Shakespeare utilized the storm motif not only to portend ferocity but to epitomize political and moral corruption, a physical manifestation of fishiness in the state of Denmark or the anatomy of the body politic gone somehow awry. Thunder and lightning accompany the witches’ appearances in MacBeth: "When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightening or in rain?" and terrible storms rage on the night of Duncan's murder. Violent tempests lash King Lear as he wanders the desolate heath, the physical turbulence mirroring his internal confusion and evoking a newfound humility in which he finally recognizes his own mortality. Meteorological chaos is a prevalent theme in The Tempest and exemplifies the suffering Prospero has endured as well as the potentially malevolent magic at his command.
The dramatic potential of weather systems is well-known to novelists, and one utilized to full effect in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. In the opening chapter Mr. Lockwood refers to the impact of stormy weather on Wuthering Heights: "Indeed, one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun." Wind literally brings change within the confines of the novel: When Mr. Earnshaw dies there is a 'high wind,' and the weather is described as 'wild and stormy.' Turbulent weather accompanies Heathcliff on the night he leaves Wuthering Heights, and heralds his death: wind and rain coming in through the window and beating his lattice back and forth. The wild and desolate moors full of pits, depressions, rises and deep swamps provide the perfect terrestrial counterpart to the brooding clouds overhead that buffet the landscape in a tumultuous fury; a ferocity that is echoed in Catherine's tempestuous relationship with Heathcliff.
In The Goodwin Agenda, the initial meeting between longtime political foes is accentuated by the electric weather beyond the weathered castle walls: "The afternoon winds had brought evening storms and the panes streamed with rain; the courtyard he looked down into lay wet and empty and the flickering flames of the gas-lamps behind him seemed to dissolve in a watery atmosphere. The sky was dark and foreboding, swollen black clouds were barely visible in the fading light of dusk. Thunder grumbled discontentedly in the distance as a sudden streak of lightening spiked and flared illuminating the base of a nearby cloudbank before sinking again into blackness." Later in the novel the severity of an early Parisian winter accentuates the suffering of the poor, the frozen corpses evincing the growing disaffection between the people and their self-aggrandizing, warmongering Emperor.
Violent skies do not necessarily presage brutality below, a clear and quiet morning can be used to dramatic effect as a foil to the struggle that follows. A passage read, from which novel I now have difficulty recalling, details the ride through the tumbrel en route to the guillotine, or perhaps the hangman's noose...but the prisoner, very soon to be deprived of light and life, is poignantly and heartbreakingly reminded of the beauty of the world and the potential joys of life by the blinding clarity of blue sky, of sunlight igniting dew in a cascade of brilliance...in short the weather serves to heighten the character's yearning to prolong life and his poignant awareness of the beauty he will soon be leaving behind. The serenity of the morning frames the savagery which is to come, further elevating the gruesome aspect of the deed; a discordant association of natural tranquility and the manifest brutality of man.
It is not an easy thing: to capture in words the dance of sunlight and cloud-cast shade on the cresting waves of a gray sea, or to depict the multitude of cumulus in their various brooding dispositions, or the fleecy frivolous kind that stretch in fuzzy expanse across the bluest of skies. The subtle interplay of light and shadow, the infusion of deeper hues as the sun dips or rises, the various types of rain and sleet, how it falls and how it accumulates; how the buildings respond: timbers darkened by rivulets, mortar crumbling into dust in the arid heat of an unrelenting sun, how they seem to hunker down under a mantle of snow, and how people walk differently in different types of weather (from The Goodwin Agenda): "She walked as all of the Paris poor did at this time of year, in a curiously half-hunched scurrying motion intended, above all, to conserve what little body heat remained beneath thin ragged attire. She tucked in upon herself, elbows tight against her torso, head bent down towards her chest, back and shoulders hunched and rounded against the cold."
I often think of the physical terrain as the setting and the accompanying weather as environmental mood - as if the panorama itself was a character within the novel and the changing skies an emotional manifestation of the landscape. They belong together - two halves of the whole. For if terra firma is defined (or aqua not so firma for that matter) then one does wonder: what of the sky and how does that interact with the world beneath? The weather is an integral extension of the landscape, and critical for establishing sensory immersion; the reader is figuratively encouraged to close their eyes and imagine the sharp pinprick of sleet, the icy wind howling with agitated frenzy, whipping clothes and snatching away voice...
For the reader, as well as the characters within the narrative, the climactic conditions evoke a preparatory emotional response suggestive of imminent dramatic events.There is the sense of exposure and vulnerability, where secrets are finally revealed, where, like Lear, in a crucible of sound and fury we come to terms with our mortality "tossed twixt winds and billows."