Essay: To what extent is Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess a play for the audience of its time and space?

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  • To what extent is Thomas Middleton's A Game at Chess a play for the audience of its time and space?
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Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess as a critique on the contemporary socio-political events of Early Modern history. Middleton’s revolutionary English History play, A Game at Chess, was the greatest box-office hit in Early Modern London, filling the Globe Theatre for 9 consecutive days in August 1624 before having its license revoked and Middleton and the King’s Men being punished. Since this momentous run, the play has disappeared from the performance canon, it is known for the notoriety around the event instead of the values of a performance text.

In this essay, I will unpack the socio-political environment leading up to the writing and performance of A Game at Chess in 1624 and how these relate to the satirising of Spanish, Catholic and Jesuit policies, game-playing and apparent manipulation, as perceived by the general public. The feelings of Hispanophobia and anti-Catholics were prevalent in this period due to the threat of war, but mainly due to England being a majority Protestant country. These sentiments created an atmosphere perfect for the performance of a topical play that pushed these ideas into a satire of the current affairs. This immersion within the social and political landscape of the time meant that his work is a product of the time within which it was created. The incredible reactions of the audience in the Jacobean Theatres of London is a useful point to start analysis of why A Game at Chess became the most successful play of its time. Through using Bourdieu’s theories of ordinary and popular art, I will examine the contemporary responses to the production in terms of the popularity it received. Fortunately, mainly due to the notoriety and high number of audience members, this play produced a high volume of eyewitness testimony allowing for contemporary responses to be compared.

Since the first run of the performance, the popularity of the play has waned; there have been very few performances of A Game at Chess. In comparison to the notoriety of Shakespeare, Middleton is barely known outside of academia. Drawing links between these two playwrights are valuable, since Middleton has been coined as “our other Shakespeare” (Taylor, 2012, p47), despite his lack of current popularity. Shakespeare’s work is often described as having universal themes, or a play for all the ages, however the distinct topicality of Middleton’s A Game at Chess, has led the play to recede into theatre history, instead of relevant for continued performances over the ages. To understand the change in perception of Middleton’s work, I will draw on ideas of censorship, later audience reactions and criticisms and understand the role of the Globe’s original audience. It is arguable that Middleton’s play, A Game at Chess, is suited most to its locality and time of original performance.

Thomas Middleton

Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) was born in London, the son of a bricklayer and a Gentleman who had risen in the world and owned property by the Curtain Theatre. His early life was dominated by the expanding metropolis of London and his faith within the protestant church. Middleton married Magdalene Marbecke, the daughter of a protestant clerk, this could display a commitment to both the church and an upward progression in his social standing. Middleton matriculated at Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1598, although he left without a degree and returned to London’s restless literary and theatrical worlds. This background in study, social climbing and living in the heart of London led to a deep knowledge of both London life and literary skill which was evident in his writings, both fictional and factual.

His career coincided almost exactly with the reign of James I, and he became perhaps the leading Jacobean playwright, creating highly successful comedies such as The Roaring Girl (1611) and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1630), and tragedies, including The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), Women Beware Women (1657) and The Changeling (1622). He popularly drew on historical and relevant current issues in his works such as in Hengist and King of Kent (1620). He was also a prolific collaborator and worked successfully with almost all the significant playwrights of the age, including Shakespeare. He was trusted to curate the Shakespeare folios by the King’s Men and is credited as being a lead collaborator for Macbeth and Measure for Measure. In contrast to the published collections of Shakespeare (1623), Middleton’s works were not published as a collective until 2007. Despite this, A Game at Chess “survives in more early independent documents than any play of the English Renaissance.” (Taylor, 2007 p20)

Middleton’s varied career displayed a clear interest in the current cultural affairs of London. His affiliation with the city was clear in the form of masques, entertainments and two Lord Mayors pageants. He wrote poems, pamphlets and speeches and was the City’s Chronologer. Within his role as the City Chronologer (appointed in 1620) he released two manuscripts that, unlike other manuscripts, are still available today, elements that continue to highlight his success in this position. His duties included that of ‘Inventor of Entertainments’ (Barker, 1958 p20): This was a popular and respected role, frequently taken by poets and dramatists such as Jonson and Francis Quarles (Roebuck in Taylor, 2008 p126).

