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Playing, Gambling and Cheating in Early Modern England and France

The Game’s the Thing: Politics and Play in Middleton’s A Game at Chess

La Centralité du jeu : Jeu et politique dans A Game at Chess de Middleton
Supriya Chaudhuri

Résumés

Les interprétations de A Game at Chess de Middleton ont eu tendance à se concentrer sur ses implications politiques et historiques, considérant le jeu d'échecs lui-même comme un dispositif allégorique qu'il suffirait de décoder. En s'appuyant sur les travaux de Clifford Geertz, cet article place le jeu au cœur de l'interprétation de la pièce. On s’y demande comment le jeu d'échecs, servant d'espace fictif au sein duquel les personnages jouent et trichent pour des enjeux élevés, fonctionne relativement à son cadre, la pièce de Middleton, elle-même une entreprise à haut risque dans un domaine politique où l'art a un enjeu, mais dont la valeur n'est jamais entièrement quantifiable. La distinction implicite entre un monde « réel » de machinations et de rivalités politiques, où les dramaturges peuvent être emprisonnés pour avoir commenté les affaires publiques, et le monde du jeu qui occupe la scène ou l'échiquier, n'est pas aussi simple qu'il y paraît, car les jeux occupent également de l'espace dans le monde, un espace contesté aux frontières mal définies. En utilisant les ressources du théâtre moderne et de son rassemblement de publics pour représenter les conflits politiques anglo-espagnols, la pièce de Middleton anticipe l'atmosphère chargée et tendue d'un face-à-face entre deux « camps » opposés, caractéristique à la fois du sport et de la politique modernes. Dans les deux cas, la tricherie et le jeu ont un rôle important à jouer.  

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1For early modern audiences, the most memorable instance of cheating and gambling at a game of chess might have been the brief but suggestive glimpse, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, of the habits of realpolitik at work even in a space of imagined leisure. Near the end of the play, Prospero “requites” the King of Naples, Alonso, for the restoration of his dukedom, by drawing aside a curtain to reveal, not just the heir to the crown of Naples, but Prospero’s own daughter as his promised bride and the kingdom’s future queen. Miranda and Ferdinand are “discovered” playing at chess, with the former accusing the latter of cheating, and (hypothetically) gambling:

  • 1 All citations of this play from William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. V. M. Vaughan and A. T. Vaugh (...)

Mir: Sweet lord, you play me false.
Fer: No, my dear'st love,
I would not for the world.
Mir: Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle,
And I would call’t fair play. (
The Tempest, 5.1.171-74)1

  • 2 William Poole, “False Play: Shakespeare and Chess”, Shakespeare Quarterly, 55.1, Spring 2004, p. 50 (...)

2Opinions on how to interpret the word “wrangle” may differ, but there can be no doubt that Miranda projects, by contrast with Ferdinand’s casual, almost meaningless staking of “the world”, a prize of twenty kingdoms. For this, she feels, Ferdinand would undoubtedly play false, though she, in her love, would allow his cheating to pass as fair play. Much has been written on the symbolism of this brief, interrupted scene of playing within playing – surely as important as the masque where Prospero reflects on the nature of revels, players, and shadows. William Poole ascribes to Prospero, on the assumption that it is he and Alonso who are the real chess-players, what the early modern chess writer Arthur Saul called the “noblest Mate of all,” a checkmate by discovery.2 Indeed Margaret Jones-Davies had already commented on the meta-dramatic effectiveness of this requital, in which the “false king,” Ferdinand, is forced to kneel to his father, the true king Alonso, whom he had believed dead. She noted the deliberate contrast of playing false (for a score of kingdoms) and the make-believe of fair play, with the opposed terms placed diagonally across from each other as in a chiasmus, or a pawn-exchange. And most strikingly, she proposed a re-lineation of the 11-line exchange between Miranda, Ferdinand, Alonso and Prospero into a “calligram,” composed by 8 lines of blank verse, with 64 words divided into 32 on each side: that is, the exact number of squares on a chess-board. Some of the thrill of this discovery is lost in the realization that the re-lineation, with its word-count, is obviously not visible on stage, so it would have to remain as a curiosity of the page.

3Still, Jones-Davies’s point was not so much about the calligram as such (though she reiterated the finding in a much later note), as about the chessboard as a site of ambivalence, here as in Middleton’s A Game at Chess: a space affording the opportunity to cheat, to trick, and to place virtue at a disadvantage.

  • 3 Margaret Jones-Davies, “L’échiquier et Médée : deux points de controverse dans The Tempest”, Études (...)

L’échiquier est donc le lieu de l’ambivalence. Traditionnellement associé aux jeux complexes de l’amour courtois (Loughrey & Taylor 114), lieu d’apprentissage pour les princes de l’art de gouverner (Schmidgall 13), il est à la fois l’occasion de tricher, de ruser -- on pense à The Game at Chess de T. Middleton, où la vertu est souvent dans une position de faiblesse, et l’occasion de montrer le pouvoir de la raison sur le désordre.3

4On an isolated island, with no known prospect of gaining one, let alone twenty kingdoms, Ferdinand and Miranda play chess exactly in the spirit of the game as Jones-Davies describes it here. In so far as it is a game, it is a time-space taken out of space and time: that is, it does not “count” for anything at all. Yet for a game-player like Ferdinand, who has earlier reflected upon the difference between physical exertion in “noble” sports and the “baseness” of forced labour (3.1.1-7), winning or losing are all-important, and cheating is the obvious recourse. Miranda’s protest is profoundly ambivalent: if Ferdinand plays her false for “a score of kingdoms” she will call it fair play, but her initial accusation suggests that she will not do so if he plays false with her – that is, with her love. Poole, commenting on the tradition that identified chess with “combat, gambling and sexual strife,” speculates worriedly on the future of the Ferdinand-Miranda union, asking, “What will happen in Naples?” If Ferdinand is cheating, or is suspected of cheating, barely a few hours into their acquaintance, all may not be well with this royal match – in both senses.

5However briefly seen, the chessboard does serve an important symbolic function in The Tempest. There is a clear equivalence between the imaginary island, the bare boards of the stage, the grassy plot of the masque, and the space of the game being played by Ferdinand and Miranda. Each is a site for acting out human motives and desires, independently of whether they will translate into real-life rewards. Thus Sebastian and Antonio, for example, plot to kill Alonso, without any obvious plan for getting off the island, or even of eating their next meal. Their conspiracy, like the play of which it is part – The Tempest, written late 1610 or early 1611, and performed at court, as the Revels’ Accounts testify, on 1 November that year – is locked into a kind of dream-space that mimics the realities of political ambition and intrigue. Within the play-world, the characters on stage, like chess pieces on a board, are unaware that they are part of another game, one being played by Prospero, who is alone able to make the game “count” towards material and political rewards. Ironically, however, since Prospero is only a character in a play (and one who is uncannily aware of his role as such), the different levels at which games are played in The Tempest function like mirrors, reflecting back to each other the realities of the political sphere which literature and art can represent, but not replace. At the close, Prospero – or the actor playing him, or Shakespeare himself – seeks release from this game of representations, and the mimetic compulsions, indeed the bondage, of art: “As you from crimes would pardoned be / Let your indulgence set me free.” (The Tempest, Epilogue, 19-20)

6There is an interesting parallel here with Thomas Middleton’s situation after the nine-days’ theatrical sensation of his crowd-puller A Game at Chess, which ran at the Globe theatre in London from 5 to 14 August 1624. Prospero speaks of imaginary confinement on ‘this bare island’, or the bare boards of the stage, the space of play. By contrast, Middleton was actually confined in the Fleet prison after his play became a runaway success, a warrant having been issued for his arrest on the complaint of the Spanish ambassador on 30 August. He is supposed to have supplicated King James for his release in the following couplets:

  • 4 There are five early MS copies of this poem. Two are reproduced in Thomas Middleton, The Collected (...)

A harmless game, raised merely for delight,
Was lately played by the Black House and White.
The White side won, but now the Black House brag
They changed the game and put me in the bag—
And that which makes malicious joy more sweet,
I lie now under hatches in the Fleet.
Use but your royal hand, my hopes are free;
’Tis but removing of one man—that’s me,
Tho. Middleton
4

7Unlike the speaker of Shakespeare’s epilogue, Middleton suffers the physical consequences of using a game to comment on contemporary politics, and is held captive, not on the bare boards of the stage, but “under hatches in the Fleet.” In appealing to the King for clemency, he resorts to the logic of the play-world, arguing that what went before was no more than “a harmless game,” and that the King can use “his royal hand” to move “one man,” the humble pawn Thomas Middleton, from his present captivity “in the bag” into safety and freedom, the space of play. In rhetorical terms, thus, Middleton seeks to perpetuate the fiction of the game beyond the play-time to secure his physical release; Shakespeare seeks release from the game by concluding its fiction. In what follows, I ask how the chess-game, a fictional space within which characters gamble and cheat for high stakes, operates in relation to its vehicle, Middleton’s play, itself a high-risk enterprise in a political field where art has a stake, but one whose value is never entirely quantifiable.

