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KRONOS Vol V, No. 1
NOR HEAVEN NOR EARTH HAVE BEEN AT PEACE: THE CONTEMPORARY FOUNDATIONS OF SHAKESPEARE'S CATACLYSMIC IMAGERY
RICHARD J. JAARSMA WITH EDWARD L. ODENWALD
No one reading Shakespeare's plays can fail to be struck by the frequent, even obsessive reference to disturbances in nature. Thunder, lightning, and earth tremors precede the assassination of Caesar, while meteors and comets are so bright during the civil war that follows that Brutus needs no light by which to read an evening letter. A monstrous tempest shakes Britain as Lear rages insanely on the heath. Storms and earthquakes parallel the murder of Duncan, and nature's seasons are altered and reversed as Titania struggles with Oberon for possession of a changeling child. Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest, in its title continues to suggest the dramatist's consistent preoccupation with the catastrophic forces of nature.
Such images of natural disturbance, moreover, have been duly noted by various critics, and attempted explanations almost casually proffered. Cumberland Clark, for instance, sees Shakespeare's use of the imagery of natural destruction simply as a poetic-dramatic device, since "natural phenomena are common knowledge and enter into the experience of every man, woman, and child, soothing, delighting, disturbing, terrifying..."(1) Shakespeare is, in short, "aware of the value of imitative uses of natural phenomena to intensify the most dramatic moments of his plot. He can so handle the elements as to harmonize them with the mental processes of his characters and strengthen the impression he desires to convey".(2) Caroline Spurgeon explains Shakespeare's preoccupation with such water and river catastrophes as floods by reference to his early life spent near rivers.(3) More specifically, Henry Paul attributes the storm imagery in Macbeth and Lear to the hurricane of 1606, so establishing late dates for both plays.(4)
That Shakespeare and his contemporaries saw natural disorders as a breach in the divinely established harmony of the universe is surely a commonplace of modern Shakespeare criticism. Tillyard is doubtless correct when he notes that the Elizabethan passion for order and the consequent horror of chaos is "one of the genuine ruling ideas of the age, and perhaps the most characteristic".(5) The conception of order, Tillyard claims, "was so much taken for granted, so much part of the collective mind of the people, that it is hardly mentioned except in explicitly didactic passages".(6) John Holloway, in amplifying Tillyard's formulations, points out that the Elizabethan fear of the events preceding the Day of Judgment was real because doomsday was believed to be imminent, and that expressions of this fear are found throughout Shakespeare's plays, undoubtedly bolstered by the many Biblical and Elizabethan theological descriptions of what such events would be like.(7) Holloway, in fact, sees the central "legend" of Lear to be those eschatological events.
Yet neither Tillyard nor Holloway, nor those who have accepted similar views, explain why the Elizabethan lust for order and dread of chaos exist at all, except to take refuge in somewhat vague rubrics about the general philosophical spirit of the age which is seen to exist a priori. Tillyard ascribes the preoccupation with natural disasters to the Elizabethan adherence to an old philosophical idea. In his view, Shakespeare's use of such imagery is almost entirely conventional. Holloway similarly attributes the Elizabethan obsession with the end of the world to purely theological notions: ". . . to dwell on it [the end of the world], to comprehend what it could be like, was part of what went to make up a comprehension of God's governance in the world."(8) Roland Frye, curiously, denies that Shakespeare has any eschatological concerns at all:
The question that Tillyard and Holloway suggest, however, but do not answer, is this: Can a philosophical or theological concept be so powerful in its influence, all other things being equal, that it can directly produce actual and constant anxieties about its possible reality by those who hold it? In other words, would people in any age hold passionately to a belief that the end of the world was near without there being some actual event or series of events that catalyze that concept into concrete being?
The early Christian church believed in the imminent return of Christ precisely because they still lived in the aura of His actual, physical presence, while St. John's apocalypse literally described the torments inflicted on the saints by the brutal power of the Roman Empire. Today, the Cargo cultists still practice their rituals not only because the events which engendered them are relatively recent but also because they can see Boeing 747's spread their contrails far above the places of sacrifice, seemingly oblivious to the prayers of their worshippers, but nonetheless real.