Middleton combines two of his passions in his final play A Game at Chess: politics and art. Not too distant from the form of the satirical docu-drama, Middleton frames the current cultural events in the dramatic frame to create a production distinctly unique in its time. The play does not conform easily to subscribed genres of history or comedy. Indeed the tone, aesthetic regimes and social classes are all formed into one contentious, divisive performance that within its temporal and spatial contemporary setting encouraged a popular opinion, however became contentious and divided opinions over the course of history.

Socio-Political context

Middleton was a Londoner at a time when London was becoming a major hub for the new capitalism, its strength and self-confidence epitomised in the Royal Exchange in the City of London, and the New Exchange opened in 1608 in the Strand.

London was a polygot capital experiencing a rate of extreme population growth, between 1580 and 1650, the population went from 100,000 to 400,000 people (Gurr, 1987 p54). The commercial environment allowed merchants to gain extreme wealth. At the same time, real wages were falling and there was a high level of unemployment. The juxtaposition of vast privilege and poverty were distilled into the city of London with the proximity of social classes forming a hub in the city’s public theatres as the most popular form of entertainment.

The unsuccessful Spanish Armada of 1588 and the failed Gunpowder plot of 1605 provided a continued target toward Spanish Catholicism, in particular, the militant Jesuits. Spain represented the largest threat to Protestantism both in England and on the continent. The general popular opinion was that of a fear and resentment of Spanish Catholics. This was exacerbated by the vast amounts of anti-Hispanic pamphlets produced that I will reference later in this essay. The current peace with Spain and the peace-making matrimonies between the Royal families were unpopular with the high proportion of Puritans in England, in particular, the pro-Spanish policies of James I from 1618 with the Spanish Ambassador, Gondomar (Heinemann, 1980, p153).

Artworks were often used to examine this turbulent political climate, such as the image of The Revells of Christendome (1609) . This is a satirical print that ridicules the position of the most powerful men in Europe. Depicting the negotiations and hostilities between the nations through the use of party board games and cards, this engraving is also a collaboration of the visual artist Crockson and an unidentified poet. The image and context has striking similarities with A Game at Chess due to the use of powerful politicians within a game setting and the collaboration of the artist and poet. The most poignant current cultural events of the time related to the Royal family’s peace-making role between Protestants and Catholics.

Writing the play

There is no precise record of when Middleton wrote his play. Hill’s most convincing suggestion is that it is most likely to have been written at the end of April, and early May 1624. The many editions of the play also show that Middleton continued to edit and write additional lines to increase the topicality ensuring the play would have the most impact in August. The start of April as an indicator of when Middleton first started to write the play would have aligned with the release of Thomas Scot’s pamphlet, The Second Part of the Voc Populi which, due to his state of exile, he published from the Netherlands. Thomas Scot’s second Vox Populi pamphlet in May 1624 argues that the stage would be a useful place to present the anti-Spanish rhetoric:

“We see sometimes Kings are content in plays and masks to be admonished of divers things…
And might I not borrow a Spanish name or two, as well as French or Italian, to grace this comedy with stately actors? Or must they only be reserved for Kingly tragedies? Why not Gondomar as well as Hieronymo or Duke d’Alva? And why not Philip as well as Peter, or Alfonso, or Caesar? Or might I not make as bold with them, as they with our Black Prince, or Henry the Eighth, or Edward the Sixth, or Queen Elizabeth, or King James, or the King and Queen of Bohemia? If this be censurable for being a fiction, it is surely for lack of a fool, which, they say, comedies should not be without, and for a need, this witty objector may supply the place.”

(Vox Regis, in volume of tracts by Thomas Scot, dated 1624 (S.T.C 22102), pp. 34,10)

There is a high likelihood that Middleton would have read this Vox Populi and been further encouraged to create his satirical comedy. The King’s Men were the most celebrated and in demand actors of the day, with the Globe being the most frequented playhouse, so there must have been a calling to provide a script for his cast of stately actors.

