top of page

A new month... a new discovery (about candlelight, Shakespeare and a PhD thesis)

With the summer season ramping up, and glorious weather in June, I have already failed in my plan to write a new blog post each week of the year...

But with the advent of July and the approach of our next summer writing retreat, I have been minded to review my own progress with my PhD thesis on Shakespeare and candlelight. As some of you may know, and that includes anyone who I have bored to death with my enthusiastic ramblings previously, my research is exploring the effects of candlelight illumination at Shakespeare's Blackfriars Playhouse. It is a topic which has received surprisingly little attention in academia - perhaps because of the unique combination of science and art that underpin it. For example, candlelight illuminates colours very differently to daylight and this means, quite simply, that costumes used at the outdoor Globe Playhouse would not necessarily have been effective at the indoor Blackfriars Playhouse: a rich blue in sunlight looks rich and blue but in candlelight the same colour, for reasons explained by light science, will tend towards black in its appearance. So an actor playing a character whose rich blue clothing is remarked upon with awe and delight by other characters in the play might find they don't look quite so impressive in candlelight and the text makes less sense that it would outdoors. In such circumstances, did Shakespeare or his actors change the text? Did they change the costume? Or did they do neither? It's an unanswerable question from extant evidence, but it does give rise to conjecture: if a text contains references to a character's costume, and that costume would not work well in candlelight, is it an indication of a text written for the Globe rather than the Blackfriars? And vice versa? In concrete terms, Shakespeare's The Tempest throws up just such an example: Ariel.

Ariel is instructed by his master, Prospero, to make himself invisible by appearing - and therefore, presumably, dressing - as a sea-nymph. The significance of this becomes clear when examples of the appearance of sea-nymphs from elsewhere in the period are considered. For example, in masques presented at court. Many extant masque texts from the early 17th century, unlike play texts, carry detailed explanations of the visual effects of the performance and the costumes worn by the company. This is a product of one of the published text's purposes: to describe the one-off performance in detail for the benefit of those who could not be there to see it. In several such texts sea nymphs appear and are described. My thesis contains the full references for these descriptions but suffice it to say here, the sea nymphs almost exclusively wore sea-green costumes, make-up and even wigs. Why does this matter? Because sea-green is a colour specifically mentioned by Francis Bacon, in 1625, as a colour that looks great in candlelight. So sea nymph costumes, one might therefore assume, would have looked good in candlelight at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Which brings us back to Ariel...

By instructing Ariel to dress as a sea nymph, Prospero - and, by extension, Shakespeare - gives the actor/character a chance to change into a costume which will be particularly impressive, visually, on the candlelight stage. But the instruction is even more clever still. For green is a colour that, if used as an all-over facial make-up, makes someone look sickly and strange. It is the antithesis of red cheeks and a rosy complexion. And here the science is fascinating: sea-green is the secondary colour of red where light is concerned (the primary and secondary colours of light are different to the well-known primaries and secondaries of pigment); it is as if the human eye recognises red as healthy in a complexion, and the 'opposite' of red as unhealthy. Simples. The 'invisible' sea-nymph Ariel becomes not only impressive in candlelight but also 'non-human' - both in terms of costume (resembling a creature of the sea) and also in complexion (clearly healthy and energised while looking the opposite of a healthy human).

There is much more to be said about this matter and my thesis naturally covers it in appropriate depth. But this post is partly titled 'a new discovery' and the reason is this: I have recently been struggling to find secure ground in a field which is more akin to quicksand; every apparent fact, placed under the microscope of intense analysis, quickly turns out to be no more than a hypothesis. The validity of the hypothesis seems always to be undermined by the uncovering of some further 'fact'. For example, I began this post claiming that colours behave differently in candlelight. This is because of theories - seemingly provable - about wavelengths and reflection and absorption of light waves. And yet...

Visiting the Sam Wanamaker playhouse a while ago, to see a performance in candlelight, I was struck by the appearance of prop which was bright blue and which, therefore, should theoretically tend towards appearing black, or at least dull grey, in pure candlelight. Imagine my astonishment, therefore, when the houselights went down, the candles were lit, and the same blue item still appeared to be bright blue! I was confused. Did everything I had learned about light as a professional theatre lighting designer no longer apply? Were long-evidenced scientific theories of light and colour actually wrong? Was my thesis a non-starter after all? No. None of these. It turns out that the phenomenon I witnessed, and that I found so disturbing, is also well known but in a slightly different field: the field of visual perception. Analysed from this perspective my experience was entirely predictable. For I first saw the item when the electric houselights were on. These electric lights are not only much brighter than candlelight but also comprise different colour wavelengths to candles; electric lights generally make bright blue look bright blue. So my eyes saw bright blue. But then the houselights went out and candles were lit. And I still saw bright blue, when I shouldn't have done, according to the theory of light. But the theory of visual perception could explain why: my brain.

Ironically, in that unexpected moment of confusion and stress at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, my brain was being extraordinarily clever in one of the plethora of ways that the human brain can be. In my case it was working hard to provide me with a consistent view of the world: it seems my brain did not want me to be disorientated or disturbed by an object appearing to change colour suddenly, simply when the ambient illumination changed. So it 'remembered' the original colour of the item, when it was lit by electric light, and used this information to make sure I continued to see it as that colour even when the light changed. Brilliant! But not for my thesis. At least, not in the short term. For now I had clear evidence that I not only needed to understand theories of light, which I did, but also theories of vision, which I did not. And so the last year or more has been invested in exploring the science of vision and it has been incredible: the human brain makes so many clever modifications to our vision in order to help us navigate and negotiate the world around us that any attempt to pin down a fact of experience quickly becomes futile; certainty is replaced by quicksand. And this week, finally, I have connected these disparate items in a single discovery: my thesis is just that... a thesis. Not an absolute statement of truth or fact - if such things ever actually exist - but a theory based on evidence yet open to question and challenge and, ultimately, even open to modification and redundancy. With this understanding now clear, I feel prepared once more to move forward with my writing. The July retreat, later this month, can not come soon enough!

A row of candles burning surrounding by darkness

25 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page