Shakespeare and the Storm: A Sixteenth-Century Weather Report

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Raining Potatoes?

When Sir John Falstaff commands the sky to “rain potatoes” in William Shakespeare’s play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, he may just not have been dipping into hyperbole. Sixteenth-century weather was appalling, and hailstones that size, and bigger, have been recorded even in our time. In his plays, the Bard never loses awareness of the elements. “Here feel we but the penalty of Adam, the seasons’ difference as the icy fang, and churlish chiding of the winter’s wind which when it bites and blows upon my body…” says Duke Senior in As You Like It.

The Middle Ages

Even that gentle play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, contains more than a hint of the blighting, sixteenth-century climate: “Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain, as in revenge suck’d up from the sea, contagious fogs, which, falling in the land, hath every pelting river made so proud that they have overborne their continents.” There is nothing arbitrary about Shakespeare’s obsession with weather. In his day, Europe was caught in the grip of a weather phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age. Scientists are unsure of why it happened. It hadn’t always been thus. The years 800-1300 were relatively mild in Northern Europe, a time known as the Medieval Warm Period, and farmers gathered two to three cereal harvests per year.

Rising Cathedrals

This led to increased prosperity, which resulted in a flowering of church architecture. From 1100 onwards, well-nourished labourers were hired to work on the building of magnificent Gothic churches. Canterbury Cathedral was rebuilt between 1175 and 1184, while Glastonbury Cathedral was rebuilt between 1184 and 1186. However, from 1315 onwards, a series of bad summers was followed by famine. This may have been the first sign of a changing climate. Worse was to come. In 1347, the people of southern Europe began to die rapidly of a frightful illness, one that left its victims covered in sores and vomiting blood until they died.

Falling Population

The Black Death spread northwards, reaching England in 1349. Approximately one in two of the population was afflicted with the virus, followed by a certain death. By 1350, almost half of the population in Europe had been wiped out. Throughout the remainder of the century, waves of plague returned to further decimate the population, which scientists reckon was reduced to 350-375 million by 1400. This was from a population that had been 450 million. When considering climate change, cause and effect often become blurred.

Global Cooling

One theory about the Little Ice Age is that the global cool-down was exacerbated by the reduction in population, the flip side of the claims that increasing human activity is contributing to global warming today. Another theory has it that the virus that caused the Black Death proliferated because of the cooling climate, thereby setting up a vicious cycle of de-population, global cooling and further waves of plague. Despite advances in meteorology, scientists still have not isolated the actual causes of climate change. One possible factor is sunspot activity.

Galileo Galilei

Sunspots are known to have a definite effect on climate change. When satellite measurements became available in 1979, scientists discovered that the number of sunspots correlated to intensity of solar radiation. Since the surrounding margins of sunspots are brighter and hotter than average, more sunspots increase the sun’s solar constant, or brightness. This serves to increase the average temperature of the Earth’s climate. Galileo Galilei was actually a denizen of the Little Ice age, and a contemporary of William Shakespeare. Galileo helped to develop (though not invent) the instrument through which he and other Renaissance scientists discovered sunspots.

A Wider Agenda

However, Shakespeare was a writer and poet, and his agenda was wider that of mere climate observation. In spite of the advances in science, the denizens of the sixteenth century were a superstitious bunch who still believed in witches, fairies and good/bad luck charms. Queen Elizabeth I had her own court magician, John Dee. He had been an astrologer or astronomer, alchemist or scientist, depending on your point of view. In the above quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania is blaming Oberon for supernaturally causing a climate that was ruinous to her friendship with a little Indian boy.

Climate as Metaphor

Even the succeeding monarch, James I, had been superstitious. He believed a storm that had blown the ship carrying his bride, Anne, from Denmark to Scotland off course in 1589, was supernatural in origin. Historians believe that the incident was the influence behind Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, surrounding events that were set in motion by a storm at sea. Of course, the playwright also evoked the emotion of his characters and metaphorized political turbulence through climate, which happens in King Lear: The eponymous king gets lost in a storm: “Blow winds and crack you cheeks! Rage! Blow!”. Today, climate change is a good subject for drama – witness film The Day After Tomorrow.

Sources:

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
  2. As You Like It by William Shakespeare
  3. Collier’s Encyclopedia, Macmillan Educational Publishing
  4. King Lear by William Shakespeare
  5. The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare
  6. The Tempest by William Shakespeare