The Black Knight’s Festival Book?: Thomas Middleton's A Game of Chess
A Game at Chess is well-known among scholars of Jacobean drama for being the play that in August 1624 ran for an unprecedented nine days
together; yet it is rarely acted outside of university English departments. Its critical history is mixed: Anthony Trollope,
for one, dismissed it as unreadable, but in the last decade it has been edited for the Malone Society, for the Revels series
and for Oxford World Classics. In this paper I propose to look briefly at the historical context of the play and suggest
a way through the critical unease which surrounds the text.
A Game at Chess was written by Thomas Middleton and staged by the King's Men, who were notionally Gentleman of the Chamber to King James.
The action concerns attempts by the pieces of the Black House to seduce, in various meanings of the word, the pieces of
the White House, chiefly the White Queen's Pawn and the White Knight. At its simplest, then, it is an allegorical drama
of the conflict between good and evil, black and white. There is one non-allegorical character: the Fat Bishop, once of
the Black House, playing for the White House as the play opens and persuaded back to the Black House during its action. There
are explicit references to his being the Archbishop of Spalato who had flirted with anglicanism and been resident in England
for a few years before returning to the Roman church in 1621.
The story of the play's production is exceptionally well-documented for this period. It was apparently licensed in the normal
way by the Master of the Revels, Henry Herbert; he was a relative of the two Herbert brothers who were Earls of Montgomery
and Pembroke and dedicatees of the Shakespeare First Folio, which had been published a year earlier, so its auspices seem
respectable. The license is dated 12 June 1624, and performances of the play were given by the King’s Men at the Globe in
Southwark; from Thursday 5th until Saturday 14th August, continuously except for the statutory Sunday closure on 8th August.
On Saturday 7th August the Spanish Ambassador, don Carlos Coloma, complained to King James about the play and on Tuesday
10th August he wrote to the Count-Duke of Olivares to describe the play. Houses were full, and no doubt the play would have
been staged again on Monday 16th August, but by this time the Privy Council had banned the play on the king's instructions
and by Wednesday 18th August, was asking the King’s Men to account for themselves. Full details of these circumstances are
found most readily in T.H. Howard-Hill's Revels edition of the play1 and relevant documents are also reprinted in the Appendix to Richard Dutton's edition for Oxford World's Classics.2
Although the play is acted out by chess figures, there has never been any doubt that the action is a representation of Charles
and Buckingham’s visit to Madrid in the previous summer, or that the machiavellian Black Knight was meant to be don Diego
Sarmiento de Acuña, conde Gondomar and Coloma’s predecessor as Ambassador. The letter-writer Chamberlain reported that the
players had gone to particular trouble to represent Gondomar, very much to the life: they had got hold of some of his clothes
and also, apparently, his litter and his commode-like “chair of ease”: Gondomar was known to be a martyr to piles and these
"attributes", like those of a saint or a figure from classical myth, were enough to identify him to a London audience. No
wonder Coloma was annoyed at this insult to the dignity of his country. The importance of the use of Gondomar's clothes
should not be underestimated for, as Peter Stallybrass has pointed out, "Renaissance England was a cloth society" in which
clothing was a signifier, a commodity and a form of currency. The single greatest expense in staging any play was the costuming
and Stallybrass argues that the clothing took on a life of its own which was more important than the actor inhabiting it.3 To see Gondomar's suit on the stage, then, was not to see an actor impersonating the Ambassador but to see Gondomar himself.
As Stallybrass writes,
... in the Renaissance, clothes could be imagined as retaining the identity and form of the wearer. ... The garment bears
quite literally the trace and the memory of the owner.4
The reason for banning the play, however, was not the insult to a former foreign dignitary but the contravention of a royal
dictum that modern heads of state might not be represented on stage. If the Black Knight was so clearly Gondomar, then by
implication the Black King was Gondomar’s own king, Philip IV; and since chess is a game of opposites, the further implication
was that the White King was James VI and I. The engraving on the title-page of early quarto editions shows the White Knight
as looking very much like contemporary portraits of Prince Charles.
