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 Knight

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

The White Knight

A Game at Chess capitalizes on the increasing hostility toward Spain, and it casts the White Knight as the true hero of England. But it is equally easy to see the White Knight—the allegorical representation of Prince Charles—as a fool; and the view depends on one's own political position and insight.

In his letter to the Spanish court, the Spanish Ambassador in London described the White Knight's role in the play: "The last act ended with a long, obstinate struggle between all the whites and the blacks, and in it he who acted the Prince of Wales [the White Knight] heartily beat and kicked the 'Count of Gondomar' into Hell, which consisted of a great hole and hideous figures; and the white king [drove] the black king and even his queen [into hell] almost as offensively. All this has been so much applauded and enjoyed by the mob that here, where no play has been acted for more than one day [consecutively], this one has already been acted on four, and each day the crowd is greater." (Howard-Hill, A Game at Chess, 195)

Indeed, the White Knight presents the audience with an overly flattering characterization of Charles, Prince of Wales, as the epitome of courage and virtue who saves the White Queen's Pawn by riding into the Black House and uncovering their duplicity, albeit through his own dissembling. He "confesses" to the Black Knight, "I'm an arch-dissembler, sir" (5.3.145) and thus sets up the "checkmate by Discovery" that allows the White King and Queen to preside over the triumph of the White House. As a bag is opened—representing both the maw of hell and the bag into which captured chess pieces are put—the other black players are observed bickering among themselves. "Contention in the bag! Is hell divided?" (5.3.198), the White Knight asks before the White King and Queen unite to put the remaining black players—the Black King and Queen, the Black Knight, and the Black Duke—in with the others, thus securing the destination of the opposition and the victory for the White House.

The sensational run came to an end when King James censored the performance. But was this a concession to the Spanish ambassador's outrage? Or did it reflect the King's own sense of injured merit? Was the audience responding to the simple jingoistic triumph of England over Spain, or were they compelled by the allegorical complexity of the performance that allowed for ambiguous readings of even the white characters? The duplicity of the Jesuits of the Black House is clear, but how does the audience read the duplicity or cleverness of Prince Charles and Buckingham?

Walter W. Cannon
Central College

Suggestions for further reading:

Yachnin, Paul, "A Game at Chess: Thomas Middleton's 'Praise of Folly'." Modern Language Quarterly 48 (1987): 105-23.

Dutton, Richard, ed. Thomas Middleton: Women Beware Women and Other Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

© 2004 Folger Institute