A game at chess

“Miranda playing chess with Ferdinand” by Gillot Saint-Evre, 1822. In the collection of the Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris.

Near the end of The Tempest, Prospero “discovers Ferdinand and Miranda playing at chess” in a moment that says much about romantic partnerships. In the presence of his spirit servant, Ariel, Prospero speaks to the party of noblemen (including his brother and the King of Naples, who years ago conspired against Prospero in order to usurp his dukedom) whom he has shipwrecked on his island:

Pray you, look in.
My dukedom since you have given me again,
I will requite you with as good a thing,
At least bring forth a wonder to content you
As much as me my dukedom.
(Here Prospero discovers Ferdinand and Miranda,
playing at chess.

MIRANDA (to Ferdinand)
Sweet lord, you play me false.

FERDINAND No, my dearest love,
I would not for the world.

Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle,
And I would call it fair play.

The Tempest 5.1.195-204.

The stage direction marks the only use I recall of the word ‘chess’ in Shakespeare’s plays in spite of the fact that his works do refers to other games, like tennis, nine men’s morris, and the sport of wrestling. In The Tempest, the chess game moment has a sense of tactful sparring and diplomacy which underscores the young couple’s amorous negotiations. Dramatically, chess serves as a larger metaphor here, where the dialogue reveals an amiable sparring which reflects Miranda and Ferdinand’s growing mutual affection and familiarity.

The word ‘discovers’ not only describes Prospero revealing his daughter and Fernando as a couple, but also suggests that his revelation at that moment may have a tactical intent. In chess terminology a ‘discovery’ describes a moment when moving one piece reveals an attack which was previously concealed–such as moving a bishop aside to open a column for an attacking rook, for example. In The Tempest, Prospero discovers his intention to reinstate and reinforce harmonious relations between his house and that of the King of Naples. His discovery reveals that his goal of peace and reunification is not only well underway but may be a fait accompli.

This raises questions about how well Shakespeare might have actually known the game of chess. From what information we have, we cannot know for certain, although he obviously was aware of the game and may well have played. Probably originating sometime in or even before the 6th century, chess was an old game even in Shakespeare’s day, and it may well have been as popular then as it is today.

Although Shakespeare only lived from 1564 to 1616, the early modern age in which he lived, as well as the late middle age, may have contributed as much to the development of modern chess as it did to literature and drama. Ideas were ‘in the air’ and in any number of ways Shakespeare may have become conversant with at least some of the prevalent chess writing and thought of his time. William Caxton’s The Game and Playe of the Chesse, which paralleled social hierarchies with those of chess pieces, had been published in 1474. Repetición de Amores y Arte de Ajedrez (Repetition of Love and the Art of Playing Chess) by Luis Ramirez de Lucina had been published in 1497, and Ruy Lopez, the Spanish priest who developed the famous and popular chess opening (starting by moving the white king’s pawn to e4, which is still referred to as the ‘Ruy Lopez opening’) published his Libro de la invencion liberal y arte del juego del axedrez (Book of the liberal invention and art of the game of chess) in 1561. Meanwhile, Alessandro Salvio (1570-1640?) rose to fame as a widely acknowledged chess master by around 1600, and although the title had yet to be established, he is generally thought to have been the first world chess champion.

A well known painting depicts two figures who seem to be Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare engaged in a chess match. Thought to have been painted around 1600, and most often attributed to Karel van Mander, it remains difficult to determine reliably if the men in the picture are really the playwrights they are thought to be. Because the work was painted during Shakespeare and Jonson’s lifetimes, the most confident speculators assert that the painting may have been painted from life, and images from his own lifetime that purport to actually represent Shakespeare are rare.

“Les joueurs d’échecs”, attributed to Karel van Mander ca. 1600. Public domain image of a painting in the private collection of the Heyman family, widely thought to be a painting of Ben Jonson playing chess with William Shakespeare. Dimitry Gottfried’s detailed analysis of the board’s likely game position may be seen in the notes below.*

Intriguing, albeit not conclusive.

Although to some chess may seem dull and decidedly less than ‘sexy’, the game has long been used as a metaphor not only for political relations but also for sexual politics. Although the object of a game of chess is to checkmate the king (to entrap the piece in such a way that it will inevitably be taken on the next move), the most powerful piece on the board is the queen, who can move any number of squares in any direction. Historical evidence suggests that the chess queen replaced a weaker piece which may have initially been a grand vizier or advisor. Notably, the piece’s expanded powers appear to have emerged at around the same time that a female gender identity became specific, adding a distinctly sexual aspect to the game’s power dynamics.**

A well known contemporary musical dramatization of a chess match emphasizes both the underlying political and the sexual parallels suggested by the game. Loosely based on the 1972 Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky cold war chess tournament in Iceland, Tim Rice’s musical Chess features an unbalanced American chess prodigy pitted against a confident Russian chess champion.

“One night in Bangcock” from Chess. Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, Lyrics by Tim Rice and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Book by Tim Rice.