Inevitably, then, such obvious impersonations have led critics into complex games of hunt-the-allegory. The fun started
in earnest with Bullen’s edition of Middelton’s collected works in 1886 and was taken up by E.C. Morris in 1907; in 1925 Antonio
Pastor decoded the allegorical figures for Spanish readers.5 If the White King is James VI, who is represented by the White Queen? James’s queen, Anna of Denmark, had been dead
for five years by 1624. Is this the Church of England? The archbishop of Canterbury? Elizabeth of Bohemia? What about
the White Bishop’s Pawn, who before the play starts has been castrated by the Black Knight’s Pawn? Or the turncoat White King’s
Pawn, who has been taking a pension from the Black King? And the gullible White Queen’s Pawn, who falls for every trick
that the Black House tries on her? Were these intended to be seen as recognisable figures, or are they simply part of the
plot mechanism and with no other significance? Different critics have different views, but most incidents in the play have
been seen at some time as historical references.
In 1980 the late Margot Heinemann published her controversial monograph on Puritanism & Theatre. Thomas Middleton and Opposition Drama under the Early Stuarts, in which the production of A Game at Chess was central to her argument. This volume effectively marks the beginning of a new interest in A Game at Chess. The New Historicism of the 1980s and later has found much of interest in the play, particularly in the question of how
it came to be staged in the first place and to escape Henry Herbert’s censorship. Much attention has been paid to the circumstances
of the play’s production, and Margot Heinemann put forward the thesis that A Game at Chess was protected by a Court faction led by the Earl of Pembroke, which put pressure on his cousin Herbert to license the play.6 Buckingham, the argument goes, would at worst have been neutral to this ploy: he had changed his stance since the visit
to Madrid. Before he went he had been pro-Spanish and anti-war; now he was anti-Spanish and pro-war, and the favourable portraits
of the White Knight and White Duke were flattering to Charles and Buckingham. A Game at Chess is thus a political satire against the Spaniards, as represented by the Black House, putting forward a factional point of
view. Jerzy Limon, in his 1986 book Dangerous Matter, argues further that the play was not merely passively sanctioned and protected as a political satire, but actively encouraged
However, John Lavagnino and Gary Taylor, editors of the Oxford Middleton edition of A Game at Chess which is currently scheduled for publication in 2004, suggest that the play belongs to the genre of history plays. I am
grateful to Dr Lavagnino for making available to me their draft introductory material, in which Gary Taylor describes A Game at Chess as,
... an English history play -- a play about history, which also made history. It dramatizes the major political and foreign
policy crises of the early 1620s; indeed, it might be entitled The Troublesome Reign of King James.
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There is much to be said for this: the play is structured more as a chronology of events rather than a main action and sub-plot.
Although the play is held together by the hostility of the Black House to the White House and the sub-plot around the White
Queen's Pawn, the relationship between the actions is sequential rather than causal, in the manner of chronicle history.
Some incidents in the play are generally faithful representations of what had been happening. Take, for example, the plot
to lure the White Knight to the Black House’s territory. Charles’s visit to Madrid may have been presented for public consumption
as a romantic, spur of the moment decision, but the trip may have been planned at least a year in advance. Far from being
surprised at having the Prince of Wales turn up on his doorstep, Philip IV had been expecting him since 1622. According
to the catalogue of Gondomar’s correspondence in the Royal Library in Madrid, Gondomar wrote to Philip in May 1622 to discuss
the possibility of such a visit: on 16 May, in the context of Gondomar’s own plans to return home to Spain, the catalogue
...el príncipe de Gales viajaría de incógnito con dos criados a Madrid si Gondomar se lo aconsejase tras su regreso a España
(The Prince of Wales would travel to Madrid in disguise, with two servants, if Gondomar so advised him after his return to
while three months earlier, Buckingham had reported to Gondomar that the Prince of Wales had started to learn Spanish. Like
the Black Knight with the White King, Gondomar was encouraging James VI and I into correspondence with the opposition, for
the Royal Library catalogue entry for 16 May 1622 also notes that, "Gondomar ha predispuesto a Jacobo I para que escriba al
papa Gregorio XV" (Gondomar has persuaded James I to write to pope Gregory XV). Middleton would not have been privy to the
Ambassador’s correspondence, of course, but his portrayal of his actions in the play is in some respects not so far from the
truth. The staging of A Game at Chess was, in Stephen Greenblatt's useful formulation, partaking of the "Circulation of Social Energy" in which, as Greenblatt
... an individual play mediates between the mode of the theater, understood in its historical specificity, and elements of
the society out of which that theater has been differentiated. Through its representational means, each play carries charges
of social energy onto the stage; the stage in its turn revises that energy and returns it to the audience.8
We have thus a range of views on the genre of A Game at Chess, including simple moral allegory, political satire, ideological propaganda and history.
