How Shakespeare used weather to set the stage in his poems and plays

Weather helped illustrate the good, the evil and inner turmoil of Shakespeare’s characters.

Romeo and Juliet. Macbeth. King Lear.

These are a few of the memorable characters created by William Shakespeare.

But Shakespeare also wrote about another character that doesn’t often capture the limelight: the weather.

It has no lines and is often relegated to the background, but weather was critical in helping Shakespeare illustrate the good, the evil and inner turmoil of his main characters.

Whether on the page or on the stage, weather played a significant supporting role in Shakespeare’s plays and poems.

Writing about the skies

"The more one understands Shakespeare and his works, the more one enjoys them," said Tiffany Stern, Shakespeare professor at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, United Kingdom.

"So, I think there's a very practical reason for understanding weather in Shakespeare's time."

Weather was full of mystery in the 16th and 17th centuries.

"People were so confused about what the sky meant," Stern said. "For instance, did God live up in there with heaven? In which case, does any weather that comes down come with God's imprimatur? And if you get bad weather, is that because God's displeased?"

Questions such as these swirled around people’s minds as they sought to understand the mechanics — and meanings — of the weather around them.

"Shakespeare lived in this confused system where everyone experienced weather and was rather terrified of the sky. But no one could quite locate what its meaning precisely was," Stern said.

This ambiguity ended up being fertile ground for Shakepeare’s creativity, as he used weather to paint literal and metaphorical pictures of scenes and characters.

Weather as scene work

"Shakespeare certainly thinks about sky and climate and geographical location — these are all very important for him as he creates his fictional worlds," Stern said.

For example, the world he created in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" explains troublesome weather in a fantastical way. According to Stern, in the play, arguments between fairies are what cause the weather to go haywire.  

Another literal example of weather is found in the poem "When Icicles Hang by the Wall." Rather than provide an explanation for the weather phenomena here as he did in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," Shakespeare provides descriptions of winter that are influenced by his own experiences.

"There was what's sometimes called a mini ice age at that time," Stern said. "It was a great deal colder, so he will have experienced much more snow and more ice."

Shakespeare also used weather in metaphorical ways.

In the comedy "Love’s Labor’s Lost", a funny moment is interrupted by the announcement about a death. According to Stern, at the line "the scene begins to cloud," the whole mood of the play changes to a more tragic comedy.

Perhaps some of the most well-known uses of weather in Shakespeare’s works were both literal and metaphorical, as is the case in what some believe to be his last play: "The Tempest."

"It's a play that starts with a tempest, a storm," Stern said. "After the literal storm, the play is about the stormy emotions of the different people and how a big problem gets resolved."

Weather as character work

Shakespeare also used weather to help illustrate his characters and to make a statement about them.

In the tragic play "Macbeth," which includes the famous line "Fair is foul and foul is fair / Hover through the fog and filthy air," the evil witches bring foul weather with them wherever they go. On the other hand, when King Duncan is present, pleasant air and weather abound as the king says, "the air" smells "sweetly."

"One's perception of the weather is actually a comment on one's own character," Stern said. "The witches see and relish and create bad weather around them, and good King Duncan lives in a world of good weather. So, sometimes the weather is a character statement rather than a play statement."

Sometimes weather helps propel a character’s evolution.

One of the most famous weather effects in Shakespearean plays is in "King Lear," according to Stern. In one particular scene, the king had given away everything to his daughters, who had mistreated him.

"He's now an old man in a storm, and he rages, 'Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!' and he shouts at the storm," she said. "But actually, it's a very interesting speech because he's not angry with the storm. He's angry with the daughters."

"What he works out, as he shouts, is that he can't control weather — weather can do what it likes. Weather isn't his daughters. Weather hasn't been bad the way his daughters have."

According to Stern, King Lear works out not only who he should be angry with, but also how small he is in the universe.

"He is humbled and, by the weather, given vitality and energy through it because he's not at war with it, and it can storm if it likes."

Weather on the stage

Off the page, weather in Shakespeare’s works required creative special effects when the plays were performed onstage.

"We sometimes wonder why there are so many storms and bad weather in Shakespeare's plays," Stern said. "One answer is that you could do them in a theater in a way that it was hard to do sunshine when one didn't have lighting effects; but there were special effects to make storms."

According to Stern, the sound of thunder was created by rolling a cannonball down a wooden channel with a slope. The rolling cannonball would create a rumbling sound akin to that of thunder.

For a more spectacular storm effect, Stern said, fireworks would be thrown onstage to create a bang for larger thunder and a flash for lightning.

Shakespeare anticipated these special effects and sometimes worked them into his plays.

"For instance, in "Cymbeline," Jove ‘came in thunder; his breath was sulphurous to smell,’ what's actually happening is that the little fireworks, they smell like sulfur after they've gone off," Stern said. "So, the play kind of explains why you get a storm effect and then a bad smell."  

According to Stern, Shakespeare would sometimes include big, metaphorical, meaningful storms into his plays for a very good theater effect.

The grandeur of weather

"Shakespeare reminds us that weather is never completely literal, and we never really understand it totally literally," Stern said.  

While much has been learned about weather since the days of Shakespeare, weather still holds a wondrous for many people and their belief systems.

"Shakespeare helps locate and explain those, but also maybe helps us remember the grandeur of weather and how there are things we can control in our lives, but the weather is bigger than us, and Shakespeare helps locate us in that."