Game, life, meaning

  • 5 Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”, Daedalus, 101.1, Winter 1972, p. 1-3 (...)
  • 6 Ibid., p. 24-25.

8The implicit distinction here between a “real” world of political machinations and rivalries where playwrights can be put in prison for commenting on public affairs, and the play-world that occupies the stage or the chessboard is not as straightforward as it appears. For games also take up space in the world, a contested space with ill-defined boundaries. It might seem that cheating and gambling are both about making the game count (towards something else), about procuring rewards in the everyday world outside the game. But as any reader of Clifford Geertz’s classic essay, “Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” will remember, this is not necessarily how games-players think. In fact, it is not how Ferdinand (if he has been cheating) thinks in the scene from The Tempest with which we commenced: he cheats because he wants to win, and winning or losing are part of the logic of gaming itself. As Geertz explains it, although playing false (not common in Bali according to Geertz), and staking high (very common in Bali according to Geertz), may indeed mark the kind of ‘deep play’ in which the player (the Balinese man) risks much more than he stands to gain, the point of the practice is not material but symbolic, and what is on the line is not money but status. Yet, and this is important, “no one’s status really changes. You cannot ascend the status ladder by winning cockfights; you cannot, as an individual, really ascend it at all.”5 The cockfight is like poetry or art, it makes nothing happen, says Geertz, quoting Auden. Whatever contrivance goes into winning the game, whatever bet is laid on its outcome, all of this belongs in the game, in the state of illusion (derived from in ludere, in play), that is the time-space of the game. This assumption generates a further conclusion about the Balinese view of time, which is not a directional flow out of the past into the future, but an “on-off pulsation of meaning and vacuity,” an alternation between “full” and “empty” times, or, in another idiom, “junctures” and “holes,” where, reversing the materialist or utilitarian view of time to which we are accustomed, gaming time is full, while everyday time is empty.6

  • 7 Ibid., p. 15-16, citing Jeremy Bentham on “the evils of deep play”, in Theory of Legislation (1789) (...)
  • 8 C. Geertz, art.cit., p. 11 and 15.
  • 9 C. Geertz, art.cit., p. 16.

9Geertz’s use of the term “deep play” for particularly intense, status-laden matches, detaches it from eighteenth century gambling culture where deep play signified, as Jeremy Bentham noted disapprovingly, a situation of unprofitable monetary risk, and transfers it to a more symbolically loaded cultural context wherein the depth of psychic investment makes play deep.7 The discussion of gambling is absolutely central to Geertz’s essay: he calls it “the aspect of cockfighting around which all the others pivot, and through which they exercise their force,” and yet, at the close, he effects a transition to “a less purely economic idea of what “depth” in gaming amounts to.”8 This does not mean that the Balinese are indifferent to money and do not mind losing it through risky, high-value bets. Rather, the large sums that are staked reflect a willingness to put “their money where their status is,” that is, to put their public selves on the line, and imbue the contest with meaning. Geertz comments: “And as (to follow Weber rather than Bentham) the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence, that access of significance more than compensates for the economic costs involved.”9

  • 10 For a review, see Berry Tholen (2018), “Bridging the gap between research traditions: on what we ca (...)
  • 11 See Gary Taylor, introduction to “A Game at Chess. A Later Form”, in Oxford Middleton, p. 1825.
  • 12 G. Taylor, introduction to “A Game at Chess. An Early Form”, in Oxford Middleton, p. 1773.

10Nearly fifty years have passed since Geertz produced this strongly aestheticized, symbolic reading of Balinese culture, one that has been attacked and celebrated in equal measure.10 For my present enquiry, his most interesting reflections are not on Balinese habits per se, but his perception that game-investments, like gambling and cheating, are not external to the game but part of what makes the game “meaningful,” that is, worth playing, while in their courting of risk and danger, they also give meaning to life. I would like to take this thought into a consideration of Middleton’s play A Game at Chess, in its time an unprecedented commercial and public success, and viewed, as editors do not tire of telling us, by around 30,000 spectators, roughly one-seventh of the total adult population of London, during its run of nine consecutive days (Sunday excluded) in August 1624. This, the longest run for any play before the Restoration, earned the King’s Men a “scandalous” amount of money.11 Gary Taylor, describing it as a “history play – a play about history, which also made history” emphasizes its function in dramatizing “a pivotal period of English, and indeed European, history: the major political and foreign policy crises of 1620–24.”12

11Briefly summarized, the play presents the failed marriage negotiations between Charles, James I’s son, and the Spanish Infanta Maria Anna, sister of Felipe IV, as a victory for Protestant England against Catholic Spain, and for the House of Stuart against the House of Habsburg. In doing so, it successfully captures the feelings of James’s Protestant subjects, who feared the prospect of a Catholic queen and an alliance with imperial Spain, though the latter was exactly what James had in mind when he planned the match and sent Charles and the Duke of Buckingham, incognito, to Spain in February 1623 for the negotiations. James hoped in the bargain to restore his son-in-law Frederick V, the Elector Palatine, to his hereditary dominion, the Palatinate, from which he had been ousted near the start of the Thirty Years’ War. A decade earlier, in the winter of 1612-1613, The Tempest (with the masque written in) had been performed at court for the betrothal of James’s daughter Elizabeth with Frederick, then leader of the Protestant Union in Europe. As it turned out this was an ill-fated match, given the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, Frederick’s brief reign as king of Bohemia (1619-1620), his defeat at the Battle of White Mountain, and the dissolution of the Protestant Union in 1621. James, who had failed to back his son-in-law against the Habsburgs in Bohemia, nevertheless persevered with his efforts at dynastic diplomacy, hoping this time to use a Catholic Spanish alliance to recover Frederick’s patrimony.

12But Charles and Buckingham’s negotiations in Madrid were frustrating and unsuccessful. Unable to persuade Spain to restore the Palatinate in return for the English alliance, and under threat from the Infanta’s stipulation that Charles should convert, they abandoned the match and returned to England in October 1623, immediately forming a court faction against James’s pro-Spanish foreign policy. By 24 February 1624, when Buckingham made his “relation” concerning the “motives of the Prince’s journey to Spaine” to a Parliamentary Committee, public opinion favoured war with Spain. Buckingham offered a judiciously tailored account of the trip, which he presented as an expedient chosen by the heir-apparent to expose Spanish duplicity:

  • 13 “House of Lords Journal Volume 3: 27 February 1624”, in Journal of the House of Lords: Volume 3, 16 (...)

the Prince his Highness, [who] thereupon took his Resolution to go in Person to Spaine, and gave himself these Reasons for that Enterprize: He saw his Father's Negotiation plainly deluded, Matters of Religion gained upon and extorted, his Sister's Case more and more desperated; that this was the Way to help Things off or on; that, in this Particular, Delay was worse than a plain Denial; and that, according to the usual Proverb, A Desperate Disease must have a Desperate Remedy. This Resolution the Duke, by the Prince's Command, made known unto the King; who, after He had consulted of it together with them, at the last, commanded the Duke to accompany his Highness in this Journey.13

  • 14 Thomas Cogswell, “Thomas Middleton and the Court, 1624: ‘A Game at Chess’ in Context”, Huntington L (...)
  • 15 T. Cogswell, art cit., p. 285, and p. 281, quoting a contemporary witness, John Woolley, on the gen (...)
  • 16 Daniel Starza Smith, John Donne and the Conway Papers: Patronage and Manuscript Circulation in the (...)
  • 17 Ibid., p. 70-71, citing T. H. Howard-Hill, “Political Interpretations of Middleton’s A Game at Ches (...)
  • 18 The phrase is used by J. Dover Wilson, The Library, Fourth Series, 11, 1930, p. 110-112, here p. 11 (...)
  • 19 T. H. Howard-Hill, “Political Interpretations”, art. cit., p. 285; G. Taylor, “A Game at Chess: An (...)

