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The Collation

A Game at Chess: Popularity and Controversy

Over the course of nine days, the Globe Theatre held consecutive performances of Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess (1624). It, by far, is Middleton’s most successful play, with three thousand people in attendance for each performance—thirty thousand people, a seventh of London’s population, had attended a performance of A Game at Chess.1 By the ninth day, the play came to a forced halt and its circulation was banned. But why?

A Game at Chess was deeply controversial for criticizing the Spanish monarchy and its representatives, including the former ambassador to London, Jesuit priest Count Gondomar. Middleton used a giant chessboard as a stage, depicting King James I and his Protestant court as white chess pieces engaged in a game against the Spanish-Catholic represented by black pieces. He had conjured the Black Legend of Spain, a historiographical tendency to paint Spain as evil popularized by Spanish historian Julián Juderías in his book of the same title (La leyenda negra).2 The play was shut down after Gondomar, depicted as the Black Knight, threatened to sever Anglo-Spanish diplomatic ties.

Three figures dressed in Elizabethan clothes with speech bubbles coming out of their mouths. The figures are labeled from left to right as the Fatte Bishop, the Black Knight, and the White King.
An engraving depicting Middleton's A Game at Chess, 1624. Source: The British Museum, 1868,0808.3215.

The Folger holds two extant manuscripts of the play, of which only six exist today. The “Archdall” manuscript (V.a.231) has the date August 13, 1624 on its title page, which means it was most likely completed before the last performance of the play on August 14. It is missing portions of text that other versions of that manuscript have, and it might be the earliest version of the play. Considered to be the most complete copy, the “Rosenbach” manuscript (V.a.342) promises the manuscript “as it was Acted Nine Dayes together.” It is the only copy that has this text on its title page.  

The title A Game att Chesse in a box surrounded by notes in handwriting.
The title page of the "Archdall" manuscript, V.a.231.
A handwritten title page with
The title page of the "Rosenbach" manuscript, V.a.342.

Not only was Middleton a dramaturge, he was London’s Chronologer, the city’s historian, in 1620 and moved in circles filled with important government officials—and he surely understood how provocative a play like A Game at Chess would be. It’s possible that Middleton obtained protection from Sir Henry Herbert, the Master of the Revels and the official government censor responsible for clearing plays for production. Middleton also may have written the play on behalf of Prince Charles, who was involved in the recent suitorship of the Spanish Infanta.3 Middleton did not suffer any serious repercussions from the play. 

A portrait of a man with a small mustache and beard and long curly hair with a laurel in it.
An engraved portrait of Thomas Middleton, 1887. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In order to understand what Middleton was responding to in A Game at Chess, here is some brief historical background. After Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, James I assumed the English throne. He was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots—the infamous Catholic queen beheaded for treason against the crown. Even though James I was a Protestant, his tolerance of Catholic practices and close ties with Catholic foreigners raised questions about his loyalty. These concerns intensified in 1617 when negotiations began for a marriage between Prince Charles, James’s son, and the Infanta Maria, Felipe IV’s sister. The proposed marriage alliance between Prince Charles and Infanta Maria Anna of Spain, commonly referred to as the “Spanish Match,” aimed to strengthen political ties between England and Spain. The Spanish Match was not a success though King James I pursued the match for seven years. He tried to save the struggling marriage negotiations by limiting anti-Spanish speech and relaxing restrictions on Jesuits in England. But these actions didn’t help much and only made the relationship between English Protestants and the monarchy even more tense.

Frustrated by the slow progress, Prince Charles took action in 1623. Disguised with a false beard, he and the Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, traveled to Madrid to claim the Infanta as his bride. However, negotiations faltered, and Charles stayed in Spain for almost eight months. His homecoming on October 15, 1623—without the Infanta—was met with joy.4 To divert attention from the failed trip to Spain, Buckingham crafted a narrative portraying himself and Charles as religious heroes. They claimed to have compelled the King of Spain to reveal his true intentions, urging James to abandon the Spanish match and rescue the Palatinate from Catholicism. Buckingham presented this version of events in a speech to Parliament on February 24, 1624. With Charles’s assistance, they pushed King James I toward a more aggressive Spanish policy, easing restrictions on anti-Spanish speech. Jesuits were also expelled, and England prepared for war in Germany.5

A Game at Chess was not the only time in which Middleton mocked the Spanish. During the annual Lord Mayor’s show in 1617, Thomas Middleton presented a masque called “The Triumph of Honour and Industry.” Englishmen donned Spanish attire as part of the masque. Its purpose was to promote the Grocers’ Company’s trade and industry and to commemorate a new member’s inauguration. True to Middleton’s style, the portrayal of the Spanish characters was not favorable. They were depicted in a humorous and exaggerated style, wearing Spanish-style costumes, including mustaches, hats, capes, and ruffs. These comical outfits and gestures, such as excessive hand-kissing, entertained the crowd and even made the Spanish ambassador laugh.6

Spanish clothing led two different lives in sixteenth century England: of hispanophobia and hispanophilia, rejection and desire. Throughout the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many English stage plays painted a negative caricature of Spaniards and often relied on Spanish clothing to accomplish this: “the caricatured Spaniard becomes his Spanish wardrobe, he is the sum of all his sartorial parts: ruff, hat, hose, and moustache.”7 On the other hand, the English nobility wore Spanish luxury clothing as a regular part of their wardrobe. Similar to how the Spanish nobility’s wardrobe showcased their lucrative textile and dye trade in the Americas, the English nobility embraced foreign attire to showcase their own wealth.8

  1. Stephen Wittek, “Middleton’s ‘A Game at Chess’ and the Making of a Theatrical Public,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 55, no. 2 (2015): 423–46, page 423. Grace Ioppolo, Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), “The pen’s excellencie: Treasures from the Manuscript Collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library” 2002: 90-93, page 91.
  2. “Black Legend | Definition, History, Significance, & Facts | Britannica,”
  3. Ioppolo, 91.
  4. Wittek, 428.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Bethany Helen Pleydell, “The Spanish Tudors: Fashioning the Anglo-Spanish Elite Through Dress, c. 1554-1603, and Beyond” (Historical Studies (History of Art), University of Bristol, 2018),, page 254.
  7. Ibid, 250.
  8. Ibid, 252.