The brief list of suggested genres for A Game at Chess is not exhaustive, and I propose to add to it, by considering the play in the context of the festival book. This genre,
on which the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance has recently been working, evolved around the civic pageants which were
held, often to celebrate formal processions when an important visitor crossed a boundary by entering a city or a state.
Some are elaborate with engraved illustrations; some are pamphlets. In the context of Jacobean London, they include descriptions
of royal ceremonies such as King James’s entry into London in 1603 and descriptions of the annual Lord Mayor's pageant.
Anthony Munday made a speciality of writing these texts: works such as Camp-Bell, or the Ironmonger’s Fair Field, when Sir Thomas Campbell was installed as Lord Mayor in 1609, Chruso-Thriambos: the Triumphs of Gold for the installation of Sir James Pemberton in 1611 or Chrysanaleia, the Golden Fishing, the pageant of the Fishmongers’ Guild on Lord Mayor’s Day 1616. Typically, these texts would describe the procession
through a city beautified with triumphal arches at salient points on the ceremonial route. The arches were architecturally
ornate, usually illustrating an allegorical or mythological meaning, and would be inhabited by appropriate deities or tutelary
spirits, such as the Thames. The books give detailed descriptions of the arches, the figures and their costumes, and the
verses which they would recite to the passing dignitaries. The pageants were usually devised by playwrights, who would sometimes
write them up for publication. Thomas Middleton, who held the post of City Remembrancer, is associated with at least seven
such books, including Civitatis Amor. The City’s Love to celebrate Prince Charles’s creation as Prince of Wales in 16169 and descriptions of six of his mayoral pageants: The Triumph of Truth, 1613; The Triumphs of Love and Antiquity, 1619; The Sun in Aries, 1621; The Triumphs of Honour and Virtue, 1622; The Triumphs of Integrity, 1623 and The Triumphs of Health and Prosperity, 1626. Middleton was sufficiently proud of this aspect of his work to bring out a collected edition in 1621.10 We can be certain, then, that the author of A Game at Chess was very familiar with the concept of the festival book.
The antipathy to Gondomar, which we have already noted, was of several years' standing and was epitomised in pamphlets such
as Vox Populi. News from Spain in 1620 and its sequel Vox Coeli of 1624. King James and Queen Anna had both liked Gondomar; popular opinion credited Gondomar, possibly correctly, with
influence over James's foreign policy and Anna's religion, to the extent that he was thought to have been responsible for
converting the queen to Catholicism. Ian Michael notes that,
During the embassy to Great Britain, [Gondomar] developed an obsessive policy of saving Catholic objects from Protestant hands;
this applies as much to books as to relics of the English Catholics martyred under Elizabeth ... He also tried to save living
people, such as the earl and countess of Argyle, or the fanatical Catholic missionary Luisa de Carvajal ...