13Most historical readings of A Game at Chess, especially since Thomas Cogswell’s 1984 essay, have seen the play as serving “a critical propaganda function for Charles and Buckingham,” offering “a plausible justification for the trip” while it fed into popular Hispanophobia, coupled with perceptions of a “blessed revolution” that had overtaken the kingdom in 1624.14 Indeed Cogswell’s reading made the play not much more than “Middleton’s version of Buckingham’s relation,” protected during its nine-day run by powerful friends at court, notably Charles, the royal favourite Buckingham, and even his bitter rival the Earl of Pembroke, Lord Chamberlain, with James perhaps turning a blind eye for as long as he could.15 Daniel Starza Smith’s study of the papers of Sir Edward Conway, Secretary of State, who issued the uncommonly mild injunction cancelling the play’s run, but sparing the King’s Men from ruin, leads him to suggest that Conway, who favoured “writers with anti-Spanish sympathies,” may have been one of Middleton’s patrons.16 He does not even dismiss out of hand, as Trevor Howard-Hill had done, the possibility that the entire play was commissioned by the pro-war “patriot” coalition “that had been so successful in the 1624 Parliament,” or that topical references were written in for performance.17 Other commentators are less inclined to view the play as itself ‘a pawn in the game of foreign policy.’18 Trevor Howard-Hill suggested that Middleton capitalized on “the national temper in a brief halcyon moment of national unity,” and Gary Taylor rejects the hypothesis of a court patron, arguing that Middleton is creating a literature of resistance, moving from a politics of faction to a politics of ideology.19

“Making publics” and the space of the stage

  • 20 See Robert E. Shimp, “A Catholic Marriage for an Anglican Prince”, Historical Magazine of the Prote (...)
  • 21 Ian Munro, “Making Publics: Secrecy and Publication in A Game at Chess, Medieval and Renaissance D (...)
  • 22 G. Taylor, Oxford Middleton, p. 1776.

14These readings, whether they view the play as simply one of the many political stratagems employed by the war party to channel public Hispanophobia (from early 1624 Buckingham had been negotiating for the French match between Charles and Henrietta Maria, sister of Louis XIII of France),20 or as a political statement being made by Middleton himself, tend to reduce the chess-game to a rudimentary allegorical device. A more interesting set of studies has examined the play’s function of “making a public,” in the Habermasian sense of creating a discursive space for the forming of public opinion, through political commentary, gossip, and news-mongering. Given that Habermas regards the public sphere as inherently unimaginable until the eighteenth century, Ian Munro drew on Robert Weimann’s understanding of theatrical transmission, as well as Alexandra Halasz’s connecting of the public sphere with the commodification and exchange of printed information, to argue that Middleton’s “public exposure” of political secrets staked the possibility of public discourse in early modern England on “the connections between the space of the stage, the space of the theater, and the space of a larger public world that is both the material of A Game at Chess and the arena in which it presents itself.”21 Munro sees the play as trying to create its notional “public sphere” within a space that is both commercialised and emblematic of cultural authority. Gary Taylor, however, had no hesitation in asserting that the modern “bourgeois public sphere” was in fact formed in the 1620s, the birth of news coinciding with the birth of parties, and with the printing press helping to create “an ideological reading public”, hungry for pamphlets, news-sheets (corantos) and broadsides.22

  • 23 See Catherine Rockwell, “Know thy side: Propaganda and parody in Jonson’s Staple of News”, English (...)

15Middleton’s engaged, vivid “history of the present” drew on the pamphlet literature of the time, especially the pro-war, anti-Spanish salvos dispatched by Thomas Scott after the furore over his Vox Populi (1620) forced him to remove to the Netherlands: Vox Dei (1623?), The Second Part of Vox Populi (1624), and Vox Regis (1624). Public hunger for news attracted satirical comment from Ben Jonson in his court masque News from the New World Discovered in the Moon (1620), and in The Staple of News (1626) where A Game of Chess is directly parodied. Middleton’s use of the fiction of the chess-game, with its face-off between Black and White houses, propels its audience to choose a side, that is, to constitute itself in political terms. The word “side” is used no fewer than nineteen times in Middleton’s play. As Catherine Rockwell comments, “Jonson, with his magnificent ear for dialogue,” picked up this verbal tic immediately, and the parody text in The Staple of News has two clerks changing sides (on stage) to purvey exactly the same (fantastic) news, believed to be fake if it comes from the Papists, true if it carries the Protestant stamp.23

  • 24 Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics”, Public Culture 14.1, 2002, p. 49-90, here p. 49-50. T (...)
  • 25 See Bronwen Wilson and Paul Yachnin, eds., Making Publics in Early Modern Europe, New York, Routled (...)
  • 26 Pierre Bourdieu, “How can one be a sportsman?”, in Sociology in Question, trans. Richard Nice, Lond (...)
  • 27 See John McClelland, Body and Mind: Sport in Europe from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance, Londo (...)

16In consequence, many scholars have preferred to follow Michael Warner’s proposition of a plurality of “publics”, rather than a single “public sphere”. Warner argues that “[t]he public is a kind of social totality”, but another public could be an audience at an event, and a third sense of public would be “the kind of public that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation.”24 Bronwen Wilson and Paul Yachnin’s Making Publics in Early Modern Europe (2010) explored new forms of association not primarily linked to lineage or rank, constituting a diversity of publics that eventually formed the political culture of modernity.25 Modern instances of the numerous local and instrumental “making” of publics would be provided not only by theatre, but by cinema, by television or online media, by political rallies or “occupations”, and by organised large-scale sport. Pierre Bourdieu argued influentially that modern sport, “accompanied by a process of rationalization intended, as Weber expresses it, to ensure predictability and calculability” within the “field of sports practices,” had not yet come into being in the early seventeenth century.26 This view has been contested by many sports historians, such as John McLelland and Bernard Merdrignac.27 Without entering into the dispute, it can certainly be said that A Game at Chess replicates, not the huge financial, infrastructural, and popular investments of the modern sporting arena, but the more intimate rivalries, the individual plots and devices, of the game, or “a game.” Yet, by putting the accumulated resources of early modern theatre and its assembling of theatrical publics to use in representing Anglo-Spanish political conflicts, it does anticipate some of the charged, tension-laden atmosphere of a face-off between two opposed “sides” that is characteristic both of modern sport and of modern politics. Warner describes audiences in this way:

  • 28 M. Warner, art.cit., p. 50.

A public can also be a second thing: a concrete audience, a crowd witnessing itself in visible space, as with a theatrical public. Such a public also has a sense of totality, bounded by the event or by the shared physical space. A performer onstage knows where her public is, how big it is, where its boundaries are, and what the time of its common existence is. A crowd at a sports event, a concert, or a riot might be a bit blurrier around the edges, but still knows itself by knowing where and when it is assembled in common visibility and common action.28

  • 29 François Rabelais, Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Guy Demerson, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1973, ch. 23-24, (...)
  • 30 The tradition, and Middleton’s debts, have been extensively discussed. Many literary instances are (...)

17There is another parallel between the staging of A Game at Chess and the modern sporting contest that may be worth noting. Despite the use of a rudimentary framing device in the Induction, the game of chess in Error’s dream or vision is not actually being played by two contestants external to the play-space, that is, the chessboard. This constitutes a minor anomaly in the literary tradition that commonly makes readers or audiences onlookers at a contest between two players who control the space of play, for example the chess game between Dame Fortune and the Man in Black in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, or the scene in Shakespeare’s Tempest with which we began, or the game of chess played by the two widows in Middleton’s own play Women Beware Women. Chess is indeed played by human pieces on a chequered tapestry carpet in Rabelais’s Cinquième Livre (1564: indebted in turn to the “chess ballet” witnessed in a dream in Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, 1499), but the episode is part of a narrative description.29 Middleton’s debt to Rabelais is reasonably certain: his own chess competence may not have been of the highest order, but he used Arthur Saul’s The Famous Game of Chesse Play, and was obviously aware, both of chess’s status as a “kingly pastime”, and as lending itself to moral or allegorical readings, for example in Jacobus de Cessolis’s thirteenth-century political treatise, the Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium ac popularium super ludo scachorum, printed in an English translation by William Caxton as The Game and Playe of the Chesse (1474; and 1483, with woodcuts added), or Girolamo Vida’s Virgilian epic, Scacchia Ludus (1527), among many others.30

  • 31 All citations of the play-text are from the Oxford Middleton: A Game at Chess, A Later Form, p. 182 (...)
  • 32 See the letter of John Holles, reproduced and discussed in T. H. Howard-Hill, “The Unique Eye-Witne (...)

18But Middleton’s play does not present the chess-game as an inset moral exemplum, it allows the whole of the stage space to be taken over by the game: “What of the game called chess-play can be made / To make a stage-play shall this day be played” (A Game at Chess, Prologue 1-2).31 As John Holles put it in his unique eye-witness report of Middleton’s “vulgar pasquin”, “The whole play is a chess board, England y[e] whyt hows, Spayn y[e] black: one of y[e] white pawns, wth an vnder black dubblett, signifying a Spanish hart, betrays his party to their aduantage, aduanceth Gundomars propositions, works vnder hand y[e] Princes cumming into Spayn.”32 Yet Gary Taylor, in his edition of the play, is convinced that there is an “invisible hand” moving the pieces:

  • 33 Oxford Middleton, p. 1828.

