Word of the Day: Rain

September 26, 2010 in Word of the Day

I have just been out running, and, having confirmed Corin’s knowledge that “the property of rain is to wet”, decided to write about some of Shakespeare’s fifty-six uses of the word “rain”. Surprisingly few of the uses of the word actually describe literal precipitation: Borachio in Much Ado invites Dogberry and company to “Stand thee close then under this penthouse, for it drizzles rain, and I will, like a true drunkard, utter all to thee”, whilst Banquo’s murder is prefaced by his guess that “It will be rain tonight”. In both cases, as with the Sentinel’s complaints in Henry VI pt I, the description of the rain serves to create an impression of isolation be it dangerous, miserable, conspiratorial, or – as in The Merry Wives of Windsor – absolutely ludicrous:

FALSTAFF My doe with the black scut! Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of ‘greensleeves’; hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes; let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here.

A world away from Falstaff’s ejaculation, but still part of the many imprecations hurled to the heavens in Shakespeare is the famous speech of King Lear’s where meteorological and psychological phenomena are dangerously confused:

LEAR 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, call’d you children…

This speech serves also to demonstrate the metaphorical uses to which the rain can be. Later in this very rainy play, Lear speaks of “woman’s weapons, water drops”, and the conflation of tears and rain is to be found throughout Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Titus Andronicus, himself another tortured patriarch, is fond of the trope, as is the Duke of Gloucester (future Richard III) when he tries to woo Anne with a series of affecting scenes.

Sometimes the comparison of tears to rain is extended to other properties of precipitation. Demetrius in Titus demonstrates his geological knowledge when he advises his mother to make her heart like unto an “unrelenting flint to drops of rain” before the tearful Lavinia. Sonnet CXXXV urges the Dark Lady to be bountiful through reference to the hydrogen cycle between airborne rain and accommodating ocean. Finally, Lady Percy, in Henry IV pt II, vows to so weep over her husband’s grave that she will nourish new growth there.

With that last, fairly positive, example, this catalogue shall finish. Before I conclude, it is worth remembering that the (impoverished) majority of the Globe’s audience would be exposed to the elements, as would the actors, so that Shakespeare’s lines on the weather may have sometimes had an unexpected resonance. Even today, it is hard not to wryly smile at Feste’s song when it is performed on a waterlogged outdoor stage. Yet I will remain positive, and conclude by citing perhaps the most poignant description of the rain in all of Shakespeare, one that draws its force from the peculiarly ambiguous moment it describes, halfway between clear skies and grey:

GENTLEMAN Not to a rage: patience and sorrow strove
Who should express her goodliest. You have seen
Sunshine and rain at once: her smiles and tears
Were like, a better day: those happy smilets
That play’d on her ripe lip seem’d not to know
What guests were in her eyes; which parted thence
As pearls from diamonds dropp’d.–In brief, sorrow
Would be a rarity most belov’d, if all
Could so become it.

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