A Summer 2003 NEH Institute.
Directed by David Cressy
and Lori Anne Ferrell.


Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677).
Section from "The long bird's eye view of London," 1647.

• Provocations of Performance: A Game at Chess
• The Black Knight

Full-text of A Game at Chess Folger shelf mark: V.a. 231

The Black Knight

The Black Knight is clearly at the center of A Game at Chess. In calling it "the play of Gondomar," contemporaries readily identified the impersonation of the Spanish ambassador to England as the source of the audience's enjoyment in the play. To understand some of this enjoyment, however, we need to remember that Middleton was not trying to impersonate the real person of Don Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, Conde [Count] de Gondomar, the Spanish Ambassador to England from 1613 to 1622, but rather to offer the audience the Gondomar of the anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish imagination. The Gondomar on stage was a well-known Machiavel, a stock figure type of the conniving, self-serving man: the man that Protestant audiences loved to hate. The Black Knight is represented as a worthy opponent, one who is encumbered finally with his bumbling, excessively lascivious crew of co-conspirators. When he is bagged at the end of the play, the White Knight readily recognizes his worth in calling him "the mightiest Machiavel-politician" (5.3.204).

For his characterization of Gondomar, Middleton draws heavily from the anti-Catholic, anti-Spanish propaganda of his day, especially from Thomas Scott's satirical pamphlet The Second Part of Vox Populi, or Gondomar appearing in the Likeness of a Machiavel in a Spanish Parliament (1624). Middleton takes his characterization of Gondomar from Scott, depicting Gondomar as one who has "effected more by his wit and policy, then could have beene wrought by the strength of many Armies" (58). Middleton also takes his visual cues from the title page of The Second Part of Vox Populi. Gondomar stands bravely in the foreground, but this image is undercut by the iconographic images behind him, both the special seat to accommodate his fistula and his livery drawn by asses. Contemporary reports focus heavily on both of these details, and the modern-day editor T.H. Howard-Hill suggests that Middleton revised the play to call more attention to such details. An early manuscript (the Archdall-Folger manuscript) has the word "litter" written above Act Five, suggesting that the scene may have been fleshed out further in performance. Similarly, Gondomar's reference to "my golden stool" in the Archdall-Folger manuscript is later emphasized as "my chair of ease, my chair of cozenage" in the Trinity College Manuscript. According to Howard-Hill, the King's Men may have either acquired the objects themselves, or simply had props made to imitate them. As one contemporary writes, "they counterfeited his person to the life, with all his graces and faces, and had gotten (they say) a cast sute of his apparell for the purpose, with his Lytter, wherein the world sayes lackt nothing but a couple of asses to carry yt" (John Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton, quoted in Howard-Hill, A Game, 205).

When contemporaries, then, called the play a "play of Gondomar," as some did, they were drawn to Middleton's satirical characterization of Gondomar as an arch-Machiavel. As actors have long known, however, villains can sometimes steal the show, and satirical caricatures too can sometimes unintentionally offer a figure worthy of admiration. One contemporary witness, the Florentine Ambassador, made precisely this critique of the play. In seeking to expose Gondomar's evil machinations to view, A Game at Chess makes him appear a skilled and worthy enemy. As the Ambassador writes, "In going about to discouer his trickes, me thinkes they make him a man of understanding with a great reflection / upon them that he daylie treated with" (Howard-Hill, A Game, 202). In particular, the characterization of Gondomar as this wildly influential Machiavel makes King James a dupe. A Game at Chess does nothing to overcome this view of the White King; he is overly beguiled by superficial holiness and honor, not only of the Black Knight himself, but also of so obviously a depraved figure as the Black Bishop's Pawn. After the audience observes a sensational scene in which the Black Bishop's Pawn attempts to rape the White Queen's Pawn while she is at her devotions, the White King, nonetheless, is shown as easily convinced by the Black Knight that the Pawn has been maliciously slandered (2.2). In fact, the White King even leaves the Pawn in the hands of the Black House for correction, as the White Knight and White Duke can do nothing but promise eventual aid. Such scenes remind us that King James was seen increasingly as misled, not only by the Spanish, but also by his Councilors. The Florentine Ambassador wrote that "It is believed nevertheless that it [A Game at Chess] will be prohibited once the King has notice of it, because they cannot tear Count Gondomar so much by revealing his fashion of dealing, without depicting him against their will as a man of worth, consequently reflecting weakness on those that gave him credence, and that daily dealt with him" (Howard-Hill, A Game, 201). According to Sir Edward Conway, the tumult that ensued once King James was informed of the play by the Spanish Ambassador, Carlos Coloma, was piqued precisely because James felt himself to have been duped by the players, who performed the play while he was abroad, and, more importantly, by his Councilors, who should have informed him about the play (Howard-Hill, A Game, 200).