Most remarkably, the play even manages to stage invisibility. Who is moving the pieces in A Game at Chess? They believe they are free agents, making their own moves, but the very conceit of a chess game implies the existence of at least one, usually two, players. We cannot see any, but does that mean they do not exist? “You may deny so / A dial’s motion, cause you cannot see / The hand move, or a wind that rends the cedar” (1.1.292–4).33

  • 34 Ibid., p. 168-169.
  • 35 Paul Yachnin, “Playing with Space: Making A Public in Middleton's Theatre”, The Oxford Handbook of (...)

19This notion of an “invisible hand” would presumably read the play within the traditional Morality paradigm of a contest between the Devil, or Antichrist, on the Spanish side, and the forces of Providential history backing England. I am not sure that this reading does justice to Middleton’s conscious, bold decision to convert the entire stage-space to a chess-board, and give agency to his actors. Holles’s letter to the Earl of Somerset, describing how he received news of this “facetious comedy”, rowed up to the Globe on Bankside, “so thronged, y[t] by scores y[ei] came away for want of place, though as yet little past one”, and witnessed the performance, drawn as much by his “appetite” for theatre as by his curiosity and desire to serve as a political reporter, conveys his sense of three kinds of space: first, the public spaces of men and movement, of information and reportage that brings him to the Globe, second, the crowded space of the theatre where he is an eager “auditor”, and third, the space of the stage itself, devised like a chess-board.34 Yachnin, commenting on Middleton’s “spatial innovations” in A Game at Chess, sees it as rewriting “the conflict between Catholic Europe and Protestant England, traditionally understood as part of apocalyptic history, in geopolitical terms”, thus opening “courtly politics and providentialist history to critical analysis by redescribing them in the spatial terms of chess play.”35

20While this description undoubtedly fits the play’s political meanings, it does not help us to understand how the space of the stage is taken over by the logic of the game, converting the play’s audience – its public – into spectators at a supremely intense, high-stakes match. This is distinct from the adroit management of the fictional autonomy of stage-space in Middleton’s earlier plays, offering representations of both private and public behaviours to theatre audiences. In A Game at Chess, the on-stage actors, inhabiting that fictional autonomy, are also enclosed within the bubble of game-space, playing against each other in an arena – the chessboard – that makes the nation its putative audience. At the same time, since the nation is obviously not in the theatre, the “public” that knows itself to be there, the throng of which Holles becomes part, stands possessed of two kinds of knowledge. On the one hand there is a public rehearsal of state secrets that are – in August 1624 – open secrets, with an inevitable exaggeration and distortion that clearly disturbs Holles, and leads him to conclude that the players must have powerful friends:

  • 36 See T. H. Howard-Hill, “The Unique Eye-Witness Report”, art.cit., p. 170.

surely y[es] gamsters must haue a good retrayte, else dared y[ei] not to charge thus Princes actions, & ministers, nay their intents: a foule iniury to Spayn, [& no] [no] great honor to England, rebus sic stantibus: euery particular will beare a large paraphrase, w[ch] I submit to your better iudgment.’36

  • 37 See D. Starza Smith, op.cit., p. 67-71 on the unusual leniency with which players and playwright we (...)

On the other hand, the logic of the game pre-empts history by producing winners and losers, in a way that history could never do. As an act of political theatre, A Game at Chess has its own stake in forming public opinion: by adroitly exploiting political rivalries to gain stupendous financial success, it might even be described as “gaming” the patronage system.37 But as a play, and a play that presents itself as a game, it declares its own inconsequentiality: it is bound by, or limited to, the chess-board space on which it is acted.

Cheating and Gambling

  • 38 Richard Ryan, in his Dramatic table talk: or, Scenes, situations, & adventures, serious & comic, in (...)

21Middleton’s sole metatextual concessions are the Prologue and the Induction, which make Error and Ignatius Loyola observers of the action, but not actual players. In fact, only the chess-pieces are players: to be a player is to be in the game. This makes the characters better able to satisfy the historical allegory, in which agency belongs to the actors, rather than to some hypothetical deus ex machina.38 It allows us, also, to see rule-breaking and high stakes as belonging within, rather than outside the game-world: not as violations of game-rules perpetrated by “players” moving the pieces, but by the pieces themselves. When Ignatius Loyola declares that if he had been the Black Bishop’s pawn, he would have cut the Bishop’s throat and seduced the Black Queen, he is imagining himself in the game, not as controlling it from outside. Error reminds him that to do so would be “against the rule of game”, that is, it would be playing against his “side”, to which the Jesuitical answer is that the goal of world dominion cannot be achieved by obeying rules: the ruler is obeyed, he does not obey:

Error: Why, would you have ’em play against themselves?
That’s quite against the rule of game, Ignatius.
Ignatius Loyola: Push! I would rule myself, not observe rule.
Error: Why then you’d play a game all by yourself.
Ignatius Loyola: I would do anything to rule alone.
It’s rare to have the world reined in by one.
Error: See ’em anon, and mark ’em in their play.
Observe: as in a dance they glide away.
[Exeunt both houses]
Ignatius Loyola: O with what longings will this breast be tossed
Until I see this great game won and lost.
[Exeunt]
(A Game at Chess, Induction, ll. 69-78)

  • 39 On the “moral panic” over the Jesuit mission in post-Reformation England see Alexandra Walsham, “Th (...)
  • 40 Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, trans. George Schwab, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005, (...)
  • 41 Jean Bodin, Les six livres de la République, ed. Christian Frémont, Marie-Dominique Couzinet, and H (...)
  • 42 Six Livres, vol. I, p. 191, p. 194. Six Bookes, p. 91, “And that is it for which the law saith, Tha (...)

22While Error cuts Loyola short, announcing the start of play, Loyola’s longings remain a powerful controlling motive in the game, establishing its central concern with winning and losing. Loyola’s explicit willingness to break the rules and cheat in order to “rule alone” points to some major concerns: first, does one play by the rules or subvert them, and second, does one play for one’s side, or against it? What comes through in Loyola’s statement of intent (“I would rule myself, not observe rule”) is a quibble on ruling versus rules, or sovereignty versus law. The sovereign rules, but the game is bound by rules. Summoned up on Middleton’s stage as long-dead founder and Superior-General of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius Loyola clearly places himself and his dream of universal dominion far above any temporal authority, such as a monarch.39 The language he uses, however, is the language of sovereignty. As Carl Schmitt was the first to recognise, it was Jean Bodin who worked out for European jurisprudence the powers of the sovereign in respect to law.40 In his Six livres de la République (1583), Bodin laid down a cardinal principle of Renaissance absolutism, that the sovereign is not bound by his own laws: “La souveraineté est la puissance absoluë et perpetuelle d’une Republique, que les Latins appellent ‘majestatem’”.41 The sovereign has the power to make laws, but in himself he is legibus solutus, “acquitted from the power of the lawes” or released from any obligation to obey the positive laws of the state: “C’est pourquoy la loy dit, que le Prince est absous de la puissance des loix.” Therefore, “Et par ainsi nostre maxime demeure, que le Prince n’est point subject à ses loix, ni aux loix de ses predecesseurs. ”42

  • 43 See T.H. Howard-Hill, “The Unique Eye-Witness Report”, art.cit., p. 169.
  • 44 On this, see Michael Questier, “Loyalty, Religion and State Power in Early Modern England: English (...)

23Located in a space outside the play, but threatening to invade and take it over, Loyola’s absolutist ambition exceeds and overwrites the rules of the game. In that respect, it cannot strictly be regarded as cheating, but rather as claiming the power to over-rule. That this desire is illicit is obvious from the way in which the Jesuit supremo is shown as allied with Error (John Holles thought that the figure of Error was one of Ignatius’ disciples).43 It is surely important that Loyola does not actually mention the Pope or the Church of Rome, institutions that might credibly have disputed “authority” in Jacobean England, especially since the furore over the 1606 Oath of Allegiance, condemned by the Pope as contrary to faith and salvation, and requiring an anonymous “defence” by James through his Triplici Nodo, Triplex Cuneus: or, An Apologie for the Oath of Allegiance (1607/1608).44 By making Ignatius Loyola express a desire to “rule alone,” Middleton feeds, not simply anti-Catholic sentiment, but a much more potent vein of anti-Jesuitical prejudice and fear-mongering in his audience.

24Whatever the personal ambition attributed to Ignatius Loyola, John Holles had no doubts regarding the play’s purpose:

  • 45 See T. H. Howard-Hill, “The Unique Eye-Witness Report”, art.cit., p. 169.

y[e] descant was built uppon y[e] popular opinion, y[t] y[e] Iesuits mark is to bring all y[e] christian world vnder Rome for y[e] spirituality, & vnder Spayn for y[e] temporalty.45

The stated objective of the Black Bishop, the Jesuit Father-General, is to establish “th’universal monarchy, which he / And his disciples principally aim at.” (51-52). Within the game, or the play’s world of action, the Jesuits – the Black Bishop, the Black Bishop’s Pawn, and the Black Queen’s Pawn – will cheat unscrupulously to achieve this end. They are not alone in choosing such means. Tellingly, the standard encomium to chess as the royal game, a commonplace of sixteenth and seventeenth century manuals, is actually pronounced, in the Induction to A Game at Chess, by Error, who describes it as “noblest game of all, a game at chess” (Induction, 42). Not only does this misrepresent the play of intrigue and falsehood we are to witness, but Error’s emphasis upon the clear demarcation of sides in chess by the colour-coding of black and white (“both the sides are met;/ The houses well distinguished,” 4-5) is belied by more than one traitorous allegiance of white to black, and dissembling in both houses.

