This political chaos is mirrored in the natural world. We find Lear and his courtiers plodding across a deserted heath with winds howling around them and rain drenching them. Lear, like the other characters, is unused to such harsh conditions, and he soon finds himself symbolically stripped bare. He has already discovered that his cruel daughters can victimize him; now he learns that a king caught in a storm is as much subject to the power of nature as any man.
The importance of the storm, and its symbolic connection to the state of mind of the people caught in it, is first suggested by the knight’s words to Kent. Kent asks the knight, “Who’s there, besides foul weather?”; the knight answers, “One minded like the weather, most unquietly”(3.1.1–2). Here the knight’s state of mind is shown to be as turbulent as the winds and clouds surrounding him. This is true of Lear as well: when Kent asks the knight where the king is, the knight replies, “Contending with the fretful elements; / . . . / Strives in his little world of man to out-scorn / The to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain” (3.1.4–11). Shakespeare’s use of pathetic fallacy—a literary device in which inanimate objects such as nature assume human reactions—amplifies the tension of the characters’ struggles by elevating human forces to the level of natural forces.
Lear is trying to face down the powers of nature, an attempt that seems to indicate both his despair and his increasingly confused sense of reality. Both of these strains appear in Lear’s famous speech to the storm, in which he commands, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! / You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout / Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!” (3.2.1–3). Lear’s attempt to speak to the storm suggests that he has lost touch with the natural world and his relation to it—or, at least, that he has lost touch with the ordinary human understanding of nature. In a sense, though, his diatribe against the weather embodies one of the central questions posed by King Lear: namely, whether the universe is fundamentally friendly or hostile to man. Lear asks whether nature and the gods are actually good, and, if so, how life can have treated him so badly.
The storm marks one of the first appearances of the apocalyptic imagery that is so important in King Lear and that will become increasingly dominant as the play progresses. The chaos reflects the disorder in Lear’s increasingly crazed mind, and the apocalyptic language represents the projection of Lear’s rage and despair onto the outside world: if his world has come to a symbolic end because his daughters have stripped away his power and betrayed him, then, he seems to think, the real world ought to end, too. As we have seen, the chaos in nature also reflects the very real political chaos that has engulfed Britain in the absence of Lear’s authority.
Along with Lear’s increasing despair and projection, we also see his understandable fixation on his daughters: “Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters: / I tax you not, you elements, with unkindness” (3.2.14–15). Lear tells the thunder that he does not blame it for attacking him because it does not owe him anything. But he does blame his “two pernicious daughters” for their betrayal (3.2.21). Despite the apparent onset of insanity, Lear exhibits some degree of rational thought—he is still able to locate the source of his misfortune.
Finally, we see strange shifts beginning to occur inside Lear’s mind. He starts to realize that he is going mad, a terrifying realization for anyone. Nevertheless, Lear suddenly notices his Fool and asks him, “How dost my boy? Art cold?” (3.2.66). He adds, “I have one part in my heart / That’s sorry yet for thee” (3.2.70–71). Here, Lear takes real and compassionate notice of another human being for the first time in the play. This concern for others reflects the growth of Lear’s humility, which eventually redeems him and enables him to win Cordelia’s forgiveness.