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Such actions did not endear the ambassador to Londoners and he was the subject of personal attacks in print, even after his
tour of duty had ended. Vox Populi, or News from Spain, published in 1620, describes Gondomar making a report to his superiors on what he has achieved in Great Britain: he has
preyed on King James’s desire for peace, promoted Catholicism and the Spanish interest, weakened the Navy and encouraged the
Spanish Match. "And for this purpose," he reports,
whereas there was a marriage propounded betwixt them and us, (howsoever I suppose our State too devout to deale with heretiques
in this kinde in good earnest, yet) I made that a cover for much intelligence, and a meanes to obtaine whatsoever I desired,
whilest the State of England longed after that mariage, hopeing thereby (though vainely) to settle the peace, and fill the
In 1624, two years after Gondomar had returned to Spain permanently, John Reynolds published Vox Coeli, an imaginary debate in heaven among Henry VIII, his three children, Henry Prince of Wales and Anna of Denmark about the
Spanish Match; again, Gondomar is portrayed as a machiavel, weakening the Navy, planning a chapel at Greenwich for a Spanish
bride and encouraging Catholics to foster dissension.14
This hostility to Gondomar is of a piece with the public celebrations at Charles's "safe," that is, brideless, return from
Spain and the bonfires in the streets to mark his escape from Spanish clutches. "The bells proclaimed aloud in every steeple,"
wrote John Taylor the Water-Poet,
|The joyfull acclamation of the people;
The ordnance thundered with so high a straine,
|As if great Mars they meant to entertain,
|The bonfires blazing, infinite almost,
|Gave such a [heat] as if the world did roast.15
Indeed, Simon D'Ewes claimed to have counted 335 bonfires between Whitehall and Temple Bar alone.16
Regardless of whether or not it was taking seriously the negotiations for a marriage treaty with England, the Spanish Court
welcomed Charles and Buckingham to Madrid with a lavish display. A festival book which describes Charles's welcome is held
in the Eliot-Phelips collection in the University of London Library; it is 8 pages in folio format, without title-page, prelims
or any heading except for an address to doña Vitoria Colona, duquesa de Medina de Rioseco. The duchess lives a retired
life on account of her widowhood and so was not able to see the festivity which the Admiral of Castile had arranged; the author,
Andrés de Mondoza, has therefore prepared for her this account, which is dated 19 April, 1623. The events took place on
Easter Sunday. There is stress on the magnificence of the dress of the court ladies, of a type which will be familiar to
readers of Cervantine fiction. At a crucial turning point at the climax of a narrative, Cervantes' heroines typically appear
in a public forum, radiant of beauty and richly dressed: here, for example, is Leonor in Persiles y Sigismunda, about to disappoint her lover publicly by renouncing their engagement and entering a convent -- I quote from an anonymous
translation into English made in 1619:
the incomparable Leonor came forth, accompanied with the Prioress and many other religious women, attired in a gown of white
satin without veil, cut after the Spanish fashion upon green cloth of gold, and the cuts tied with great rich pearl.17
A similar scene, but with a happier outcome, occurs in Cervantes' novela, La española inglesa, or The English Spanish Girl.18 The ladies of Philip IV's court put on a similar display to honour the Prince of Wales, in which artifice and literary
convention played a prominent part, the Queen being dressed in white, "color de la alegría, que la iglesia tiene en el aniversario
de la Resureción de su esposo"19 (the joyfull colour which the Church wears on the anniversary of the Resurrection of her espoused). The queen dined in
public, as did the Prince of Wales. He was served by the conde de la Puebla del Maestre and John Digby Earl of Bristol and
was dressed in black, in the Spanish style, while the Infanta wore black and gold. The king joined them later. The highlight
of the festivities was the masque, a series of contests at arms, both with sword and lance according to chivalric rules.
Many knights wore orange and white, the colours of María Coutiño, mistress of the Admiral of Castile who was paying for all
this splendour. In what I assume to be a compliment to the Prince of Wales’s title, the Prince of the Caledonian Wood gave
combat; he was a figure from the popular romance which was the cause of don Quixote’s insanity, Amadis de Gaula, "Gaula" meaning signifying both Brittany and Wales. The bulk of the report is given over to describing the rules of combat
and who fought whom; it finishes with the procession of contestants through Madrid, followed by four hundred people on horseback.