The World Council of Churches does not today lose much sleep over the events preceding the Day of Judgment, yet worries indeed over the application of the social gospel because the union of Marxism, Darwinism, and an entropic universe dictates that man's salvation lies here on Earth rather than elsewhere. In the same way, did not the Elizabethans fear the nearness of the end because the Biblical descriptions of the "signs" tallied with a series of actual physical events spread over a period of years and reaching a hitherto unparalleled intensity in Shakespeare's own day? John Norden unequivocally states that
A compilation of evidence, both anecdotal and statistical, reveals that, in fact, the years 1560-1614 (approx.) were marked by an incredible number of unusual meteorological disturbances, earthquakes, unexpected celestial phenomena, famines, and, of course, the recurring plagues. These events increased in number and frequence, reaching their apogee in the years 1594-1606, though many of their effects were felt well into the eighteenth century.(11) The general effect of a series of inexplicable phenomena on Elizabethan and Jacobean culture has been well documented: the rise in the interest in astrology, for instance, though certainly attributable to the disintegration of medieval monism and the consequent interest in a Copernican universe, yet could not have occurred had the astrologers not had ample grist for their predictions in the extraordinary solar and climatological events that recurred with almost asymptotic frequency.
In this essay, we will demonstrate that the natural environment of Shakespeare's day was changing rapidly and often cataclysmically; that these changes affected the Elizabethan and Jacobean sensibilities profoundly; and that a cataclysmic view of Shakespeare's age has important implications for the study of his plays.
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's study, Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate Since the Year 1000, provides significant evidence that the sixteenth century, especially the period 1560-1606, was marked by radical changes in weather in Western Europe, particularly a lowering of temperatures. Employing phenology, the study of dates at which certain phenomena occur in plants about which we have records, Ladurie charts the quality of wine harvest years in Southern France to demonstrate cooling trends in the later decades of the sixteenth century. According to Ladurie:
In the following table, the late harvests in ten-year periods from 1491 to 1610 are clearly shown:(13)
It is interesting to note that during the seven decades from 1491 to 1560, the average number of late harvests per decade was 3.28, while during the four decades from 1561 to 1600 the average was 5.75. Notice too that the years 1591-1600 reveal the highest incidence of late wine harvests. The three late wine harvests in the period 16011610 come, significantly, early in the decade, indicating a continuation of extremely bad weather for those years.
Concurrently, Ladurie, using rough data by Mueller concerning the quality of German wines during approximately the same period, demonstrates that the weather turned bad all over Western Europe. In the chart below, Ladurie's scoring system is: – 6 is good, 0 is average, +6 is bad. The scores in the right-hand column represent the total points for each period (note that plus figures indicate bad quality and minus figures good quality. Also note particularly that bad quality wines approached a nadir in the period 1593-1602, the period in which Shakespeare was most active):(14)
Decennary indices of bad quality of wine
The table above "demonstrates a clear trend, or give[s] local and independent testimony on the trends toward cooling which are indicated simultaneously, and much more precisely, in the wine harvest dates . . . for the periods 1563-1602".(15)
Wine harvests are not the only evidence Ladurie consults in order to demonstrate dramatic changes in weather in the second half of the sixteenth century. What Ladurie calls the "little Ice Age" gripped the Alps, so that the glacial growth months ". . . grew colder between 1560 and 1600, so the ablation decreased. The Alpine glaciers, for this reason, among others, advanced between 1595 and 1605"(16) affecting and being affected by steadily colder temperatures. The advance, greatest since the last Ice Age, created havoc. In 1588, the Grindelwald glacier broke through its terminal moraine.(17) In 1589, the Allalin glacier advanced so far that it blocked the valley of the Saas, forming a lake, which eventually broke through in that year and flooded the land below.(18) In June, 1595, the Gietroz glacier in the Pennine Alps "crashed" into the bed of the Dranse, temporarily submerging the town of Martigny and causing 70 deaths! Ladurie notes that "the hamlet of Ander Eggen was completely wiped out by the deluge of ice in 1595, and became a sort of waste land...."(19) From 1594 to 1598, on the Italian side of the Alps, the Ruiter glacier, in the Val de Thule basin, grew to the extent that it caused several violent floods at Ruiter.(20)