25What in an actual chess-game might simply have been poor play, with White being out-manoeuvred by Black’s superior game-craft, or vice versa, is specifically presented to us as treachery, or, in gaming terms, cheating. Middleton’s human agents, for all that their names are derived from their playing identities, stand possessed of a form of interiority. Some of them are white outside, black inside, like the White King’s Pawn and the Fat Bishop of Spalato. This is a dimension that the chess-piece, trapped by its colour and function, lacks: it is also how the act of cheating can be rendered as a visual metaphor. Given the absence of an external hand playing the game and making a “false move,” the piece itself must be invested with fraudulent intent.

  • 46 See H. J. R. Murray, A History of Chess, p. 557-558, for examples from MS. Corpus Christi Coll., 29 (...)

26Accusations of cheating had long been part of chess lore, particularly in the medieval morality tradition where the Devil and Fortune are routinely accused of playing false in order to trick human beings into submission.46 In one instance cited by H. J. R. Murray, the worldly character of the game is itself proof of the corrupt intentions it embodies:

  • 47 See H. J. R. Murray, ibid., p. 535. On the bag in which the several estates are jumbled up together (...)

The world resembles a game of chess in which the whole familia runs aslant to seize some temporal advantage by lies, deceit, and usury. Moreover, so long as the game continues, one is King, another Knight, and so on. One or two appear to rule the whole game, but when it comes to an end, the same thing happens to King and soldier alike and to the least of the familia, because they are all thrown together into the bag, and sometimes the King is at the bottom while the least of the familia is on top.47

  • 48 See P. Yachnin, “’A Game at Chess’”, art.cit., p. 318.

27There is no specified instance in Middleton’s play of a piece being moved when the opposing side’s attention is distracted, or of a double move contrary to the rules of the game. At the same time, chess-conventions are decisively contravened when the Fat Bishop of Spalato crosses sides from the White to the Black house, and stays on stage for a substantial further period, in his black garb. Even if we were to assume that (like the White King’s Pawn) he was simply guilty of assisting the opposing side (and that his change of sides is effectively a surrender, i.e., that he is “taken”), his further appearance as a black-garbed Bishop cannot be explained by any rule. Moreover, victory in A Game at Chess is not the result of a particularly brilliant example of chess-play (Paul Yachnin may be right in assessing Middleton’s overall command of the game as indifferent), but of contesting duplicities that the formal grammar of chess can barely contain.48

28At the close of the first Act, we learn that the White King’s Counsellor Pawn is actually the Black side’s man: he declares to the Black Knight, Gondomar, that: “You see my outside, but you know my heart, knight; / Great difference in the colour” (1. 1. 316-317). But his treachery will be repaid in kind by the Black Knight, since in the final calculation he is just a pawn, to be sacrificed as needed: “Poor Jesuit-ridden soul, how art thou fooled/ Out of thy faith, from thy allegiance drawn/ Which way soe’er thou tak’st, thou’rt a lost pawn” (1. 1. 329-331). In gaming terms, this means that the White King’s Counsellor Pawn, capable of moving diagonally into the third row to defend the King, Queen and Bishop of the White House, is taken and eventually placed in the bag (identified with Hell) by the Black Knight, Gondomar (Act 3, Scene 1), thus exposing both Queen and Bishop to danger. The Black Knight brags that his whiteness was pure hypocrisy, since inwardly, he was black:

  • 49 The White King’s Pawn is what Howard-Hill calls a synthetic character, modelled initially on Sir To (...)

Black Knight Gondomar : See what sure piece you lock your confidence in.
I made this Pawn here by corruption ours,
As soon as honour by creation yours.
This whiteness upon him is but the leprosy
Of pure dissimulation. View him now. (3. 1. 258-262)
49

  • 50 Taylor suggests that he is also a synthetic figure, an amalgam of the vices of several contemporary (...)

29This climactic moment of discovery in Act III is then further compounded by the open crossing of sides by one of the White Bishops, the Fat Bishop of Spalato, who declares: “Bear witness all the House, I am the man/ And turn myself into the Black House freely” (3. 1. 290-291). This character, unequivocally identified as Marc Antonio de Dominis, the apostate Archbishop of Spalato in Dalmatia who subsequently reconverted to Catholicism and left England in 1622, to languish in an Inquisition prison, was an addition in the play’s later version. Given that he has already changed sides once, from black to white, and then does so again, he is obviously in contravention of the laws of chess, especially because he remains on stage after changing sides, and is finally taken by the White Bishop of Canterbury (4. 4. 70-71), an impossible move if he were actually a White piece.50 (One solution to this problem might be that he is actually a Black piece who masquerades as White for part of the play: even so this constitutes a visual paradox). The only character who steadfastly retains her virtue and does not dissemble is the White Queen’s Pawn, but even she is party to the bed-trick whereby the Jesuit Black Queen’s Pawn takes her place with the Jesuit Black Bishop’s Pawn (4. 3). The White Duke of Buckingham describes their adversary in the game as the devil: “Sir, all the gins, traps, and alluring snares / The devil has been at work since ’88 on / Are laid for the great hope of this game only” (4. 4. 5-7), but the moral texture of the play is irremediably sullied (“white quickly soils, you know,” says the White Pawn, Addl. Passages, p. 1884).

  • 51 R. A. Davies and A. R. Young, art.cit., p. 239-245.
  • 52 See Taylor’s illustration for the endgame in Oxford Middleton, p. 1881.

30In their essay on “Strange Cunning in Middleton’s A Game at Chess,” Davies and Young argued that the play is in fact a web of dissimulation on all sides, and Middleton’s irony allows for little distinction between Black and White houses.51 At the close, when the White Knight Charles announces the defeat of the Black house with the “taking” of the Black Knight and the Black King (“We give thee checkmate by / Discovery, King—the noblest mate of all:” 5. 3. 160-161), he has also drawn them into the trap by declaring that “I’m an arch-dissembler, sir” (5. 3. 145). The “trap” represents Charles and Buckingham’s trip to Spain in 1623, when their protracted, unsuccessful negotiations placed them at a decided disadvantage, and they only narrowly escaped after six frustrating months. The trip is converted in Middleton’s fiction to a chess gambit, with White Knight (Charles) and White Duke (i.e. White Rook, Buckingham) staking everything on a perilous sortie into the Black house. The endgame shows both of them on the very last row, with the White Knight moving back to take the Black Knight, leaving the Black King exposed to the White Duke.52

  • 53 The Jesuits Edmund Campion and Henry Garnett were both accused of dissembling. At the trial of Fath (...)

31While it is true that cunning is part of chess and does not necessarily imply cheating, Middleton allows little room for equivocation on this matter by using the term “dissembler”, routinely employed to slander the Jesuits.53 Charles’s assertion that he is an “arch-dissembler” forms part of a lengthy “claiming” of royal vices that is reminiscent of the trial scene between Malcolm and Macduff in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and produces a paradox. If he is not guilty of the crimes that he acknowledges, in claiming them he has dissembled royally, better than his opponents. When Charles accuses the Black Knight Gondomar and Black King Felipe of “Ambitious, covetous, luxurious falsehood!” the Duke of Buckingham adds “Dissembler! — that includes all” (5. 3. 163-164). The slur cannot fail to resonate beyond the Black house. The cunning dissimulation of the Machiavel turns out to be the ruling principle in the game, despite the fact that it is Gondomar who is described as “the mightiest machiavel politician / That e’er the devil hatched of a nun’s egg” (5. 3. 205-206). In fact, Acts 4 and 5 play out as a series of astounding claims of corruption and double-dealing by both sides, Black and White, with James ultimately embracing Charles, in an outrageously comic finale, as “Truth’s glorious masterpiece” (5. 3. 168). In politics as in chess, Middleton seems to be saying, it is the fox’s attribute of mêtis, cunning intelligence, that enables victory, and his heroes, Charles and Buckingham, are no less Machiavellian than the Jesuits whose plots they deplore.

  • 54 See Gary Taylor, “Forms of Opposition: Shakespeare and Middleton”, English Literary Renaissance, 24 (...)

