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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Thimble

Object 21 - The associations and symbolism of an apparently simple, silver thimble.

Stephanie Appleton

Today’s post comes from Stephanie Appleton, Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at the University of Birmingham.

A Thimble, seventeenth century

This beautiful seventeenth-century thimble is made of silver and is engraved with the phrase “be true in love as a turtle dove”. The turtle dove’s faithfulness to its mate meant that these birds were held as symbols of true love in Renaissance England, and we find references to them (commonly called simply ‘turtles’) in numerous places throughout Shakespeare’s works. One such example occurs in The Winter’s Tale (1610), when Florizel says:

“... But come; our dance, I pray; / Your hand, my Perdita. So turtles pair, / That never mean to part.” (4. 4. 153 - 155)

The inscription on this thimble therefore means it was most probably intended to be given as a romantic gift. In fact, thimbles were commonly associated with the rituals of courtship at this time. As a token of his love, a man might give to his beloved gifts or ‘trifles’ such as a thimble like this one, a pair of gloves, a handkerchief or a ring. The monetary value of the gift would of course depend upon the man’s wealth and social standing. Gift-giving in courtship had a dual purpose: it would signify the man’s honourable intentions towards his sweetheart, while her acceptance of the gift would in turn signal her participation in the courtship. (Similarly, a woman’s rejection or returning of a gift would be a clear indication that she wished to break off the relationship.) The tradition of gift-giving in this context therefore played an important role in courtship negotiations, indicating to both parties involved their commitment to the relationship, and cementing their bond further.

As might be expected, however, thimbles were also naturally associated with female domesticity, being an obvious marker of a woman’s housewifely duties. This may have been part of the reason behind the thimble’s choice as a courtship gift: it was recognised by both men and women as a potent symbol of the domestic life which every woman was to assume after marriage, and in the giving of the gift it would have carried both the man’s expectations of his future wife and the woman’s agreement with these expectations. It is unlikely that a thimble as delicate and expensive as this one was given to be used: its power lay in its symbolic meaning.

In his 1596 play, The Life and Death of King John, Shakespeare makes reference to the thimble as a symbol of female domesticity through the character of Philip the Bastard, who makes the following speech:

“And you degenerate, you ingrate revolts, / … blush for shame; / For your own ladies and pale-visaged maids/ Like Amazons come tripping after drums; / Their thimbles into armèd gauntlets change, / Their needles to lances, and their gentle hearts / To fierce and bloody inclination.” (5. 2. 151 - 158)

Here Philip curses the cowardice of the troops by imagining the traditional gender roles reversed: he wants the men to feel shame at the idea of their wives leaving their domestic duties in order to do the work which their men should be doing: fighting.