Extreme Weather: Shakespeare, Natural Disaster, and Atmospheric Phenomena

The word “disaster,” borrowed from the French, implies “an event or occurrence of a ruinous or very distressing nature,” a calamity, “a sudden accident or natural catastrophe that causes great damage and loss of life” (OED).  From an early modern perspective, the definition of “natural disaster” poses  additional challenges, because what we may consider “natural,” without supernatural or providential agency, was often perceived as “unnatural,” an aberration from the customary order of things. In this paper, I will use the phrase “natural disaster” in a general sense, but I will also tease out the tension between natural and unnatural in a coincidence of opposites.  Whether viewed as natural or unnatural, disasters do evoke fear, expose human vulnerability, and raise questions about survival and our exposure to forces unknown or beyond human control. Gaston Bachelard suggests that a dialectics of inside and outside hinges on such moments. Our bodies, our homes, our properties, and our daily habits of life are thrust into uncertainty or disarray.

Climatologists and historians have documented a hemispheric, perhaps global cooling of the Earth, a period known as the Little Ice Age, extending from 1300 to around 1850. The Earth’s cooling has been attributed to various causes such as volcanic activity, cyclical lows in solar radiation, variations of the Earth’s orbit and axial tilt. Major volcanic activities—the eruptions of the Taal Volcano on the Island of Luzon, Philippines in 1572 and from 1605 to 1611, the Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia in 1595, the Huaynaputina, Peru, in 1600—affected the Earth’s climate globally, as documented regionally by contemporary accounts, studies of tree rings, sediment strata, and volcanic particle deposits in layers of polar ice.

Glaciers advanced, the Arctic ice caps became thicker, snowfall intensified, summers cooled down, rainfall increased, and crops failed. Earthquakes, believed in Shakespeare’s time to be caused by winds trapped in the bowels of the Earth, caused considerable damage in the Straits of Dover in 1580 and in Frankfurt, Germany in 1600. Not all weather anomalies led to disaster, of course. The River Thames froze over, for example in 1565, 1595 and 1608. In 1608, the frozen river served as the site for the first so-called Frost Fair, a festive occasion for bowling, dancing, playing football on ice, and of course shopping at the improvised shops set on the frozen surface of the river.

In this paper, I propose to survey regional disasters and weather anomalies and their effects on life and property in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and Shakespeare’s references to and representation of these phenomena in various plays. These disasters include coastal flooding, severe thunderstorms and cloudbursts, tornadoes and destructive winds, lightning strikes, and monstrous extra-tropical cyclonic activity in the North Atlantic. A rich record of responses to these events has survived, including the All Saints’ Flood on the Dutch Coast of 1570, the violent storms that hit Bungay and Norwich in 1577, London’s great snowstorm of 1597 when 24 inches of snow fell on a single day, and destructive coastal flooding in Somerset, Southwest England, and Norfolk in East Anglia in 1607. Some years were notoriously without summer, such as 1601 and, of course 1816, when Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and others took residence on the shores of Lake Geneva.  During this unusual summer, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Shakespeare’s references to weather anomalies in such plays as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, and The Tempest suggest that, when disasters happen, intensely psychological and cultural states of fear emerge. Shakespeare represents meteorological phenomena as “natural,” explainable according to the meteorological theories of his time; but, also weather anomalies, for Shakespeare, function as portals, passageways to something unpredictable and wild, parallel realms of darkness and shadows.  For him, extreme weather represents forces that disturb and destabilize the natural, empirical boundaries of reality, and suggests supernatural possibility, coincidence of opposites, and mystery. Momentarily, we peek into the dark corners of the natural world, the recesses of nature, and nature’s hiding places.

Geraldo U. de Sousa (The University of Kansas, USA)

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