While Ladurie has little specific information concerning England, it is reasonable to assume that there would be climatological similarities among neighboring (if not contiguous) countries. And, in fact, such is the case. Climatological charts of the Palaeoclimatology Committee of the U. S. Academy of Science (Aspen, Colorado: June, 1962) indicate that there was a high degree of correlation between France's and England's winters and summers for the years 1490-1600:
C.E.P. Brooks too reveals a marked increase in the number of violent storms and droughts in England during the period 1551-1600 as opposed to earlier 50-year periods. Coupled with Ladurie's and the Palaeoclimatology Committee's findings concerning temperature during the period, Brooks' discoveries demonstrate that the weather patterns affecting England during the period 1560-1600 were remarkable indeed:(22)
The Elizabethans would, of course, have been deeply concerned with the aberrations of nature – nature directly affects harvests, and lives and livelihoods in Elizabethan England depended on good harvests. The economic historian, W. G. Hoskins, states that one half to two-thirds of the population was wage-earning, and many of the rest were subsistence farmers. One-third of the population was below the poverty line, and one-third barely above it.(23) With the working class normally spending from 80 to 90% of its income on food and drink, high prices resulting from food shortages were devastating. In his analysis of harvest fluctuations and English economic history, Hoskins lists 14 bad harvest years during the sixteenth century: 1519, 1520, 1521, 1527, 1528, 1529, 1549, 1550, 1551, 1586, 1594, 1595, 1596, and 1597. He particularly emphasizes the period 1594-1597, a time-frame marked by two years of very bad harvest and two years of dearth.(24)
Public documents of the mid-1590's substantiate Hoskins' claims and reveal that England was in a desperate situation as a result of the dearth and that the Elizabethans were prepared to take desperate measures in the face of famine. The first recorded evidence of famine seems innocuous enough as government proclamations issued in July of 1596 forbid the production of starch from corn produced in England.(25)
This edict was followed quickly in August of the same year by an act of the Privy Council warning people against the hoarding of grain and corn, especially by speculators who hoped to drive up the price of such foodstuffs. The Council, in fact, asked local preachers to encourage their richer parishioners to share what they had to ease the suffering of those hit hardest.(26)
In November, 1596, the government, apparently trying to check panic, established laws against "ingrossers, forestallers, and ingraters" who drove up the price of corn by issuing false reports that corn was being shipped out of England – a practice now forbidden by law. The rich, many of whom were apparently trying to avoid their obligation to provide hospitality to their impoverished neighbors, were warned to stay in the open – not to go into hiding.(27) The situation naturally enough found its way into the literature of the time, as evidence these lines from Hall's Satires (IV, 6):
In Macbeth, the drunken Porter refers to the "farmer that hang'd himself on th' expectation of plenty" (II, iii, 4-5).
Also in November of 1596, twenty ships bearing corn from the East Countries sailed into the Thames; the Lord Mayor was charged with distributing this corn among the poor so that quantity-buying speculators could not grab it.(29) On December 25 – and hardly in the spirit of Christmas – the Privy Council asked the Lord Mayor to enforce restrictions on the types of foods that might be eaten on Wednesdays, Fridays, and fast days; offenders were to be imprisoned. The Council also expressed its concern that many gentlemen had left the country and moved to the city to "avoid housekeeping".(30)
On 23 January, 1597, an Italian Argosy, filled with grain and other provisions, was "pirated" in port by the British government. The ship, which had docked in Portsmouth, was forced to remain until its goods had been confiscated and a "reasonable sum" paid for its foodstuffs.(31) A similar incident occurred in the winter of 1598, when a German ship out of Emden had its cargo of corn seized in Dartmouth. The ship had sought safety there during a windstorm, only to find itself welcomed with opened arms – and hands (32)
Anecdotal accounts of the vast climatic changes in Elizabethan England suggested by Ladurie, Brooks, and the Palaeoclimatology Committee are numerous. They consist, for the most part, of "histories" such as the annals of John Strype and John Stowe and non-empirical, though often accurate "reaction-writing," i.e., didactic pamphlets, sermons, and the like concerning man's evil nature and God's resultant uses of nature to punish the sinful.
Though impossible to catalogue adequately within the relatively brief compass of this essay, some examples of nature's cataclysms that almost turned Elizabethan life up-side down, as gleaned from contemporary accounts, will reveal the profound effect these disturbances had on the consciousness of Shakespeare and his fellows.
