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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Candlestick

Object 13 - A rush-candle was the most basic and crudest form of lighting in Shakespeare’s time.

Tara Hamling

Dr Tara Hamling is RCUK Research Fellow in the History Department and a Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham.

16th Century Brass Candlestick
Brass Candle Stick, C16th.

And be it moon, or sun, or what you please;
And if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.

With this comment we see the full extent of Katherine’s submission to Petrucchio’s will in The Taming of the Shrew (IV.5). A rush-candle was the most basic and crudest form of lighting in Shakespeare’s time; in allowing that the sun may be a rush-candle, Katherine indicates that she is willing to acquiesce to even the most ludicrous assertion.

Rush-candles were an ancient and simple form of candle, made by dipping a rush into melted animal fat (tallow). These dipped candles were usually made from the lowest grades of tallow and produced a considerable amount of evil-smelling smoke. More expensive candles for use in gentry houses would be made from higher-grade (less smelly) tallow, rather than wax (used only for special occasions), and were cast in moulds, resulting in a more uniform size that would better fit into candlesticks.

There are a number of candlesticks in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. This example is made of brass and dates from the Tudor period. It is a fairly simple and functional candle holder of the sort that could be found in houses owned by people of Shakespeare’s standing in society. But even such a commonplace item could have profound significance in the minds of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

Shakespeare’s plays indicate how candles were understood in both practical and symbolic terms; referring to their essential function in providing light in the evening (especially in lighting the route to bed): ‘I see no more in you / Than without candle may go dark to bed’ (As You Like It, III, 5)

But there are also allusions to the candle as a metaphor for the body. In Henry IV, Part II, (I, 2) Lord Chief Justice says to Falstaff: ‘What! you are as a candle, the better part burnt out.’ Falstaff agrees: ‘A wassail candle, my lord—all tallow; if I did say
wax, my growth would approve the truth.’

Other plays allude to the candle as a symbol of the brevity of life; ‘Here burns my candle out; ay, here it dies’ (Henry VI, Part III: II, 6) and:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more (Macbeth V, 5)

Candles were identified with spiritual light in religious works of the period. The ‘booke of Christian prayers’ printed with royal authority in 1578 includes a set prayer to be said every evening ‘at the lighting up of Candles’:

‘At the comming of the night upon the day, thou hast geven us Candles for a remedy of the darknes: and for a remedy of our ignoraunce after sinne, thou hast geven us thy doctrine, which thy sonne (who loveth us moste deerelye) hath brought down unto us.’

This prayer and others like it suggest that the humble candlestick was in fact a significant object that was regularly looked upon, and thought about, in Shakespeare’s time.