This short scene between Kent and one of Lear’s knights precedes Lear’s storm scenes. In response to Kent’s practical, and existential, question, “Where’s the King?” Shakespeare gives the Knight this marvelous speech:
Contending with the fretful elements;
Bids the wind blow the earth into the sea,
Or swell the curled waters ‘bove the main,
That things might change or cease; tears his white hair,
Which the impetuous blasts with eyeless rage
Catch in their fury and make nothing of,
Strives in his little world of man to outscorn
The to and fro conflicting wind and rain;
This night wherein the cub-drawn bear would couch,
The lion and the belly-pinched wolf
Keep their fur dry, unbonneted he runs,
And bids what will take all.
A lesser playwright would have been happy to give such poetry to his protagonist but Shakespeare gives it to a character too insignificant to bear a name, confident of his powers to imagine something even greater for Lear. The speech makes dramatic sense too. It reports Lear’s emotional turmoil so that when we hear him utter those same emotions later, we have a sense of their duration, and thus of Lear’s suffering and endurance.
The speech also directs our sympathy well precisely because the Knight is nameless. To the extent that he is a Knight, he is an authority on physical contention. To the extent that he is nameless, he is the objective reporter moved by what he reports. The Knight’s speech is powerful but Shakespeare cunningly holds something in reserve. Wind, earth and sea fret in this speech, but fire singes and spits in the Lear’s speeches, completing the dissonant quartet of elements.
How does this speech move our deep sympathy for Lear? The Knight describes Lear’s actions without repeating “he.” Not only does this device achieve compression, it makes the verbs appear like imperatives: “bid(s),” “tear(s),” “strive(s),” and “bid(s)” again. I am reminded of Lear’s first word in the play, a command to Gloucester to “attend.” In this speech, Lear is a shadow of his kingly self, a fool who gives commands to the storm.
The busy conflict in the first three lines is matched by their hardworking sounds: the assonance in “contending,” “fretful,” “elements” and “swell”; the plosives; the consonance of “l” and “w.” Unfortunately, all that hard work achieves nothing, the same result as Lear’s command to the wind. We get a strong sense of the futility of all that expended energy. The world does not change or cease for Lear. What changes is merely the tearing of Lear’s hair, juxtaposed ironically on the same line with his wish for apocalypse.
The characteristics of the storm, “impetuous,” full of “rage” and “fury” (“Come not between the dragon and his rage.”), reminds me of Lear’s fault in disowning Cordelia. That dreadful echo of “nothing”! Not only of Cordelia’s principled, if stubborn, no, but also of Lear’s own words, here tossed back into his face by the storm and by a vassal, “Nothing will come of nothing.” The effect of the speech, however, is not satisfaction at seeing the tyrannical ruler-father get his come-uppance. The effect is one of terror for ourselves: who among us has not been impetuous, full of rage and fury, in disowning our Cordelias? When the storm comes, for come it must, a storm without an eye, a storm that makes nothing of us, as if it is a Decreator, how shall we face it? Here Lear’s pathetic grandeur lies in his trying vainly to outface the storm.
Outface, or in Shakespeare’s striking neologism, “outscorn.” An ironic reminder of being shut out by his daughters, “out” in “outscorn” also plays against “in” in “Strives in his little world of man.” The wordplay stresses the limits of Lear’s “little world” but it also marks the entry of Lear into self-awareness, and thus of potential self-knowledge. Lear is “little” in comparison to the storm, but his dimensions are lit up by each flash of lightning, sounded by each roll of thunder, tested by air and water. “The to and fro conflicting wind and rain” masterfully combines chaos and pattern by pivoting the parallel structures of “to and fro” and “wind and rain” on “conflicting,” a participle that works almost as a verb.
The animal images are presented as the first two items of a threefold repetition: (1) the bear would couch, (2) the lion and the wolf would keep their fur dry, climaxing in (3) unbonneted Lear runs. The first two items are linked by alliteration in their main verb but are differentiated by the number of their grammatical subjects. Whereas the first animal takes up one line of verse, the next two takes up one and a half lines, adding to the rhythmic swell which climaxes in the compressed half-line, “unbonneted he runs.” Whereas the bear is “cub-drawn,” the wolf is “belly-pinched.” The parallel between the hyphenated adjectives suggests that the wolf is not just pinched in the belly, but is pinched by the belly. An added nuance that may be applied to Lear’s suffering too. The animals’ dry fur contrasts with Lear’s wet white hair, the humanness of the hair uncovered in the word “unbonneted.” The phrase “unbonneted he runs,” with its unobtrusive internal rhyme and consonance, has a subtle music while the alliteration of “b” in “unbonneted” and “bids” reminds us that Lear has given away his crown and his command.