32Cheating and rule-breaking in A Game at Chess – the most obvious instances of dissembling being shown visually, with white pieces turning out to be black – naturally raise the issue of how rules work in games, and it is no accident that this problem is highlighted in the Induction by the Jesuit Ignatius Loyola. If the game were no more than its rules, cheating would have no place in it; if politics were no more than principle, the Machiavellian would be out of business. In his essay “Forms of Opposition,” written as long ago as 1993, but endorsed in his Oxford Middleton edition of the text, Gary Taylor argued that A Game at Chess is about the nature and use of obedience: it projects obedience as a virtue liable to being misused, particularly by those who demand obedience from others, but do not play by the rules themselves.54 The Jesuit Black Bishop’s Pawn, trying to seduce the Virgin White Queen’s Pawn, successfully draws from her a commitment to virtuous obedience:

To that good work I bow, and will become
Obedience’ humblest daughter, since I find
Th’assistance of a sacred strength to aid me,
The labour is as easy to serve virtue
The right way, since it’s she I ever served
In my desire, though I transgressed in judgement. (1. 1. 91-96)

  • 55 G. Taylor, “Forms of Opposition”, art.cit., p. 307.

33“Obedience,” says Taylor, “is the language of the Black House, and particularly of the Jesuits, ‘the sons and daughters of obedience’ (4. 1. 8).”55 Taylor goes on to argue that the duty of obedience was one of the main bones of contention between Catholic and Protestant apologists in England, and cites both Robert Persons and Robert Southwell on the superior obedience of Catholics as compared to Protestants:

  • 56 Leo Hicks, ed., Letters and Memorials of Father Robert Parsons, S.J., Leeds, Catholic Record Societ (...)

And that obedience which they [Christians] owe to their sovereign we inculcate not less but truly much more than does any of the Protestants. For we preach that princes should be obeyed not merely for fear of punishment or for the sake of avoiding scandal but for conscience sake as well.56

  • 57 G. Taylor, 'Forms of Opposition,' art.cit., p. 305-306.

34In short, says Taylor, “Counter-Reformation ideology emphasized obedience, even to political authorities hostile to Catholicism,” and “justified the political absolutism of late seventeenth century France, Austria, and Spain.”57 For Taylor, this contrast between Catholics and Protestants becomes a means for pointing a contrast between Shakespeare (a crypto-Catholic by most contemporary estimations including those of Taylor and Stephen Greenblatt), and Middleton, on the balance of evidence a moderate Puritan. To cut a long argument short, Shakespeare is for obedience, as shown by the panegyric on order in Henry V (1. 2. 183-204); Middleton is against it, as shown by the strange cunning by which the White Queen’s Pawn is urged to prove her obedience by kissing (traitorously) the Black Bishop’s Pawn. The White Queen’s Pawn (whom Taylor contrasts with the “tamed” Kate in Shrew), solicited by all kinds of fraud and guile to prostitute herself, refuses to become ‘a whore of order’ (5. 3. 113), while Shakespeare puts all his eloquence and energy into establishing patriarchal and monarchical order:

  • 58 Ibid., p. 307. Taylor cites several passages from the play: 'Amongst the daughters of men I have no (...)

Where Shakespeare celebrates an expansionist imperialism, founded upon a naturalized obedience, Middleton is terrified of the Black House’s designs to create a ‘universal monarchy’ founded upon a denaturalized obedience.58

  • 59 Ibid., p. 308. On the move from faction to ideology see Oxford Middleton, p. 1774.

35The specific English historical context to this dramatic critique is the 1622 reprinting of the Book of Homilies, including the homily on obedience, and James’s own poem, written around this time, advising his subjects to “hold your pratling spare your penn / Bee honest and obedient men.” Taylor’s larger argument, that A Game at Chess is indeed a kind of “oppositional drama,” though not in Margot Heinemann’s sense, and that Middleton is advocating a “politics of ideology” as opposed to a “politics of faction,” is thus summed up: “If an interpreter of A Game of Chess were to ask, ‘To what is this work opposed?’, one of the answers would have to be ‘Obedience.’”59

  • 60 G. Taylor, “Forms of Opposition”, art. cit., p. 314.

36Taylor’s argument is eloquently phrased, and has the advantage of presenting Middleton as a Puritan dissenter commenting fearlessly on contemporary politics, and Shakespeare as a writer never at odds with authority (satisfying Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicist model of self-contained subversion). With a flourish, he declares: “In the literary kingdom Shakespeare is king; Middleton remains in opposition.”60 But there are some real difficulties in making this model fit the play Middleton actually wrote, with its rendering of the chess-game. If obedience can be taken as an adherence to rules, the Black House is clearly inclined to break them: to equivocate, to dissemble, and to cheat. Its adherents are traitors like the White King’s Counsellor Pawn and the Fat Bishop of Spalato, whom the audience knows to be doubly apostate. The founder of the Jesuit order starts the play off by saying that he would like to break all the rules and “rule alone.” While this might simply be a way of saying that the obedience of Catholics is a fake, pretended virtue that is inwardly corrupted by their deviant and reprobate natures, the fact remains that the play does not appear to be advocating ideological resistance to royally enforced obedience.

  • 61 The Two Books of Homilies appointed to be read in Churches, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1859, (...)

37If Middleton is reflecting upon obedience, he is more likely to be thinking of the Oath of Allegiance that James sought so controversially to enforce in 1606, and which was resisted (or “disobeyed”) by Catholics, and the reprinting of the Homily on Obedience in 1622, calling upon all his subjects to obey the temporal authority of kings and magistrates. The Homily stated: “Therefore let vs all feare the most detestable vice of rebellion, euer knowing and remembring, that he that resisteth or withstandeth common authority, resisteth or withstandeth GOD and his ordenance.”61 Charles and Buckingham are unlikely heroes of the resistance, and while they certainly employ dissimulation to gain victory in the game, they are by no means leading a popular rebellion, one based on ideology rather than faction. Instead, they might congratulate themselves on having foiled knavish plots in order to earn a rightful victory using the “laws of the game,” and achieving the noblest mate of all, a checkmate by discovery.

38This brings us at last to the question of what is staked in the game, which is certainly an instance of “deep play” in Geertz’s modified sense: not only a game in which the players are in ‘over their heads’, but also one in which status, even more than wealth, is at stake. For Gondomar and the Black House, what is staked on the game’s outcome is “the business of the universal monarchy” – of Spain as the temporal power and of Rome as the spiritual power, backed by the Jesuits and their “great college pot / That should be always boiling with the fuel / Of all intelligences possible / Thorough the Christian kingdoms.” (1. 1. 245-248). Gondomar and his 20,985 plots, his brain like a globe crowded with places and events, is the play’s major instance of a gambler playing for high stakes:

Was it not I procured a gallant fleet
From the White Kingdom to secure our coasts
’Gainst th’infidel pirate, under pretext
Of more necessitous expedition?
Who made the jails fly open, without miracle,
And let the locusts out—those dangerous flies
Whose property is to burn corn with touching?
The heretic granaries feel it to this minute,
And now they’ve got amongst the country crops
They stick so fast to the converted ears
The loudest tempest that authority rouses
Will hardly shake ’em off. (3. 1. 87-98)

39But in the end Charles and Buckingham show themselves equally able to stake everything upon their sole chance to win outright, by making their dangerous foray into Black territory. At this point, by the logic of the game, they are as likely to lose all they possess as much as to gain a victory. Middleton’s representation of this adventure, already nearly a year old, makes the foiling of Spain, rather than the gaining of a bride, the prize in this high-stakes combat. In doing so he deliberately eschews the romance schema of erotic quest. Despite the sexual snares that are spread thickly on the ground of the plot, the play is driven, not by erotic desire, but by the game-logic of defeating an opponent and redeeming the status that has been politically, socially, staked.

40It is worth remembering that for all that A Game at Chess may be feeding into pro-war sentiment in the 1620s, and advancing Buckingham’s political plans, its plot – the chess-game – actually represents events that have taken place the previous year. In that respect, the play is not really changing the course of political history. Representing history as a game, it attempts to provide a sort of lesson for contemporary war games. At the close of the play, the White Knight, Charles, returns to the game analogy – or metaphor – that has, like all games, provided both entertainment and edification to his audience:

White Knight Charles: As ’twas a game, sir,
Won with much hazard, so with much more triumph
We gave him checkmate by discovery, sir.
White King James: Obscurity is now the fittest favour
Falsehood can sue for. It well suits perdition.
It’s their best course that so have lost their fame
To put their heads into the bag for shame. (5. 3. 173-178)

41There is, I would like to suggest, a highly deliberate “defusing” of the political allegory here. Charles asserts that what the audience and the King have witnessed, even participated in, is no more than a game, an exercise of wit in which the better player has won. James proposes that the defeated opponents be quickly consigned to oblivion, so that their comic catastrophe, jumbling King, Pawn, Bishop and Knight together in the dark vacuity of the bag where the chess pieces are kept, serves as an apt mark both of perdition and of shame. Despite the high stakes for which the game has been played, despite the consistently unedifying display of cheating and falsehood it has brought out in virtually every participant, the game exists, in some sense, in and for itself. Its end confirms the winners in their triumph, the losers in their disgrace – within the game-world. The game has also been a gamble for Middleton and the King’s Men: they have played with the odds of high financial and cultural returns against the chances of arrest and imprisonment, and they have gauged the odds successfully, staking their lives and liberties, but gaining huge profits. When Middleton writes to James from prison, after the play is done and he has unfortunately failed to escape punishment, he falls back upon the game-metaphor as a protection against the harsher lessons of politics, begging James to “use but his royal hand” to make a gaming move and rescue a mere pawn.