The Spanish text was quickly translated into English and published in London by Nathaniel Butter.20
Charles, then, received two welcomes in 1623: a formal state welcome in Madrid on Palm Sunday to celebrate his projected marriage,
and an impromptu, popular greeting when he arrived back in London in October still a bachelor. The English celebrations,
in hindsight, seem to be a paradoxical celebration of failure, since Charles had gone to Madrid to claim a bride and came
home without one; but in an early example of the Dunkirk spirit, Londoners took defeat for victory. John Taylor's poem was
only one of a number of popular publications celebrating the Prince's return, as Jerzy Limon has noted;21 while at the other end of the literary spectrum, Jonson's masque Neptune's Triumph for the Return of Albion dealt with the same theme. A Game at Chess, licensed for the stage some eight months after Charles's return, can thus be seen as the last event in a prolonged English
anti-festival, the negative aspect of the Spanish festival in Madrid which had welcomed Charles the year before and which
emerged as the political climate at James’s Court turned against the Spanish Match and began to make criticism risky but thinkable,
particularly if Charles was portrayed in glowing terms.
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And yet: as the cliché has it, the devil does indeed have the best tunes, and despite Middleton's endeavours, the play revolves
around the anti-hero, the Black Knight who represents Gondomar, rather than the White Knight Prince Charles. By setting
up the implicit identification of the White King with James, the White Knight with Charles and the White Duke with Buckingham,
Middleton has constrained his own creativity. In his efforts to present them as paradigms of the good forces, he inevitably
presents the senior pieces of the White House as pallid and insipid: the creative energy rests with the Black House. Writers
always have problems in creating characters who are virtuous without being boring, and the usual technique for getting round
the problem is to give them a humorous foible: for a contemporary example, think of the tetchy, pipe-smoking Gandalf the White
in Lord of the Rings. This method, however, was not open to Middleton: King James was notoriously unamused at attempts to portray him with a
sense of humour, and such an attempt in 1605, in the play Eastward Ho! had earned Ben Jonson a spell in the Fleet Prison. The White House, then, is remarkably passive. It reacts to the Black
House's plots, but when it takes action, it does so off-stage, with the results being reported rather than seen. For example,
one element of the plot-line to seduce the White Queen's Pawn involves establishing an alibi by means of ante-dated letters,
and this is exposed by the White Knight and White Duke. But we see nothing of this and no dramatic tension builds around
their actions: we merely have a report from the Black Knight's Pawn that the alibi has been broken and that, "The White Knight's
policy / Has outstripped yours, it seems, / Joined with th’assistant counsel of his Duke" (3.1. 144-46). Throughout the
play, we see the action from the perspective of the Black House, as if the audience is on the black side of the chessboard.
Given this perspective, then, the Black House looms larger in our view. This is not just a matter of plotting and the ordering
of action, but also of the language which Middleton gives to his Black pieces and the Black Knight in particular. The simple
use of alliteration gives his speech an exuberant energy which drives it forward. He refers to the Fat Bishop, for example,
as, "Yond greasy, turncoat, gormandising prelate" who has done damage to the Catholic cause by writing "fat and fulsome volumes"
(2.2.54-56); when he describes a policy, he notes that, "My light spleen skips and shakes my ribs", that he works without
hindrance while in anyone else, "A whistle or a whisper would be questioned" (3.1.102-104); he discusses abstinence with the
White Knight and praises the "parsimony of Pertinax" (5.3.29), despises "Your wealthy, plump plebians" (5.3.40) and identifies
with those Romans who, "Complained there was more coin bid for a cook / Than for a war-horse" (5.3.35-36). The Black Knight
is also given the most elaborate use of imagery, from a single metaphor --
|This whiteness upon him is but the leprosy
|Of pure dissimulation ... (3.1.255-257)
to extended passages. The nations of Europe becomes a cookery book: "The food's lean France, larded with Germany;" he says,
Venice is a capon, Italy is an oven, Savoy is the salt, Geneva is manchet-bread, while the Netherlands are below the salt,
Holland is the butter to make sauce and Portugal is a brace of plovers (5.3.84-99). This speech plays on common stereotypes,
such as the identification of the Dutch with butter, here "ready-melted"; but it also makes its political points: Venice the
capon, in decline from its former powers, Italy the "chief oven" for supplying Spanish troops, the Netherlands "below the
salt" in the Spanish estimation. It draws the audience into the Black Knight's world, and that world is not just the Black
House, it is also Spain.