Fischer himself was a troubled individual, who led a challenged life, but he became a kind of hero figure for defeating Spassky, especially to youngsters in the U.S. as almost an entire generation became fascinated with the game of chess. Historically, although Fischer had won the 1972 match, he subsequently refused to agree to the conditions to defend his world chess title against Anatoly Karpov. He became something of a recluse, living in various places around the globe. He briefly emerged from retirement in 1992 to play Spassky, and win, again, before returning to his reclusive nomadic existence. Eventually, on the lam from the United States, he gained citizenship in Iceland, where he died of kidney failure at the age of 64 in 2008. His books, especially My 60 Memorable Games, still rank near the top of many ‘great chess book’ lists.

Aside from Shakespeare, other early modern dramatists also used chess as a device. In Thomas Middleton’s tragedy, Women Beware Women (possibly written sometime between 1612 and 1627, and first published in 1657), a game of chess serves to distract a mother from the seduction of her daughter in law taking place in a room overhead.*** Taylor and Loughrey look at the dialogue in the scene, comparing it with chess tactics. The use of the word ‘blind’ in the context has a double meaning as the game itself serves as a kind of magician’s scarf in the play. Leantio has charged his mother with guarding his wife from potential seducers. Yet, the Duke of Florence seduces Bianca while Leantio’s mother plays chess with the widow, Livia, who contrives the game for just that purpose.

In the comedy, The Spanish Curate, by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger (onstage in 1622, and published in 1647), the chess game has an even more specific sexual resonance. Leandro is a young man enamored with the lawyer Bartolus’ beautiful wife, Amaranta. Having worked his way into the lawyer’s household as a student, Leandro watches Amaranta play a game of chess with her husband. As he watches the game, Leandro’s attraction is evident in his aside, “You are a blessed man that may so have her. Oh that I might play with her–” (The Spanish Curate 3.4).****

Within moments, Leandro gets his chance as Bartolus is called away from the game to resolve a neighbor’s dispute. In his absence, Amaranta asks the young apprentice if he can help her escape her husband’s impending mate. Saying that he would gladly tell her anything within his power, Leandro declares his love, and she smacks him in response–upsetting the chessboard at the same time. At that moment, Bartolus returns, and the dejected Leandro feels certain that his advances will be discovered. Instead, when Bartolus asks his wife why the chessboard was suddenly overturned, she responds:

Only a chance, your pupil said he plaid well, And so indeed he do’s: he undertook for ye, Because I would not sit so long time idle, I made my liberty, avoided your mate And he again as cunningly endangered me, Indeed he put me strangely to it. When presently Hearing you come, & having broke his ambush too, Having the second time brought off my Queen fair, I rose o’th sudden smilingly to shew ye, My apron caught the Chesse-board, and the men, And there the noise was.

The Spanish Curate 3.4*****

Her response displays something deeper than mere social tact. Although she rejects Leandro’s initial advance, Amaranta plays a chess tactic of her own in not disclosing the young man’s indiscretion to her husband. She deliberately leaves open the possibility of future amorous negotiations with Leandro.

The most extensive chess allegory in early modern drama is Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess which was first staged in August of 1624. Satirizing failed marriage negotiations between Prince Charles of England and the Spanish Infanta, Maria Anna, the entire play presents the contemporary political events as a chess match. Identified as various black or white pieces on a chessboard, the characters vie for power and dominance in a dramatic atmosphere rife with political and sexual intrigue and corruption. The white pieces representing England mostly appear in a positive light, and are ranged against the Spanish black pieces. A tremendous box office success, performances were shut down after only nine days after the Spanish ambassador complained. Because this was the last recorded play of Middleton’s before his death in 1627, some historians believe that the satire may have ended the playwright’s career.

Although classed as a “comedy”, A Game at Chess retains intriguing grim elements which tend to characterize much of Middleton’s work. The bags in which the chess pieces are stored, for example, become the mouth of hell. Near the end of the play, the White King says:

Obscurity is now the fittest favour Falsehood can sue for; it well suits perdition. ‘Tis their best course that so have lost their fame To put their heads into the bag for shame.

[The bag opens, the Black side in it.]

And there behold: the bag, like hell-mouth opens To take her due, and the lost sons appear Greedily gaping for increase of fellowship In infamy, the last desire of wretches, Advancing their perdition-branded foreheads Like Envy’s issues, or a bed of snakes

A Game at Chess 5.3.175-84.******

Dark imagery indeed for a comedy–smacking of the finality of eternal damnation, and strangely apropos in a dramatic depiction of a game whose annals contain examples of both genius and madness, and sometimes both at once. The play A Game At Chess retains an hallucinogenic quality in a way which suggests a prefiguring of Lewis Carroll and Jefferson Airplane.

Chess games may come to a draw, but should there be an actual victory, the corresponding defeat is decisive and final. Yet, chess, like life, is also a game of tomorrows. There is always another game to be played, and there are always new champions rising through the ranks, or newly discovered prodigies dawning on the scene.