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Notes

1 All citations of this play from William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. V. M. Vaughan and A. T. Vaughan, Arden 3rd Series, Walton-on-Thames, Thomas Nelson, 1999.

2 William Poole, “False Play: Shakespeare and Chess”, Shakespeare Quarterly, 55.1, Spring 2004, p. 50-70, here p. 50, citing Arthur Saul, augmented by John Barbier, The famous game of Chesse-play, London, Bar: Alsop for Roger Jackson, 1618, sig. E5r.

3 Margaret Jones-Davies, “L’échiquier et Médée : deux points de controverse dans The Tempest”, Études Anglaises 46.4, 1993, 447-51, here p. 448. See also, Jones-Davies, “The Chess Game and Prospero’s Epilogue in The Tempest”, Notes and Queries, 260.1, March 2015, p. 118-20.

4 There are five early MS copies of this poem. Two are reproduced in Thomas Middleton, The Collected Works, ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 1895. All further citations of Middleton’s texts are from this edition, henceforth cited as Oxford Middleton.

5 Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”, Daedalus, 101.1, Winter 1972, p. 1-37, here p. 23.

6 Ibid., p. 24-25.

7 Ibid., p. 15-16, citing Jeremy Bentham on “the evils of deep play”, in Theory of Legislation (1789), trans. R. Hildreth, London, Trübner, 1864, p. 106n. The phrase “deep play” is common in seventeenth and eighteenth century gambling culture, used by the rake Dorimant to Harriet in Etherege’s play The Man of Mode (1676), where the rake Dorimant tells Harriet that “I have been us’d to deep Play, but I can make one/ At small Game, when I like my Gamester well’: a libertine play on words picking up the sexual innuendo of Harriet’s reference to women who “engage/ For all they are worth” (in George Etherege, The Man of Mode, London, J. Macock for Henry Herringman, 1684, Act III Scene 3, p. 40).

8 C. Geertz, art.cit., p. 11 and 15.

9 C. Geertz, art.cit., p. 16.

10 For a review, see Berry Tholen (2018), “Bridging the gap between research traditions: on what we can really learn from Clifford Geertz”, Critical Policy Studies, 12.3, 2018, p. 335-349.

11 See Gary Taylor, introduction to “A Game at Chess. A Later Form”, in Oxford Middleton, p. 1825.

12 G. Taylor, introduction to “A Game at Chess. An Early Form”, in Oxford Middleton, p. 1773.

13 “House of Lords Journal Volume 3: 27 February 1624”, in Journal of the House of Lords: Volume 3, 1620-1628, London, 1767-1830, p. 219-235. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/lords-jrnl/vol3/pp219-235 [accessed 4 September 2020].

14 Thomas Cogswell, “Thomas Middleton and the Court, 1624: ‘A Game at Chess’ in Context”, Huntington Library Quarterly, 47.4, 1984, p. 273-288, here p. 284, and p. 286, note 19, letter of Beaulieu to Trumbull, 5 March 1624, Trumbull MSS, Berkshire Record Office, Downshire Deposit, Alphabetical Series VII, no. 151. See also Jerzy Limon, Dangerous Matter: English Drama and Politics in 1623/24, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 98-129.

15 T. Cogswell, art cit., p. 285, and p. 281, quoting a contemporary witness, John Woolley, on the general belief that the play could not have passed the Master of the Revels, Sir Henry Herbert, “without leave from the higher powers, I meane the Prince and Duke if not from the King”; see p. 287, note 33, letter of Woolley to Trumbull, 20 August 1624, Trumbull MSS, XLVIII, No. 136. Woolley also reported the rumour of a private royal performance, see T. Cogswell, art cit., p. 281 and p. 287, note 34, Woolley to Trumbull, 28 August 1624, Trumbull MSS, XLVIII, No. 137. He noted the leniency shown both players and playwright: ‘assuredly had so much ben donne the last yeare, they had every one ben hanged for it’; p. 281, p. 287, note 37, Woolley to Trumbull, 6 August 1624, Trumbull MSS, XLVII, No. 134.

16 Daniel Starza Smith, John Donne and the Conway Papers: Patronage and Manuscript Circulation in the Early Seventeenth Century, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 75-77.

17 Ibid., p. 70-71, citing T. H. Howard-Hill, “Political Interpretations of Middleton’s A Game at Chess (1624)”, Yearbook of English Studies, 21, 1991, p. 282-283; for “patriot” coalition see T. Cogswell, art. cit. p. 281 and note 32, p. 287, pointing out that “The use of the term ‘patriot’ to describe the war faction in 1624 comes from Secretary Conway; see, for example, Conway to Carlton, Whitehall, 16 April 1624, SP 84/117.”

18 The phrase is used by J. Dover Wilson, The Library, Fourth Series, 11, 1930, p. 110-112, here p. 110.

19 T. H. Howard-Hill, “Political Interpretations”, art. cit., p. 285; G. Taylor, “A Game at Chess: An Early Form”, in Oxford Middleton, p. 1777. For fuller expositions, see T. H. Howard-Hill, Middleton's ‘Vulgar Pasquin’: Essays on A Game at Chess, Newark, University of Delaware Press, 1995, and Gary Taylor, “Forms of Opposition: Shakespeare and Middleton”, English Literary Renaissance, 24:2, Spring 1994, p. 283-314. The idea of A Game at Chess as “oppositional drama” had been proposed by Margot Heinemann in Puritanism and Theatre: Thomas Middleton and Opposition Drama under the Early Stuarts, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1980.

20 See Robert E. Shimp, “A Catholic Marriage for an Anglican Prince”, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, 50.1, March 1981, p. 3-18.

21 Ian Munro, “Making Publics: Secrecy and Publication in A Game at Chess, Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, 14, 2001, p. 207-26, here p. 209, and see also p. 212-214; he refers to Robert Weimann, Authority and Representation in Early Modern Discourse, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, and Alexandra Halasz, The Marketplace of Print: Pamphlets and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997. For the “public sphere”, see Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1989, p. 207–208.

22 G. Taylor, Oxford Middleton, p. 1776.

23 See Catherine Rockwell, “Know thy side: Propaganda and parody in Jonson’s Staple of News”, English Literary History 75, 2008, p. 135–149, here p. 146.

24 Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics”, Public Culture 14.1, 2002, p. 49-90, here p. 49-50. This article is an abridged version of the title chapter of Publics and Counterpublics, New York, Zone Books, 2002.

25 See Bronwen Wilson and Paul Yachnin, eds., Making Publics in Early Modern Europe, New York, Routledge, 2010; Paul Yachnin, “Playing with space: making a public in Middleton’s theatre”, in The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton, ed. Gary Taylor and Trish Thomas Henley, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 32–46; and Stephen Wittek, “Middleton’s A Game at Chess and the Making of a Theatrical Public”, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 55.2, Spring 2015, p. 423-446.

26 Pierre Bourdieu, “How can one be a sportsman?”, in Sociology in Question, trans. Richard Nice, London, Sage, 1995, p. 117-131, here p. 120.

27 See John McClelland, Body and Mind: Sport in Europe from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance, London, Routledge, 2007; Bernard Merdrignac, Le sport au Moyen Âge, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2002. There is a growing literature on early modern sport.

28 M. Warner, art.cit., p. 50.

29 François Rabelais, Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Guy Demerson, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1973, ch. 23-24, p. 846-854; Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, ed. G. Pozzi and L. A. Ciapponi, Padua, Editrice Antenore, 1964, 2 vols, vol. 1, p. 111-112.

30 The tradition, and Middleton’s debts, have been extensively discussed. Many literary instances are described in H. J. R. Murray, A History of Chess, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1913. Middleton’s knowledge of chess and use of sources are discussed in, e.g., J. R. Moore, “The Contemporary Significance of Middleton’s Game at Chess”, PMLA 50, September 1935, p. 764-766; R. A. Davies and A. R. Young, “Strange Cunning in Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess”, University of Toronto Quarterly, 45.3, Spring 1976, p. 236-245, and Paul Yachnin, “A Game at Chess and Chess Allegory”, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 22.2, Spring 1982, p. 317-330.