The image of Gondomar on the front cover of A Game at Chess, who Middleton reimagined as the villainous Black Knight, also furthers the comparison between these texts. If nothing else, Scot’s pamphlet showed that there was an appetite for a theatrical recreation of current events, and Middleton was the writer to provide this. The timing of April/May 1624 also aligns with the contemporary general consensus of being against the marriage of the Infanta to Charles, where previously there was some agreement to this match. The scandalous act of putting on a performance that may be against censorship also suggests the reason why the play was performed in August, when the King was out of town.

Establishing the moment of writing in spring 1624 has thrust this discussion into the most popular and controversial conversation of these years, yet it was of high risk to clearly present such regal and high-powered issues on stage. Although A Game at Chess is specific to its specific time and place with the heightened political affairs, the production itself was unusual within its time. The popular stage wasn’t generally used to open debate about matters of contemporary political controversy. So why did Middleton write and stage this play, especially when censorship meant that it was unlikely to be allowed? Was there a demand and popular appeal to explore this key political moment? Did Middleton see the economic viability of an audience who had previously held bonfires and street parties to celebrate the failure of the Spanish negotiations? Did he have a sponsor that encouraged this as a mode of propaganda to fuel the continued Hispanophobia of the public so as to persuade a view that a war on Spain was a viable option?

Each of these questions poses intimate answers that could only spurn theories of the possibilities of Middleton’s mind. One area of exploration is that of censorship: A Game at Chess was passed through censorship without any further payment for re-writing or any questioning of the material (Heinemann, 1980 p167). Yet, the play was shut down by Royal order on the ninth day of performances. Heinemann suggests four points that point “William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, the Lord Chamberlain and, after Buckingham, the most powerful and influential of the peers” (Heinemann, 1980 p167) as Middleton’s sponsor. The most interesting of these is of Pembroke’s political opinion due to his role as leader of the anti-Spanish group on the Privy Council. This uniquely bold play is likely to have had a strong effect on encouraging the puritan perspective to ordinary Londoners. Through having a sponsorship from the Lord Chamberlain, it would have been easy to pass through the immediate censorship of the Master of Revels.

A Game at Chess

Thomas Middleton’s play A Game at Chess performed in August 1624 at the Globe Theatre by The King’s Men. This sophisticated, critical satire of matters of contemporary geopolitical controversy is symbolically stylized within the framework of a dream of a chess game. The bold simplicity of the structure allowed for the dramatic political conflict appears to be reduced to Black and White, yet allows for the caricatures to be represented clearly to the audience. A Game at Chess satirizes the Catholic faith through creating a comedy of virginity, anal sex, plotting, guilt, sins and absolution.

“What of the game called chess-play can be made
To make a stage-play shall this day be played.
First you shall see the men in order set,
States and their pawns, when both the sides are met,
The Houses well distinguished; in the game
Some men entrapped and taken, to their shame,
Rewarded by their play, and in the close
You shall see checkmate given to virtue’s foes.
But the fairest jewel that our hopes can deck
Is so to play our game to avoid your check”
(Hill, 2003 p63)

The prologue stanza of A Game at Chess reveals the environment of the play- world. The rules are clearly stated that the play will be set within the confines of the game, yet Middleton continuously breaks these rules himself. This causes a tremendous tension, similar to that of a chess player, where the characters are consistently second guessing the next play from their opponent. The royal game is led by Kings and Queens, Knights and Bishops and deftly supported by the easily defeated pawns. There is an overwhelming sense of paranoia that is synonymous to the current moment of the threat of a Jesuit take over of England.

