By this stage in the play, King Lear has been through a rough ride. And yes, you could argue Lear brought it on himself, but whichever way you look at it, this old man is having quite the day! Lear has been kicked out by both his daughters and has seen his whole life crumble before his eyes. Homeless and incensed, he has no alternative except to face the elements. The turmoil is happening both internally and externally for Lear.
This monologue is iconic. It has been depicted in countless film and theatre versions, usually with a barrage of rain and wind and is always a challenge when done in isolation.
The goal of this page is to explore this monologue in more depth and hopefully give some useful insights to any actors who are tackling this classic Shakespearean monologue. So let’s begin!
King Lear Synopsis
Whenever you work on a monologue, you need context. However tempting it might be to simply learn the piece and perform it, you are asking for trouble if you haven’t put in the work to understand the broader story. So please go and READ THE PLAY!
I have read and watched King Lear many times and I am not embarrassed to say that I still have to remind myself of story every time I look at a scene or monologue from this dense, and tricky play. So even if you’ve read this play I think these short, visual summations can really help…
So hopefully that short video has refreshed, or clarified the story for you. Now we turn to our preparation. What do we need to know to bring this monologue to life? Lear is calling on nature to “crack nature’s molds” and is bating nature into throwing the world into disorder! This is a wild monologue with Lear on the verge of madness (possibly already off the cliff), and understanding everything that has lead to this point is so important to successfully execute this monologue.
Who are you talking to
At the top of this act it reads “Enter Lear and the Fool”, however, as Lear is in such a state I think most of this monologue is in conversation with nature or god. He may or may not be aware of the presence of the fool, and is really crying out to nature itself. This means that you have a lot of creative freedom to really use your voice and your physicality.
What is his state of mind
An important thing to capture in this monologue is Lear’s state of mind. If you were performing this monologue as part of the play you would have had the whole story to build you to this moment. However, if this is for a class or audition you will have to dive straight into a really intense emotional state. Think about everything you’ve been through, where you are, and use all of that to fire up your imagination before you begin. This monologue does not call for subtlety.
Full Text (King Lear Act 3 Scene 2)
King Lear: Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world,
Crack Nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once,
That makes ingrateful man!
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters;
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, called you children;
You owe me no subscription. Why then, let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engendered battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O ho! ’tis foul.
Modern Translation – King lear Act 3 Scene 2
Blow winds, until your cheeks crack! Rage on, storm!
You huge waterfalls and tornadoes, pour out water until you’ve drenched the steeples of our churches and drowned their weathercocks!
You angry and fast moving lightning—forerunners of the oak tree splitting thunderbolts —singe the white hair on my head!
And you, all mighty thunder, crush the spherical world flat, and crack open the molds from which nature forms humans, and spill all the seeds that grow up to become ungrateful mankind!
Rumble your belly, thunder clouds! Spit, fire! Pour down, rain! The rain, wind, thunder, and fire are not my daughters.
I don’t blame you, you elements of the storm, for being unkind. I never gave you a kingdom or called you my children. You don’t owe me any loyalty. Therefore be as horrible as you want to.
Here I stand, your slave—a poor, sick, weak, and hated old man.
But I still accuse you of joining forces with my two wicked daughters, and using your heavenly powers to strike my old, white head. Oh, it’s foul!
I think it’s important to investigate the meaning of words and phrases beyond just their general meaning. For instance, the first line we can understand simply, but what is the actual image that is underpinning the line. If we can see that clearly as actors then we are well on the way. So, let’s get specific…
blow winds and crack your cheeks: while there is some argument that this image is Lear calling on nature to do a great big fart on him, it is generally understood to be referencing the iconic image of someone blowing with there cheeks puffed out. And in this case so hard that natures cheeks crack!
cataracts: a large waterfall
steeples: a church tower and spireCocks: weathervanes/weathercock (those spinning chickens on the top of buildings)
thought-executing: acting as fast as thought; or: thought-destroying
sulphurous: marked by anger or profanity.
vaunt-couriers: forerunner, announcer
spill: destroy, overthrow
ingrateful: ungrateful, unappreciative
element: forces of nature
subscription: allegiance, support
high-engendered: coming from the heavens
I am indebted to the work of David Crystal for his amazing book Shakespeare’s Words. A must have for any serious Shakespeare lover.
I hope some of what I have discussed here will help you to bring this wonderful monologue to life. A challenging piece without a doubt, but one that is a lot of fun for actors. This monologue is the cornerstone of one of Shakespeare’s most iconic scenes, and I wish you all the best in tackling this piece.