Word of the Day: Candle

August 4, 2011 in Word of the Day

My last word, bell, concluded with the Bastard’s oath:

> BASTARD Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back,
> When gold and silver becks me to come on. […]

The three objects mentioned are those used in the rites of exorcism, the flamboyant villain of King John comparing himself to the devil. Strikingly similar phrasing is found in an exchange between Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and Mephistopheles:

> MEPHIST. Nay, I know not: we shall be cursed with bell, book, and candle.
> FAUSTUS. How! bell, book, and candle,—candle, book, and bell,—
> Forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell!

Faustus and his demon are here, in a piece of anti-Catholic foolery, mocking the Pope’s efforts to rid them from the Vatican, as the candle, book and bell of exorcism fail utterly. Moving away from religious uses, but keeping the element of mockery, we find many mixes of candles and insults in Shakespeare’s works. Falstaff’s girth often leads to jokes about how many candles could be made by turning his fat to “tallow” in Henry IV part I and II; Demetrius criticises the presence of a “candle […] already in snuff” to represent the mechanicals’ moonshine as the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and Leonato rails against those who stay up all night drinking by calling them “candle-wasters” in Much Ado About Nothing.

Rather more innocently, Romeo imagines himself as nothing more than a lovesick “candle-holder” at the Capulet ball, the early modern expression for what we would now call third who makes a crowd, which also survives in the French expression for the same phenomenon: “porter la chandelle”. Candles too appear with reference to love in The Merchant of Venice, which mentions the object more than any other play: Jessica fears having to “hold a candle to my shame” of running away for love, and Portia, returning to Belmont after saving Antonio, spots from afar the wax-based lights of her household:

> PORTIA. That light we see is burning in my hall.
> How far that little candle throws his beams!
> So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

These lines on good deeds contrast nicely to what must be the most famous use of candles in Shakespeare’s work, the comparison between the burning of a candle and the duration of a human life. It is hardly unique to Shakespeare but is nevertheless used twice in his works, both times in the mouths of warriors. It occurs first when Clifford dies on the battlefield of Henry VI part III, and ,superlatively, when Macbeth learns of his wife’s death.

> MACBETH. She should have died hereafter;
> There would have been a time for such a word.-
> To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
> Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
> To the last syllable of recorded time;
> And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
> The way to dusty death. 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: it is a tale
> Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
> Signifying nothing.

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