A Game at Chess rewrites the negotiations of attempted peace making between Protestant England and Catholic Europe. Prince Charles and the Duke of Buckingham’s visit to Madrid to confirm the marriage with the Infanta Maria was the starting point. The peace making visit, aiming to “woe and make love, and not to make war” (Ruigh in Hill) was King James’ attempt at calming the antagonism between Britain and Spain. The white pieces pertaining to the English and the Black to the Spanish. The Black Knight in the chess game is the hated Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador, whom it was believed had too much influence with King James. In 1621 ‘a group of London apprentices who called out after Gondomar’s litter ‘There goes the devil in a dung-cart’ came to blows with the ambassador’s followers and the unwilling Lord Mayor was obliged by the Crown to sentence them to be whipped through the street’ (Heinemann, 1980 p154). This act was highly disliked by the public and showed the extreme contrast between the popular opinion of those apprentices who compared the Spanish ambassador to the ‘devil’ with that of King James I to punish them. A Richard III-like villain, he was portrayed as exactly as possible. The actors even acquired his clothes and his litter, and the actor playing the Black Knight mimicked his every mannerism. Meanwhile, Charles was the White Knight, Buckingham the White Rook and James the White King. The chess motif defamiliarised the drama which shows a game of chess: Black’s offensive is held off and he is finally checkmated by discovered check, a humiliating way to lose a game. The previous year, there had been ‘joy and relief with bonfires in the street’ (Heinemann, 1980, p 154) which had created an unusual National unity when Charles and Buckingham had returned from Spain without the Infanta. This large celebration of joy and publicly popular view was parallel to that of the clearly recognizable chess characters. The topicality, specifically of Gondomar, means that this play is written and performed specifically for the audience of that contemporary time. The comic resonance of the familiarity of the Black Knight makes the play an event that is important and worth paying money to see. Over time, the lack of knowledge of these specific people means that the topicality becomes a reason for the play to become stuck within this summer of 1624, no longer is this “the famous play of Gondomar” (Chamberlain in Hill, 2003 p24)

The reframing of providentialist history into chess play enables the contemporary public to reimagine and critically analyse the recent events. As soon as the first stanza begins, Middleton is successful in using narrative form to clearly display the topical events of the day. Error’s dream game is elastic in its interpretation of the rules of chess, using theatrical ploys of cross-dressing and deception to continually challenge the audience’s expectations. In Act 3, Scene 1, the White King’s Pawn is revealed by the White Knight as a traitorous “premeditated turncoat” (Hill, 2003, line 297) along with the Black knight and the Black Knight’s Pawn, they are placed in the eschatological bag. Complicating the moral judgement, the audience are tricked as equally as the characters on stage in the slight of hand that Middleton plays within this war game. The moralistic qualities of A Game at Chess are directly of value and understood by the contemporary audience. The majority of Londoners were actively religious and would immediately recognise these traits on stage, Hill notes that “Middleton employed the long-standing stories of the wickedness of Jesuits, priests and the gullible superstitions of the Catholics” (1995, p71). Therefore the typically moralistic values presented in the play are likely to have been expected by this contemporary audience, however the trickery of the play would continue to spark excitement and applause.

Audience defined

“Audience is like a great beast which the actor must tame into silence” (Dekker, 1609)

To consider the first audiences at A Game at Chess it is useful to consider the etymology of the term audience and to problematize the use of this word. Gurr examines the use of audience vs spectator in Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London (1987). Audience from the latin audire means to listen (1987 p85). Spectator has its root form of ‘specere’, meaning to see. Neither of these terms fully encompasses the immersive sensory quality of the theatre going experience where there is value in not only the spoken word and what is seen (such as the actors, costumes and scenery) but also the further senses that come with the theatre experience. The emotional reactions to the performance and these senses also add to the value of being within a community of other people .

New vocabulary has never overtaken the common use of the term ‘audience’ which is a victory for poets and playwrights and is still present, although arguably changing within theatre today where value is still mostly placed on the author of the script over the visuals within the performance. When considering the value of the text over performance, it is interesting to note the high volume of written evidence of A Game at Chess. The several copies of manuscripts and audience witness statements mean that for a modern audience, this written, tangible evidence allows it to live through history.

Playgoing in the early modern period was deemed an idle activity, Flavius calls his audience ‘idle creatures’ in Shakespeare’s Julius Casear. Instead of working, the audience are enjoying a play, where there is the latent shared suspicion that watching plays is unproductive, passive and voyeuristic. There is no skill in simply watching a play. Theatre is not something you are trained in: there are no critics or casting agents, directors or theatre lecturers in the 1600s. However during this period, the audience are emancipated from the present conventions of theatre going spectatorship, the characters frequently address their audience, and the audience are present with the actors. In A Game at Chess, Act IV opens with an aside to the audience “’Tis he, my confessor!” (IV.i.1). The Black Knight’s Pawn immediately introduces the audience to the Black Bishop’s Pawn and encourages the audience to be present with the meeting of the characters.