Later in this paper there is a chart that shows in more comprehensive detail unusual disturbances in nature in England between the years 1515-1624 as we have culled them from contemporary sources. That these accounts are not merely the reaction of semiprimitive people to ordinary natural events but the horror of writers who could no longer explain them by rational or rationalistic means should be clear when one takes notice of the otherwise relatively sophisticated Elizabethan theories of meteorology through which the Elizabethan "sought rational explanations of the various irregularities in nature and attempted to fit these apparent anomalies into a plan of natural order" (my italics).(33) In point of fact, unusual natural phenomena could no longer be explained as part of the natural order, as Dr. J. King, lecturing at York, in the year 1594, makes abundantly clear:
Though couched in theological terms, Dr. King's picture of the extremes of weather coupled with meteors or comets and earthquakes is reinforced by countless other contemporary accounts of similar phenomena. Stowe records many of them. On April 11, a torrential downpour lasting 24 hours and borne on a north wind that "pierce[d] the walls of houses be they never so thick" created havoc.(35) On May 3 of the same year, showers of rain and hail caused great floods, which washed away houses, iron-mills, and cattle.(36) Again in September, heavy rains caused flooding, washing away many bridges, including those at Cambridge and Ware.(37) Four years later, in 1598, the counties of Lincoln, Northampton, Huntingdon, the Isle of Ely, Sussex, and Surrey were hard-hit by floods.(38) And in 1600 the River Trent ". . . changed its course near the village of Holme, by Newark, through which means the township became situated on the east side of the river instead of the west".(39)
The consistent pattern of floods and massive storms culminated in January of 1606, when a massive hurricane struck England and Europe. W. Jaggard, writing for E. White, describes the flooding which inundated more than thirty towns, destroying animal and human life:
Labelled the "second deluge" by Jaggard, this flood swept away people's livelihoods. "A lamentable spectacle was it," Jaggard notes, "to beholde whole herds of cattle, struggling for life with the floods, oxens in great numbers were caryed away with the streame, and looked like so many whales in ye the sea...."(41)
Though such storms have here and there been noted by scholars (especially in relation to Titania's rebuff of Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream, II, i), they have not been organically seen as part and parcel of the major changes in temperature and atmospheric conditions occurring in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Not only storms, but hail, extreme cold, snow, and terrible lightning displays accompanied the radical change in climate to which the age was subject. Hail especially was seen as a horrible and dread visitation, viewed as it was in terms of God's wrath upon Egypt in one of the ten plagues.(42)
Stowe records three great hailstorms at the turn of the seventeenth century. On 16 June, 1600, several small towns in Norfolk suffered a tempest of hail, many of the stones being as large as walnuts and some reaching the length of a man's finger. The hail struck with such force that windows were broken, and trees, plants and crops severely damaged.(43) On June 30, 1602, another great hailstorm left accumulations of nine inches. Sandwich in Kent had twelve inches of hail, broken church windows, and smashed tiles on the houses.(44) Not one month after, another hailstorm, perhaps more devastating than any other heretofore, wiped out the corn fields in large areas of England.(45)
Frost and heavy snows also took their constant toll. The Aspen diagrams reveal that the period between 1560 and 1610 was afflicted with unusually low temperatures. Strype notes that in 1563 perpetual frosts struck from 16 December to 29 December. It was so cold that " . . . men ordinarily passed over the Thames on the ice; which they had not done since the eighth year of the reign of King Henry VIII, which was almost fifty years ago".(46) The Thames iced over again in December, 1564, and again on New Year's Eve 1565, when it was so thick that football was played on the river itself.(47) In January, 1566, a sudden thaw caused flash floods, drowning many, especially in Yorkshire. From November, 1572, to Whitsuntide [Pentecost – 40 days after Easter], 1573, England suffered through perpetual winter, during which time many limbs broke off trees:
From February 4 to 8 February, 1578, England was struck by a blizzard that left snow depths from two feet upwards.(49) In December, 1598, the Thames froze over two times within 11 days.(50) Heavy snows and periods of extreme cold culminated in "The Colde Yeare: 1614", as Thomas Langley called it in a dialogue in which he sees the winter of 1614 as only one of a long series of God's judgments inflicted on the unrepentant:
The cold, the snow, frost, the alteration of the seasons are specifically memorialized by Shakespeare in such plays as Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, with their references to "bitter cold" and "the sledded Polacks on the ice" (Hamlet, I, i) and
. . . to be continued.
NOTES1. Cumberland Clark, Shakespeare and Science (Birmingham: Cornish Bros. Ltd., 1929), p. 23.
2. Clark, p. 6.
3. Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery: And What it Tells Us (Cambridge, Mass: Cambridge University Press, 1935), passim.
4. Henry N. Paul, The Royal Play of Macbeth (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1950), pp. 248-54.
5. E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York: Vintage Books, n.d. First published 1946), p. vii.
6. Tillyard, p. 9.
7. John Holloway, The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare's Major Tragedies (Lincoln, Nebr: University of Nebraska Press, 1961), p. 75.
