This paper discusses the way in which Shakespeare uses nature in the two plays, and argues that the moor and the storm is the place to go to escape back to nature. (5.5.pages; 2 sources; endnotes)
Shakespeare makes greater use of Nature in both “King Lear” and “The Winter’s Tale” than he does in most of his other plays. “Lear” in particular is renowned for it: the “storm on the heath” is one of the most celebrated scenes in all of theatre. But the storm is violent, cold, miserable, and frightening: a reminder that Nature can be deadly.
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In contrast, the natural world that we find in “The Winter’s Tale” is quiet and beautiful, the world of springtime, flowers, rebirth and growth. Nature here is benign and friendly; almost as if it’s celebrating the restoration of Hermione to Leontes and the love of Perdita and Florizel along with the humans in the play.
This paper describes the way in which Shakespeare uses nature in these plays, and discusses whether these places are the types of environment where one can get “back to nature,” or if they reflect human intervention.
“King Lear” has been controversial since it was written. Critics can’t seem to decide if it’s a great play, great Shakespeare, both, or neither. They tend to dislike the basic premise (what king in his right mind would divide his kingdom?) but admit that the gradual disintegration of Lear, the plots of his daughters, and the moment when he appears with Cordelia’s body (“Howl! Howl! Howl!”) are all great theatre. And the centrepiece of this intensely theatrical play is the storm on the heath, in which the old king strips himself naked, his mind in turmoil, his emotions as much a whirl as the elements.
Most critics tend to equate the storm with Lear’s emotional state; that is, they see the violence of nature as a direct reflection of Lear’s violent feelings about his circumstances. This is certainly a valid interpretation because we have watched as the king endures shock aftershock at the hands of his ungrateful daughters, Regan and Goneril; they have systematically stripped him of his retinue and left him little better than a beggar at the doors of their houses, where he is forced to ask them for shelter.
When the two women finally suggest that he needs no one at all, they have symbolically stripped him of the last vestiges of his kingship; the storm strips him literally.
But in the midst of the storm, he is reunited with those who truly love him: Gloucester and his son Edgar; the Earl of Kent, and the Fool. These men have gone out into what is truly a terrifying night to help the king they love. If we accept the heath as a symbol of Lear’s mental state, and if we further accept that Gloucester, Edgar and the Fool have “intervened” to find Lear in the storm out of love for the old man, then the heath must be said to have suffered “human invention.”
However, if we take the heath as a physical entity rather than a symbol, the picture changes, for none of the characters has truly been able to “tame” the place. It is barren, cold, windswept and dangerous; it offers no shelter or warmth. Men have no place here; there is no “human invention”. In that sense, “King Lear” does offer a place where one can get “back to nature,” but only if he or she is willing to accept nature at its rawest, most difficult and most uncomfortable.
“The Winter’s Tale” is one of Shakespeare’s “romances” (romance meaning “fantastical” or “magical” rather than boy-meets-girl); “The Tempest” is the best example of this class of plays. “The Winter’s Tale” is less successful, perhaps because it asks the audience to accept several unacceptable premises: first, that Leontes is absurdly jealous without cause (that works in “Othello”, but there Iago is driving Othello to jealousy; here there is no such agent); second that after raving about his wife’s supposed infidelity (with his best friend from childhood no less) for two solid acts Leontes does a huge about-face and becomes contrite in a moment; and finally, that Hermione, a living woman, can be mistaken for a statue.
The play breaks almost evenly into two halves: the first part shows us the jealous ravings of Leontes and he’s such a monster that he renders the entire play bleak and uncompromising. The second part moves to a pastoral setting where Perdita, Leontes’ unacknowledged and unknown daughter, has grown up, raised by a shepherd. And it is in the second part of the play that Nature appears in her kindest guise.
Perdita, in particular, makes several speeches about flowers, and in one she’s reminiscent of Ophelia in “Hamlet,” as she hands flowers to those around her. There is flower imagery throughout the last 2-½ acts; the characters are in the countryside, and it’s spring. It’s the season of rebirth, new beginnings, and awakenings, which means it’s appropriate for the reunion of Leontes with his wife and daughter. (Most people probably think they’re too good for him, but the romances have happy, if improbable, endings.)
The play touches on one of the oldest of all legends as well, that of Persephone and Pluto (or Hades if you prefer the older Greek). Hades saw the girl picking flowers, fell in love with her and carried her back to the underworld. Her mother, Demeter, was so distraught that she refused to let the crops grow; finally, Hades agreed that Persephone could return to earth for six months of the year, and in those six months we have spring and summer; when Persephone leaves to return to the Underworld, autumn arrives and winter follows. Perdita refers to this mythology when she says: “O Proserpina, For the flowers now, that, frighted, thou let’s fall From Dis’s waggon!” (She’s referring to Persephone’s fright when she’s swept up in Hades’ chariot). In the next few lines, Perdita mentions “daffadils” [sic] … swallow dares … violets …. Primroses …. Oxlips … lilies of all kinds…” This is nature at her most beautiful, gentle and peaceful; it’s a huge contrast to the storm.
This is the countryside of farms and orchards, of fruit trees bearing ripe apples and pears; of fields of grain—this is the fruitful earth that responds to Demeter’s care. Furthermore, in depicting the festivals, dances, sheep shearing, drinking, and eating that occurs (Act IV, scene iv is one of the longest in all of Shakespeare and it’s devoted to a description of the activities of the peasants in the countryside), Shakespeare has painted a picture of a Nature that is full of man’s intervention. There is no getting away from man to an untamed place here. But it’s not necessary, because the play is a celebration of love and reunion; of marital fidelity and familial happiness. The rain-swept moor doesn’t belong in this tale.
Nature plays a large part in both plays, but only in one is it truly a wild place, somewhere to “escape” to, and that is in “King Lear.” Nature in “The Winter’s Tale” is tame, but in “Lear” it’s completely free. Perhaps that is why the storm is so memorable, and the fruitful scenes of the other play less so.
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