31 All citations of the play-text are from the Oxford Middleton: A Game at Chess, A Later Form, p. 1825-85.

32 See the letter of John Holles, reproduced and discussed in T. H. Howard-Hill, “The Unique Eye-Witness Report of Middleton's A Game at Chess”, The Review of English Studies, New Series, 42.166, May, 1991, p. 168-178, here p. 169.

33 Oxford Middleton, p. 1828.

34 Ibid., p. 168-169.

35 Paul Yachnin, “Playing with Space: Making A Public in Middleton's Theatre”, The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton, ed. Gary Taylor and Trish Thomas Henley, 2012, online at www.oxfordhandbooks.com © Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 1-17, here p. 2 (accessed 24 September 2020).

36 See T. H. Howard-Hill, “The Unique Eye-Witness Report”, art.cit., p. 170.

37 See D. Starza Smith, op.cit., p. 67-71 on the unusual leniency with which players and playwright were treated.

38 Richard Ryan, in his Dramatic table talk: or, Scenes, situations, & adventures, serious & comic, in theatrical history & biography, Volume 1, London, John Knight and Henry Lacey, 1825, p.15, slips into the more familiar trope of a game played between two players external to the chess-board: ‘the game was played, as we are told by Langbaine, between one of the Church of England, and one of the Church of Rome, in the presence of Ignatius Loyola.’ But Langbaine describes it as a contest, not between two individuals, but between the Church of England and the Catholic Church (instead of England and Spain). See Gerard Langbaine, An account of the English dramatick poets, or, Some observations and remarks on the lives and writings of all those that have publish'd either comedies, tragedies, tragi-comedies, pastorals, masques, interludes, farces or opera's in the English tongue, Oxford, printed by L. L. for George West and Henry Clements, 1691, p. 372, “Game at Chess; sundry times acted at the Globe on the Bank-side, printed 4o. Lond. 16— This Play is consonant to the Title, where the Game is play'd between the Church of England, and that of Rome; Ignatius Loyola being Spectator, the former in the End, gaining the Victory.”

39 On the “moral panic” over the Jesuit mission in post-Reformation England see Alexandra Walsham, “This new army of Satan: The Jesuit Mission and the formation of public opinion”, in her Catholic Reformation in Protestant Britain, London, Routledge, 2014, p. 315-338.

40 Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, trans. George Schwab, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 8.

41 Jean Bodin, Les six livres de la République, ed. Christian Frémont, Marie-Dominique Couzinet, and Henri Rochais, Paris, Fayard, 1986, 6 vols: text based on 10th edition of Lyons printed by Gabriel Cartier, 1593, which I have compared with the edition printed at Paris by Jacques du Puys in 1583; vol. I, p. 179-80. See Jean Bodin, The Six bookes of a Commonweale, trans. by Richard Knolles, London, G. Bishop, 1606, p. 84: “Maiestie or Soueraingtie is the most high, absolute, and perpetuall power ouer the citizens and subiects in a Commonweale: which the Latins cal Maiestatem.”

42 Six Livres, vol. I, p. 191, p. 194. Six Bookes, p. 91, “And that is it for which the law saith, That the prince is acquitted from the power of the lawes”, and p. 92, “And so our maxime resteth, That the prince is not subiect to his lawes, nor to the lawes of his predecessours”.

43 See T.H. Howard-Hill, “The Unique Eye-Witness Report”, art.cit., p. 169.

44 On this, see Michael Questier, “Loyalty, Religion and State Power in Early Modern England: English Romanism and the Jacobean Oath of Allegiance”, Historical Journal, 40, 1997, p. 311–329; ibid., “Catholic Loyalism in Early Stuart England”, English Historical Review, 123, 2008, p. 1132–1165; Johann P. Sommervile, “Papalist Political Thought and the Controversy over the Jacobean Oath of Allegiance”, in Ethan H. Shagan, ed. Catholics and the ‘Protestant Nation’: Religious Politics and Identity in Early Modern England Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2005, p. 162–184, Marcy L. North, “Anonymity's Subject: James I and the Debate over the Oath of Allegiance”, New Literary History, 33.2, Spring, 2002, p. 215-232, and, for background, A. Walsham, op.cit., p. 53-84.

45 See T. H. Howard-Hill, “The Unique Eye-Witness Report”, art.cit., p. 169.

46 See H. J. R. Murray, A History of Chess, p. 557-558, for examples from MS. Corpus Christi Coll., 293, f. 142 b, and from Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, 617-741.

47 See H. J. R. Murray, ibid., p. 535. On the bag in which the several estates are jumbled up together after death, Murray cites (p. 536n) John Marston, Jack Drum’s Entertainment, “And after death like chesmen having stood/ In play for Bishops some for Knights and Pawnes, / We all together shall be tumbled up/ Into one bagge,” and the close of Middleton's A Game at Chess.

48 See P. Yachnin, “’A Game at Chess’”, art.cit., p. 318.

49 The White King’s Pawn is what Howard-Hill calls a synthetic character, modelled initially on Sir Toby Matthew, who had become a Jesuit priest in 1614 and was despatched to Madrid to advise Charles and Buckingham in 1623, but with some revisions to link him to Lionel Cranfield, Earl of Middlesex and Lord Treasurer, unseated by Buckingham in 1624. See T. H. Howard-Hill, “Political Interpretations”, art. cit., p. 276; and T. H. Howard-Hill, “More on ‘William Prynne and the Allegory of Middleton's Game at Chess’”, Notes & Queries NS 36, 1989, p. 349-351. Holles identifies this character as John Digby, 1st Earl of Bristol, ambassador in Madrid during Charles's and Buckingham’s visit, and, in 1624, seeking an audience to clear himself of a charge of treachery. See T. H. Howard-Hill, “The Unique Eye-Witness”, art.cit., p. 169, p. 173.

50 Taylor suggests that he is also a synthetic figure, an amalgam of the vices of several contemporary clerics; see Oxford Middleton, p. 1796.

51 R. A. Davies and A. R. Young, art.cit., p. 239-245.

52 See Taylor’s illustration for the endgame in Oxford Middleton, p. 1881.

53 The Jesuits Edmund Campion and Henry Garnett were both accused of dissembling. At the trial of Father Garnett, Superior of the Jesuits in England, on 28 March 1606, Sir Edward Coke described him sarcastically as a man of great gifts, “a doctor of Jesuits, that is, a doctor of five DD's, as dissimulation, deposing of princes, disposing of kingdoms, daunting and deterring of subjects, and destruction.” See T. B. Howell, ed., A Complete Collection of State Trials, vol. 2, London, Hansard, 1816, p. 234.

54 See Gary Taylor, “Forms of Opposition: Shakespeare and Middleton”, English Literary Renaissance, 24.2, Studies in Shakespeare, Spring 1994, p. 283-314, and Oxford Middleton, p. 1778, p. 1827-1828.

55 G. Taylor, “Forms of Opposition”, art.cit., p. 307.

56 Leo Hicks, ed., Letters and Memorials of Father Robert Parsons, S.J., Leeds, Catholic Record Society, 1942, p. 38-39.

57 G. Taylor, 'Forms of Opposition,' art.cit., p. 305-306.

58 Ibid., p. 307. Taylor cites several passages from the play: 'Amongst the daughters of men I have not found A more catholical aspect; that eye/ Does promise single life and meek obedience.' (I. I. 74-76); 'Please you peruse this small tract of obedience, / ’Twill help you forward well.' (I. I. 19 1-92); 'Sh’as passed the general rule, the large extent/ Of our prescriptions for obedience,' (2.1.28-29); 'Set me to work upon this spacious virtue/ Which the poor span of life’s too narrow for,/ Boundless obedience, The humblest yet the mightiest of all duties;/ Well here set down a universal goodness.' (2. I. 36-40).

59 Ibid., p. 308. On the move from faction to ideology see Oxford Middleton, p. 1774.

60 G. Taylor, “Forms of Opposition”, art. cit., p. 314.

61 The Two Books of Homilies appointed to be read in Churches, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1859, Homily 10, p. 114.

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Supriya Chaudhuri, « The Game’s the Thing: Politics and Play in Middleton’s A Game at Chess »Études Épistémè [En ligne], 39 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2021, consulté le 18 septembre 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/episteme/11534 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/episteme.11534

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Supriya Chaudhuri

Supriya Chaudhuri is Professor of English (Emerita) at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Her research covers English and European Renaissance literature, cultural history, modernism, travel writing, fiction and the cultures of sport. Among recent publications are Commodities and Culture in the Colonial World (co-edited: Routledge, 2018), and chapters in Asian Interventions in Global Shakespeare (Routledge, 2021); Blind Spots of Knowledge in Shakespeare and his World (MIP/De Gruyter, 2019); The Cambridge History of Travel Writing (Cambridge UP, 2019) and Eastern Resonances in Early Modern England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

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