The storm had worsened. The wind punished the bushes mercilessly and the rain drenched everything until the whole world was sodden. Visibility was very poor and Lear and the Fool could find no shelter. Lear braced his body against the elements and tried to shout above their roaring.
‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage! Blow you cataracts and hurricanes: spout till you have drenched our steeples and drowned their weathercocks! You sulphurous and mind-blowing lightning flashes, heralds of oak-splitting thunderbolts! Singe my white head! And you, all-shaking thunder: flatten the roundness of the world. Crack Nature’s moulds, spill in an instant the seeds from which ungrateful man grows!’
The Fool went close to him and yelled in his ear: ‘Oh Nuncle, humility in a dry house is better than this drenching out of doors. Good Nuncle, go in and ask a blessing of your daughters. This night spares neither wise men nor fools.’
Lear continued to shake his fists at the storm. ‘Rumble your bellyful!’ he shouted. ‘Spit, fire! Spout, rain! Neither rain, wind, thunder or fire are my daughters, I don’t accuse you, you natural elements, of cruelty! I never gave you a kingdom or called you my children. You owe me nothing. So vent your pleasure. Here I stand, your slave, a poor, infirm, weak and despised old man. Nevertheless, you’re still servile lackeys if you want to join up with two pernicious daughters to use your celestial forces against a head as old and white as this. Oh, it’s detestable!’
‘He who has a house to put his head in has got sound brains,’ said the Fool.
‘The cod-piece that will house
Before the head has any,
The head and he shall louse:
So beggars marry many.
The man who makes his toe
What he his heart should make,
Shall of a corn cry woe,
And turn his sleep to wake.
There has never yet been a beautiful woman who didn’t admire herself in a mirror.’
Kent had seen their dim shapes and was making towards them.
‘No,’ muttered Lear. ‘I will be the model of patience. I will say nothing.’
‘Who’s there?’ called Kent.
‘To be sure,’ answered the Fool, ‘here’s graciousness and vulgarity: that is to say, a wise man and a fool.’
Alas, sir, is it you?’ said Kent. ‘Even nocturnal animals hate nights like this. The enraged skies terrify even those wild nocturnal creatures and make them keep to their caves. Since I’ve been a grown man I don’t remember having seen such sheets of fire, such peals of horrid thunder, such groans or roaring wind and rain. Man wasn’t made to endure such suffering and fear.’
‘Let the great gods who are making this dreadful turmoil over our heads seek out their enemies now!’ exclaimed Lear. ‘Tremble you wretch, whose secret crimes have as yet gone unpunished. Hide yourself, you bloody murderer, you perjurer, and you just as villainous incestuous man. Rogue! Shake yourself to pieces. You’ve given the impression of being a man under cover of convenient hypocrisy. Well-hidden crimes, expose yourselves and beg these dreadful dispensers of vengeance for mercy. I am a man more sinned against than sinning.’
Kent shook his head at his master’s state. ‘Alack, bare-headed!’ he exclaimed. ‘My gracious lord, there is a shed near here. It will afford you some friendly protection from the storm. Rest there while I return to that cruel house – harder-hearted than the stones of which it’s made, which just a while ago, denied me access when I was enquiring after you – to force them to show you that courtesy they have so far refused you.’
‘My mind is starting to go,’ said Lear. ‘Come on, my boy.’ He put his arms out to the Fool, who rushed into his embrace. ‘How are you, my boy? Are you cold? I’m cold myself.’ He nodded at Kent. ‘Where is this straw, my fellow? Need is a strange thing – it can make worthless things precious. Come on then: your shed. Poor Fool and knave. There’s still a part of my heart that feels sorry for you.’
The Fool began singing:
‘He that has and a little tiny wit,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
though the rain it raineth every day.’
‘True, my boy,’ said Lear. ‘Come,’ he told Kent, ‘take us to this shed.’
The Fool watched them go. This was a good night for cooling the lust of a frisky wench. He would follow them but he would utter a prophesy before he went.
When priests are more in word than matter:
When brewers mar their malt with water:
When nobles are their tailors’ tutors:
No heretics burned, but wenches suitors:
When every case in law is right:
No squire in debt, nor no poor knight:
When slanders do not live in tongues:
Nor cut-purses come not to throngs:
When usurers tell their gold i’ th’ field:
and bawds and whores do churches build:
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion:
then comes the time, who lives to see’t,
That going shall be used with feet.
One day in the future Merlin would make that prophecy. The Fool was born long before the magician’s time.
Read more scenes from King Lear: