly, the idea of devils, or “Fiends,” permeates the speech of Edgar in his guise as Old Tom, the beggar, and though it’s never explicitly stated, these “Fiends” are likely the betrayers Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Cornwall. The flattery of these betrayers preys on the good-natured faith of their victims, just as the snake preyed on that of Adam and Eve.
But whereas Adam and Eve understood the consequences of their actions, Lear does not, and therefore his actions cannot be considered “sinful,” only misguided. So fittingly, it is not through the will of God but by the machinations of his betrayers, that Lear is sentenced to a wilderness, the character of which would usually be reserved for criminals and evil-doers. It is a realm in which, according to Edmund, “…revenging Gods/ ‘Gainst Parricides did all the Thunder Bend” (II, 1, 46-47). Thus, Lear is unjustly submitted to the thunderbolts that should be reserved for his betrayers. So it is that the storm appears at this critical time in the play as a manifestation of a judgmental wrath that has been rendered impotent.
This is perhaps the nadir in the fortunes of the righteous, when all are gathered a collective of exiles, and the plans of the wicked have yet to begin their slow unraveling. The spaces normally reserved for the righteous (the royal courts) are occupied by the wicked, and those normally reserved for the wicked (the stormy wilderness) are occupied by the righteous. The hand of judgment seems to have been momentarily confused. At the conclusion of the play, Albany attempts to set things back in their rightful order, despite great losses already suffered, stating “All Friends shall taste/ The Wages of their Virtue, and all Foes/ The Cup of their Deservings…” (V, 3, 295-301).
Exposed to the ravages of storm, such a sense of justice seems unattainable to Lear, an ideal lost in an age of treachery. The storm serves as his personal point of no return, after such a fall from grace it seems impossible that he could rise again. And he cannot- the storm is Lear’s crucifixion, though he still lived after its passing, something in him recognizes that as he inadvertently birthed the chaos that engulfs him, he must die for it to pass.