Despite the puritan distrust of the theatre, the audience at the Globe was vast. It ranged from nobles to vagrants and vagabonds. William Harrison’s (1577) four classes were divided by land ownership:

1. Nobles and Gentlemen
2. Citizens and burgesses
3. Yeomen (rural smallholders)
4. Artisans and labourers
(Hill, 1987 p50)

The emphasis on land ownership in Harrison’s 1577 description of London was shifting by the 1620s, and many young heirs were selling their land to have more portable property as the lavish lifestyle of capitalist culture was setting in place. The majority of the Globe audience would likely to have been made up of the artisan and labourer populations who were potentially skipping work to attend a performance.

Outside of the class breakdown, Harrison also includes 23 types of thief within his description of England. Although there are only a few recorded incidents of thefts at the playhouses, it is likely that thieves operated in the busy theatres. The Lord Mayor’s complaints were often about how playhouse’s audiences were often made up of vagrants and vagabonds (Gurr, 1987 p53). After 1600, and the audiences became more accustomed with the theatre, affrays grew less and the atmospheres were of places to be entertained.

Women were 90% illiterate towards the end of the 17th Century, so the examples of their attendance was recorded mostly from the male perspective, where there was an assumption that ‘female playgoers were motivated by sex, whether for pleasure or money’ (Gurr, 1987 p63) therefore it’s challenging to find strong evidence as to the different women within the audience. Yet, women from all sections of society went to plays, from Queen Henrietta Maria, to apple-sellers, wives, prostitutes and vagrants: “General conclusion from the evidence must be that the wives of citizens were regular playgoers” (Gurr, 1987 p63).

Audience reactions: The occasion of the play

A Game at Chess has been the most widely documented of plays from eyewitnesses for a piece of early modern theatre. There have been 8 early versions of the play, including one by Middleton’s own hand. This wide variety of primary material offers a wide scope for discussion and interrogation.

A Game at Chess was performed for a record of nine consecutive days, which was unheard of in the Early Modern period when repertory theatre saw a different text performed each day. The Spanish Ambassador Coloma, who was an eyewitness to the performance, wrote to the King “that there were more than 3,000 persons there on the day that the audience was the smallest.” If this information were correct, then there could have been between 27,000 and 54,000 people seeing the performance. When in context of the population of London being 200,000, this shows the extent of the public appreciation of this performance. The level of anti-Hispanic, anti-Catholic feelings was prevalent throughout London in 1624. The previous years of mass bonfires and celebrations when Prince Charles returned to London safely, and without his Spanish bride, was continued with this production. Therefore the public attending the Globe eagerly absorbed the success of these topical subject matters. However, this performance was still at risk and every day as current events were banned from being used in theatres, the actors and the public expected the authorities to ban the performances. But for nine days this theatrical attack on Spain and Catholicism continued. The King’s Men made more money than ever before.