8. Holloway, p. 77.
9. Roland M. Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 148.
10. John Norden, "The Approaching End," in The Portable Elizabethan Reader, ed. Hiram Haydn (New York: The Viking Press, 1946), p. 128.
11. Studies of climate now show that the weather turned extremely cold all over Europe until about the middle of the eighteenth century. See Oliver Goldsmith's "editor's" introduction to The Citizen of the World . For a modern analysis see H. H. Lamb's exhaustive Climate: Present, Past and Future (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1972). See also John H. Gribbin and Stephen H. Plagemann, The Jupiter Effect (New York: Walker, 1974).
12. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate Since the Year 1000, trans. Barbara Bray (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), p. 50.
13. Ladurie, p. 367.
14. Ladurie, p. 375.
15. Ladurie, p. 375.
16. Ladurie, p. 9.
17. Ladurie, p. 140.
18. Ladurie, p. 141.
19. Ladurie, p. 142.
20. Ladurie, p. 378.
21. Ladurie, p. 378.
22. O. E. P. Books, Climate Through the Ages: A Study of the Climatic Factors and their Variations (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1949), p. 306.
23. W. G. Hoskins, "Harvest Fluctuations and English Economic History, 1480-1619," The Agricultural History Review, xii (1964), p. 29.
24. Hoskins, p. 29.
25. A Book Containing all such Proclamations as were published during the Reign of the late Queen Elizabeth, collected by Humphrey Dyson (London, 1618), p. 338.
26. Acts of the Privy Council, ed. J. R. Dasent (London, 1900), 26:78, 95-8.
27. Proclamations, p. 340.
28. Quoted in Macbeth, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen & Co., 1964), n. 5, p. 60.
29. Acts, 26:28.
30. Acts, 26:380-3.
31. Acts, 26:445.
32. Acts, 28:438.
33. S. K. Heninger, Jr., A Handbook of Renaissance Meteorology: With Particular Reference to Elizabethan and Jacobean Literature (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1960), p. v.
34. John Strype, Annals of the Reformation and Establishment of Religion and Other Various Occurrences in the Church of England During Queen Elizabeth's Happy Reign Together with an Appendix of Original Papers of State, Records, and Letters (New York: Burt Franklin, originally published, 1824), IV, pp. 2934.
35. John Stowe, Annales, or A General Chronicle of England, Begun by John Stowe: Continued and Augmented with Matter Foraigne and Domestique, Ancient and Moderne, unto the end of this present yeere, 1631 by Edmund Howes, Gent., (London: Richard Meighton, 1631), p. 767.
36. Stowe, p. 768.
37. Stowe, p. 769.
38. Stowe, p. 788.
39. C. E. P. Brooks and J. Glasspole, British Floods and Droughts (London: Erenst Benn Limited, 1928), p. 81.
40. W. Jaggard [for E. White], More Strange Newes: Of Wonderfull Accidents Hapning by the Late Overflowings of Waters in Summerset-shire, Gloucestershire, Norfolke, and other Places of England with a True Relation of the Townes Names that are lost, and the Number of Persons Drowned with; With Other Reports of Accidents That Were not before Discovered: Happening about Bristow and Barstabl e (County of Somerset, (1607), n. p.
41. W. Jaggard [for E. White], A True Report of Certaine Overflowings of waters in Summersethsire, Norfdke, and other places of England: destroying many thousands of men, women, and children, over throwing and bearing downe whole townes and villages and drowning infinite numbers of sheepe and other cattle (County of Somerset, 1607), n. p.
42. Heninger, p. 57.
43. Stowe, p. 790
44. Stowe, p. 812.
45. Stowe, p. 812.
46. Strype, I, pt. 2, pp. 88-9.
47. Stowe, p. 658.
48. Strype, II, pt. 1, p. 468.
49. Brooks, Floods, p. 81.
50. from G. B. Harrison, The Elizabethan Journals: Volume II, Being a Record of Those Things Most Talked of During the Years 1598-1603 (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965), pp. 72-3.
51. W. W. [for Thomas Langley], The Colde Yeare: 1614- A Deepe Snow: In which Men and Cattell have perished, to the generall losse of Farmers Grasiers, Husbandmen, and all sorts of people in the Countrie; and no lesse hurt felle to Citizens Written Dialoguewise, in a plaine familiar talke betweene a London Shopkeeper, and a North-Country man. In which, the Reader shall finde many thinges for his profit (London, 1615), p. 9.