Political contests are like this too, of course, especially elections, and the most recent contest for the United States presidency is no exception. The apparent winner of this election, like Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, proposes reunification and harmony in the wake of violent opposition and acrimony. Naturally, people should hope that such harmony might be possible, and that madness and resentment will not carry the day. We should hope that the coming days will be marked by grace, acceptance, and forbearance–that those who were unsuccessful might refrain from violence, and that those who carried the day might mercifully refrain from crass gloating or cruel insult. Yet, politics is so often rife with both brilliance and madness that we must serve as an example, conducting ourselves as we would wish others to do as we wait and see what comes of any glimmer of hope and any promise of a coming dawn.

In the meantime, both in general and during this lull in a bitter and ongoing struggle in the United States, it seems important to reiterate an encouragement for kindness and compassion. In The Tempest, Prospero’s brother Antonio had conspired with Alonso (the King of Naples), not only to usurp Prospero’s dukedom, but also to kill Prospero and his infant daughter. In spite of this, twelve years later when Prospero finds his brother and Alonso in his power, he not only spares those who had been his mortal enemies, but he forgives them, weaving a policy of reunion and reconciliation. Exemplary. If only all of us could be so patient, and perhaps many of us can be.

Although it may not always be easy to understand others, we can understand their common humanity. We can be certain that their own struggles must be as terrible for them to bear as ours can be for us. If anger is born of hurt or fear, it may be good to remember that the angriest people may have been hurt the worst, or must be the most afraid. That raging player across the board, or the one at the neighboring table who upsets the gameboard in frustration, may be justifiably afraid of some darkness beyond the chess board.

Even if that darkness is something which only they can see, it bears our consideration. In the wake of this latest election, even as the chess piece seem to settle, it behooves us to go gently into the coming days, even as we walk amongst those with whom we do not always agree, and whom it may be truly challenging for us to try to understand.

As for Shakespeare, early modern writers, and chess, and other games, there simply is not enough space here to address this considerable subject beyond a cursory glance. As a metaphor, the stratagems inherent in a game of chess parallel those in human life–reflecting the constant negotiation for power and position, and the sacrifice and experimentation that characterize much of human dynamics. In light of the early modern innovations which describe and portray the multiverse of human experience, it seems hardly surprising that gaming structures, and ideas associated with them, should reverberate throughout the period’s literature and drama. For now, the ghost is keeping more detailed explanations and examinations of this material for another book.

Meanwhile, for those with a keener interest in the mechanics of chess itself, you may enjoy the short film on a famous game played at the Paris Opera in 1858 by American chess master, Paul Morphy, against two strong amateurs, Karl II, the Duke of Brunswick, and Comte Isouard de Vauvenargues. Played when Morphy was only 21 years old, the short and elegant opera game is considered a virtuoso illustration of tactical execution in the use of sacrifice. The game is still used for chess instruction today.*******

The ghost wishes you all safety and happiness until next time.

*Gottfrid, Dmitry. “Chess in the Arts.” Chess.com, November 22, 2018. https://www.chess.com/blog/Gottfrid/chess-in-the-arts. Gottfrid offers a number of interesting analyses of chess positions in a range of paintings. Assuming the position in the chess players painting to be roughly as follows with black to move:

Chess.com writer Dimitry Gottfrid analyizes the position thus: “Shakespeare holds Black’s bishop in his right hand (wh[ich] was probably was on b4) and is preparing to capture White’s queen on c3 (thereby declaring the checkmate).

**For more information on the chess queen, see: Yalom, Marilyn. The Birth of the Chess Queen: How Her Majesty Transformed the Game. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2004.

***A more in depth analysis of Middleton’s use of chess terms in this scene, including additional links for study, may be found in Taylor and Loughrey’s article: Taylor, Neil, and Bryan Loughrey. “Middleton’s Chess Strategies in Women Beware Women.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 24, no. 2 (1984): 341-54.

****Fletcher, John, Francis Beaumont, Alfred Rayney Waller, and Arnold Glover. The Spanish Curate. Vol. II. The Works of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Cambridge: The University press, 1906, p. 106.

*****Ibid, p. 109.

******Middleton, Thomas. A Game at Chess. Edited by T. H. Howard-Hill. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.

*******This short film of The Opera Game offers a dramatic overview of the game itself, which was only some 17 moves long. Interspersed moments from different films also give an idea of just how influential chess has been in film. Notably, the last clip is taken from the 1925 Russian silent film, Shakhmatnaya goryachka (Chess Fever), a comedy in which the real life grandmaster, José Raúl Capablanca, who was at the time, the World Chess Champion plays the part of the grandmaster. In Chess Fever, Capablanca’s character tells the young lady that, ‘in the presence of a beautiful woman, he comes to hate chess as well’.

A solid explication of opera game specifics may be seen in Sam Copeland’s blog on Chess.com here: https://www.chess.com/blog/SamCopeland/paul-morphys-opera-game-every-move-explained-for-chess-beginners

4 Replies to “A game at chess”

  1. I admire yu can incorporate Art, Chess, modern Drama and Shakespeare into a cogent and very readable whole.

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