The audience at A Game at Chess was varied across all social classes, one observer described this audience as ‘frequented by all sorts of people old and younge, rich and poore, masters and servants, papists and puritans, wise men etc. churchmen and statesmen … and a world besides’ (Companion 870 in Taylor, 2012 p10) . Middleton was known for his large-scale, highly accessible productions for the Lord Mayor’s pageants. Vast numbers of people would often witness his writing in the free celebrations of the city. It is interesting to look at A Game at Chess within Bourdieu’s theories of whether this is a work of art or popular entertainment. The vast amount of audience at the production infers that the work was a piece of ‘popular entertainment’ for the masses, with a range from all areas of the social spectrum. In contrast to the ‘formal refinement’ which take place in “the icy solemnity of the great museums, the grandiose luxury of the opera-houses and major theatres, the décor and decorum of concert-halls” (Bourdieu, 2013 p26) we see the Kings Men consciously choose to perform at their public theatre, The Globe, instead of the more exclusive Blackfriars. The Globe was accessible to many audiences and a place for frivolity and entertainment instead of the ‘icy solemnity’ of more exclusive spaces. Indeed, the festivity of the occasions and the ‘merriment’ that is described by Woolley that even after the event, the Royal family ‘laught heartily’ (Hill, 1995 p79) aligns this production with Bourdieu’s ideas that “popular entertainment secures the spectator’s participation in the show and collective participation in the festivity which it occasions” (Bourdieu, 2013 p26). Indeed the festivity of a full theatre and surprising nature of this production increased the short- lived popularity. The collective knowledge of the failed marriage attempt of Prince Charles as well as those bonfires and public celebrations meant that the audience were likely to have felt very connected to the show. Similarly to the public pageants, Middleton uses the common, collective memories of the audience within the performance. “By the standards of Jonson, Chapman, Milton, and Pope, Middleton’s popular success was proof of artistic failure.” (Taylor, 2012 p9) The short lived explosion of popularity for Middleton’s first audiences were not described as the quiet appreciators of ‘high culture’ pieces, instead were noisy and vocal in their appreciation: “The crowd inside the theatre in 1624 responded with such ‘merriment, hubbub, and applause’ that it could be heard miles away, and reports of it echoed throughout Europe” (Taylor, 2012 p10). The play itself shows the range of characters on the stage, from the omniscient Ghosts of Religious founders who open the play with the prologue, to the final moments that are spoken by the White Queen’s pawn. The final moment conveys the words of the Queen through the voice of the ‘Everyman’, “she’s assured what they’d commit to bane/ Her White friends’ loves will build up fair again” (Epilogue, 10). And the result is a false hand from Middleton, that all this drama and political cunning was all in vein, as the game will be repeated in a dystopian loop.

The production played on the un-popularity of Gondomar, and despite the complex allegory of the chess-game, there is clear recognition of whom each character is portraying. Bourdieu’s description of the “‘popular aesthetic’… based on the affirmation of the continuity between art and life, which implies the subordination of form to function,” (2013, xxvii), is a useful theory to explore. The distinct novelty of this play, as described by an eye-witness, Woolley as “such a thing was never before invented” (Revels in Hill 1995, p76) suggests the value placed on this new style of play, in particular the use of allegorical form to show topical events. In contrast to the separation of the form that Bourdieau implies is rejected: “the working-class audience refuses any sort of formal experimentation” (2013, xxvii). This experimentation is valued and the ‘distancing’ of the spectators by the real ‘celebrities’ transformed into chess pieces is appreciated. The comedy and popularity of this distancing is likely to be due to how clear each chess piece was to their real-life counterpart. The popularity of this allegorical play, was particularly focused on the ‘celebrity’ aspects of the performance, including the use of props and costumes sourced directly from those who they were representing. The use of costume directly received from the former Spanish Ambassador to London Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, conde de Gondomar, would have been highly appreciated by the audience. The great efforts that the King’s Men employed to source the real costume of Gondomar was clear as contemporary reactions repeatedly referenced his likeness. Condama, the current archbishop of Spain wrote “Gondomar… brought on to the stage… almost to the life” (Hill, 1995, p113) and Chamberlain reported “Gondomar is daily upon the stage” (Hill, 1995, p113). Indeed, although the characters are named as the chess pieces, it was clear for the audience that, despite this separation of form, it was a popular aesthetic due to the striking portrayal of these characters.

The play was indeed popular across all levels of society, including several notable audience members, these included: John Jolles, Lord Haughton, Sir Edward Gorge, Lord Gorges of Dundalk, Sir Henry Wootton, Sir Albertus Morton, Sir Benjamin Rudyerd, Sir Thomas Lake (Heinneman, 1980). It is interesting to note that none of these notable, connected audience members decided that A Game at Chess needed an official response to the royal family about their impersonation and likeness on stage. The performance, in August, meant that it would be seen at the Globe Playhouse instead of Blackfriars. This meant there would be more audience members as well as a more diverse group. The King was away during August, so there could have been the opinion that this controversial play would be less likely to be closed.