This passage is typical of the Black Knight, whose speeches are often tours de force of twenty lines or so of sustained imagery, especially in Act 5. It adds to the impression that he is larger than life,
as do other elements in the script: his enemy the Fat Bishop, for example, describes him not just as a fistula but as "the
fistula of Europe" (2.2.46); the Black Knight, comparing himself to the Jesuits and their aim of universal monarchy, says,
"I've bragged less / But I’ve done more than all the conclave of 'em" (1.1.251-252), and later refers to the "twenty thousand
and nine hundred / Three score and five" plots with which he's been involved (3.1.123-124). Advice on dealing with a prostitute
becomes a voyage of discovery:
|Qui cauté, casté; that's my motto ever.
|I have travelled with that word over most kingdoms
|And lain safe with most nations; of a leaking bottom,
I have been as often tossed on Venus' seas
|As trimmer fresher barks, when sounder vessels
|Have lain at anchor, that is, kept the door. (2.1.170-175)
Yet this enormous ego is saved from being monstrous by the Black Knight's gift for self-awareness; he has no illusions about
himself. "I stand for roguery still," he tells the Black Queen, "I will not change my side" (3.1.214-215), while to the
White King's Pawn, as he is put into the bag for the captured pieces, he foretells, "The bag is big enough, 'twill hold us
all" (3.1.310). Even his physical infirmity becomes material for his own rhetoric and something in which he can take pride:
|There's a foul flaw in the bottom of my drum, Pawn:
I ne'er shall make sound soldier, but sound treacher (i.e., deceiver)
|With any he in Europe. (4.2.7-9)
The effect is to make the Black Knight an attractive character, beside whom the pallid White Knight becomes insignificant.
It is in Act 5 that the White Knight and White Duke finally take centre-stage. The Black Knight has lured them into visiting
the Black House's territory and they are welcomed in formal style. The hautboys sound and the Black King, Queen, Duke and
Knight meet the White Knight and Duke. There is a Latin oration of greeting, then an altar and statues are discovered, there
is a song and the statues dance. All this is reminiscent both of a Court masque and of the reception for Prince Charles
described in the Eliot-Phelips festival book.
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The Black House is finally defeated by the White Knight in a scene reminiscent of Act 4 of Macbeth. The White Knight, like Malcolm in Shakespeare's play, describes himself as having a long list of sins. Finally, he proclaims,
|This of all others bears the hidden'st venom,
|The secret’st poison: I’m an arch-dissembler, sir.
It’s my nature's brand; turn from me, sir.
|The time is yet to come that e'er I spoke
|What my heart meant. (5.3.144-149)
The Black Knight welcomes this evidence of fraternity with the Black House and admits, "What we have done / Has been a dissemblance
ever." (5.3.159-160) The White Knight seizes on this admission of guilt, and claims victory:
|There you lie then;
|And the game's ours -- we give thee checkmate by
|Discovery, King, the noblest mate of all! (5.3.160-162)
Typically, the White House wins by a pun. But even as the Black Knight joins the other Black pieces in the bag, the path
is laid for his return as the Fat Bishop foresees that, "He'll peck a hole i’th’bag and get out shortly." (5.3.207)
A Game at Chess is, then, a celebration of the victory of the White House (the Court of Great Britain) over the Black House (the Court of
Spain). It presents the allegory and the artifice of a festival book, and has its own festival in the entry of the White
House to the Black House's territory. But Middleton's heart is with his villain and, constrained as he is even in this play
by the dangers of criticising King James, his hero does not convince and his triumph is an anticlimax. However much Middleton
may try to persuade us otherwise, this game is won by the losers in the bag, and the festival which A Game at Chess celebrates belongs to Gondomar, the Black Knight.
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