Various details of the satirical world of the play also make the Black Knight appear different in kind from the other Black pieces. If Gondomar's characterization comes from the stock-type of the Spanish Machiavel, then the characterization of the Jesuits comes from the stock anti-clerical and anti-Jesuitical model of the rapacious priests and religious, a type that extends back to Chaucer and beyond. Virtually all the religious pieces, especially the Fat Bishop and Black Bishop's Pawn, are seen as unable to control their immense appetites. In the seventeenth century generally and in A Game at Chess particularly, a "man" who gives into his appetites is seen as being feminized. Only two figures seem to be in command of their appetites, the Jesuitess (the Black Queen's Pawn, who plays on the lasciviousness of the Black Bishop's Pawn to "bag" him for herself) and the Black Knight. By all accounts, Gondomar, unlike the Duke of Buckingham, was not an excessively lascivious man, yet Middleton has the Black Knight boast on several occasions of his past sexual conquests. At first glimpse, such boasts might seem to suggest that his satirical characterization is partially influenced by the anti-clerical tradition. In practice, such boasts seem designed to differentiate Gondomar from the other Black pieces of the play, who notably cannot control their appetites. The Black Knight first boasts of his past sexual adventures when he is chastising the Black Bishop's Pawn for his inability to control his. After a discussion of his more politic and moderate past conquests (2.1.167-8), the Black Knight announces, "Qui cauté, casté, that's my motto ever" (2.1.171). Loosely translated as "He who is cautious is chaste," the motto clearly underscores Gondomar's Machiavellian character. Only the clerical figures like the Black Bishop or the Black Bishop's Pawn would allow their passions to get the better of them in ways that lead to their downfall.

The Black Knight is also seen as far more masterful than the young Black King, who wants to rush the game so as to grab the White Queen. The Black Knight notably advises his King, "You're too hot, sir" (3.1.244). Throughout the play, the Black Knight is distinguished from the other Black pieces in a way that suggests that he is a far more worthy and considerable opponent. Middleton even has the Black Knight at times complain of his companions that make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to win this game. After he learns of the Black Bishop's Pawn's attempted rape, Gondomar complains, "What I in seven years laboured to accomplish / One minute sets back by some codpiece college still" (2.1.167-68). There is a sense here that the Black Knight is brought down because he participates in what is seen in the satirical world of A Game at Chess as a corrupted and corrupting church.

None of the White pieces are morally superior to the Black Knight. Certainly, the White Duke and White Knight can only defeat him by employing the same deceptive techniques he does. We are made to wonder in the course of the scene whether they really establish themselves as superior to the Black Knight. Certainly, the Black Knight never really loses in the same way as other Black pieces do. More important, the White Duke, identified by contemporaries as James's favorite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, can only trap the Black Knight by confessing his own promiscuity. The White Knight, too, must confess himself an "arch-dissembler" (5.3.145), which, indeed, he must be in order to uncover the corruption of the Black Knight himself. The two White pieces may thus succeed, but not in a way that establishes them as morally superior.

In the lines following this confession, we hear the Black King and Queen admit their defeat, and we hear the bickering from the more minor Black pieces who have already been bagged. The Black Knight, however, never speaks again. Why, we might ask, does Middleton refrain from having him speak? Did Middleton find it somehow too demeaning finally to lump his arch-villain in with this crew? Perhaps the Florentine Ambassador was more right then he knew. Perhaps, despite the efforts of the players to make the Black Knight the buffoon, the Black Knight finally is seen to be a far more worthy politician than even Middleton may have wanted him to be. This would certainly not be the first example of the way that satirical intentions can go awry.

Elena Levy-Navarro
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Suggestions for further reading:

Middleton, Thomas. A Game at Chess. Edited by T.H. Howard-Hill. The Revels Plays. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Howard-Hill, T. H. Middleton's "Vulgar Pasquin": Essays on A Game at Chess. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993.

Munro, Ian. "Making Publics: Secrecy and Publication in A Game at Chess." Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 14 (2001): 207-26.

© 2004 Folger Institute