The Cause of Thunder: Nature and Justice in King Lear

Paul A. Cantor, “The Cause of Thunder: Nature and Justice in King Lear,” in King Lear: New Critical Essays, ed. Jeffrey Kahan (London: Routledge, 2008), 23052


As many critics have recognized, the central themes of King Lear are nature and justice, and in exploring their relation, the play investigates the nature of justice and the justice of nature. At the very center of the play, Act 3, scene 4, the king in his madness believes that he has been given the rare opportunity to consult a philosopher in the person of a beggar named Poor Tom (in reality, the young nobleman Edgar masquerading as a hapless lunatic). The first question Lear asks his philosopher is: “What is the cause of thunder?” Ever since Aristophanes The Clouds, with its dialogue between Socrates and the dim-witted rustic Strepsiades, this question has pointed to the larger question of divine justice. Puzzled by Socrates’ claim that Zeus does not exist, Spresiades wants to know who, then, created thunder and lightning, and therefore who can be counted on to strike down malefactors and see that justice prevails in the city? What Aristophanes’ Socrates presents as purely a question of natural science – he gives Strepsiades a meteorological explanation of thunder and lightning in terms of the physics of clouds – the old farmer insists on treating as an ethical and political matter. Strepsiades’ understanding of nature is intimately bound up with his understanding of the social and political order because it is intimately bound up with his understanding of the gods. Strepsiades worries that is Zeus is not the cause of thunder, the natural order has no basis in any kind of ethical principle, and, among other evil consequences, children will feel free to beat up their parents. Strepsiades’ concerns help us understand Lear’s obsession with the storm and suggest that when the mad king asks about the cause of thunder, he is really asking whether the gods exist and whether justice can be said to exist by nature.

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