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 White King

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

The White King

While the White King might represent King James I in one sense, it is unlikely that Middleton was aiming to depict the king. After all, it was dangerous to represent living monarchs on stage. Nevertheless, Middleton's fictional king does have considerable depth and subtlety, and as a literary character he must have invited playgoers to contemplate the dangers and hardships involved in managing complex state affairs.

What is particularly noteworthy about the White King is that he triumphs in spite of his policies, rather than because of them. Even before he makes his first appearance on stage, the audience learns of his dangerous ineptitude with regard to domestic security. The Black Knight makes reference to a plot already a full seven years in the planning—a remark that would have been understood by the audience as an allusion to the Spanish Match. To make matters worse, there is a turncoat in the White court, none other than the King's own pawn. In fact, one of the most exciting scenes occurs midway through the play, when the White King's Pawn discloses himself as a spy for the Black cause. Such dangers do not come across as minor oversights. They suggest a monumental blindness on the part of the White House, even as its enemies have made their way to the very center.

If the audience has suspicions about the White King from the start, they are confirmed when the character does finally appear on stage. In Act Two, he enters to overhear a rape charge from the White Queen's Pawn. To everyone's dismay, he renders an abominable judgment, not only rejecting her charge but putting her in the hands of the Black House. As Act Two ends, we watch the Black pieces dream up all sorts of sexual tortures for their new captive, while the White King exits oblivious to the damage he has just caused. Meanwhile, as we contrast his poor conduct with the pithy aphorisms that pepper his own speeches—he clearly sees himself as a wise figure who dispenses memorable phrases for others to learn—the irony becomes all the more tragic.

Indeed, Middleton does further his plot by exploiting the gaps between the White King's linguistic skills and his public conduct. In Act Three, for instance, he speaks the following lines:

         Has my goodness,
Clemency, love, and favour gracious raised thee
From a condition next to popular labour,
Took thee from all the dubitable hazards
Of fortune, her most unsecure adventures,
And grafted thee into a branch of honour,
And dost thou fall from the top-bough by the rottenness
Of thy alone corruption, like a fruit
That's over-ripened by the beams of favour?
Let thy own weight reward thee, I have forgot thee;
Integrity of life is so dear to me
Where I find falsehood or a crying trespass,
Be it in any whom our grace shines most on,
I'd tear 'em from my heart. (3.1.263-76)

They are among the most poetical lines of the scene, but they are directed at his own pawn—a piece who has only just sacrificed himself to the Black Bishop. In this context, the White Bishop's immediate reply seems ambivalent. When he observes, "Spoke like heaven's substitute," does he sincerely mean to represent the White King as a true agent of God on earth, much as James himself did in his own right? Or is there perhaps an undertone of sarcasm in the line, as though the word "substitute" suggested that the King occupied a space where heaven ought to have been instead?

Given the king's poor handling of corruption within his court, and given his profound inability to recognize the Black Knight's schemes—with over 20,000 plots in the hatching, one would think the king might have stumbled across at least one—it is something of an unexpected relief when the king finally does emerge victorious. As the White Knight and White Duke make a sudden grab for the major Black pieces, putting them in an enormous sack, the king makes the final speech of the play:

So, now let the bag close, the fittest womb
For treachery, pride and malice, whilst we, winner-like,
Destroying, through heaven's power, what would destroy,
Welcome our White Knight with loud peals of joy. (5.3.216-20)

And as the White King oversees the Black pieces fall one by one, we cannot help but wonder how he would remain on top.

One might note that victory has nothing to do with the White King after all. While he does appear during certain high moments of the White House's struggle, he has relatively little stage time in comparison to the other pieces. And while he is the one who proclaims the ultimate victory over his adversaries, the other players—particularly the White Knight and White Duke—are the ones who have done the bulk of the work. Even at the ending, after the curtain falls, it is the White Queen's Pawn who delivers the epilogue, giving a speech which makes no mention of the King whatsoever. In a way it is just as we would expect in a chess game, which usually does not involve the King during the major development stages; but as a play about court affairs, it cannot help but incite discussion about the sort of role a king ought to play in managing major domestic crises.

Another way to explain the king's success is to suggest that A Game at Chess is a hybrid of styles. On the one hand, the plot resembles the types of domestic tragedies that were made popular by the likes of Middleton, as well as John Webster, John Ford, and others. Such plays usually involved complicated plot structures, with multiple twists and surprises, and often they are as ethically complicated as they are intricate. On the other hand, the play also performs as lowbrow propaganda, provoking its audience to war fever. Under such a lens, ethical complexities usually give way to black and white scenarios (as it were), where the forces of good always inevitably triumph over evil.

Perhaps the real challenge would be to explain how playgoers might have related the White House's easy victory to the real war against the Hapsburgs that so many so desperately wanted. Did they believe that a war against Spain would have concluded just as easily as the White House's triumph over its opponents? Did they recognize the severe challenges that a real war would have imposed, and if so, did they use the play's simplistic thematic structure to "cure" themselves of any trepidation? Meanwhile, did the King himself see through Middleton's ruse? After all, he did censor it at the ambassador's request. But did he make the right choice? And even if so, did he bring it about in the right manner? Like the White King on stage, King James's actual role in the affair over A Game at Chess is much easier to speculate about than it is to define.

Adam Kitzes

© 2004 Folger Institute