Despite the general popularity, there were some reports in the form of letters and diary entries that foretold the closure of the play. George Lowe said “It is thought that it will be called in and the parties punished” (Revels I,3 in Hill 1995). The risqué nature of being so close to the current political events meant that it could be deemed surprising that the play wasn’t censored before it was performed potentially why there were an unusually high number of consecutive performances. As previously established, a potential sponsorship by William Herbert, the Lord Chamberlain, made the acceptance of the play smooth. In addition to A Game at Chess, previous controversial plays had been licensed by the Master of Revels, Burt asserts “virtually all of the plays that were the subject of political controversy in the Renaissance had been previously licensed” (1993, 543) therefore the licensing is potentially less controversial than previously asserted by Heinneman. Indeed, the lack of comment by the notable English patrons who attended the performance continued the lack of closure. However the official complaint by Coloma, current archduke of Spain, caused the final closure of the play after its ninth-day. The boldness and presumption of depiction on stage of the Spanish ambitions, in particular the Spanish King Phillip, Gondomar and De Dominis, were enough to cause the Spanish Ambassador Coloma to complain to the royal authorities to have the play closed.


After A Game at Chess was closed down, Middleton went into hiding and the performance was stopped. He was summoned by the Privy Council and likely arrested. The King’s Men were banned from performing the play again and fined £300 (Hill, 2003 p23). Despite this, his city employers didn’t disown him.

“He continued his post as chronologer; was employed to write another Lord Mayor’s pageant in 1626; and was admitted to membership of the Draper’s Company by redemption in the same year… the city gave some money to his widow. The recognition of Middleton’s services was definite, if not handsome” (Heinemann, 1980 p169)

Surprisingly, there are speculations that the players reprised their performance for the pleasures of court. Woolley reported “(how true it is I know not) that the Players are gone to the Courte to Act the game at Chesse before the Kinge.” (Hill, 2003, p22) This rumour shows not only how popular the themes of the play were to the general public, but also amongst the royal family, who despite their likeness being depicted on stage, the joy of the successes of the chess game against the Spanish match seemed popular.

“In the Caroline period, when the Middleton canon re-rose to some popularity, A Game at Chess ‘seems unlikely to have been revived on the commercial stage, although it is possible that it was performed in a university setting in the early 1640s’”(Munro in Taylor, 2012 p170).

One could suggest that the censoring of the play could mean that English theatres would, not ‘admit’ Middleton’s scenes for almost three centuries, “from Jeremy Collier’s rejection of ‘the immorality and profaneness of the English stage’ (1698) until the abolition of theatrical censorship in the 1960s.” (Taylor, 2012 p10). However, the lack of transhistorical popularity of A Game at Chess, in particular the lack of revival in recent years, is likely to be based on the lack of topical relevance the play has today. It would be interesting to potentially explore the links between current nationalistic tendencies toward the ‘other’, however, the presumption in the language that the audience has a predisposition to disliking that other, is currently outside of popular thinking, especially for a liberal theatre scene.

It is notable that the only recent recordings of productions of A Game at Chess were in the 1970s. There were two student productions of A Game at Chess at Oxford (1971) and Cambridge (1973). These small performances were unlikely to generate the popularity of performance from 1624, however some of the socio-political events such as the Equal Pay Act (1970), the splitting of political parties, and the paramilitary campaign in Northern Ireland conducted by the IRA (1969 – 1997) could have created some useful topical parrallels. There is no historical evidence to show the Universities used these events, however if the characters were re-assigned to contemporary settings, then there could be some re-creation of the topicality of the original performance.

The popularity of A Game at Chess has since fallen from common knowledge outside of academic circles. The shockingly recent publication of the collected works of Middleton in 2007 contributes to further readings and interrogation. Taylor boldly states: “The 2007 Oxford edition of Middleton’s Collected Works established a Middleton system, whose principles have not yet been articulated, and whose integration into the larger literary universe has only just begun.” (Taylor, 2012 p1)


The distinct aesthetic value of Middleton’s work as a division of white and black house, simplified the complex political power play of England against Spain, Protestant again Jesuit. A statement politically controversial for the court, yet offered a reflection of the popular views of the public in 1624. The stage allowed a space to present Spain as a plotting nation, only 20 years after the failed gunpowder plot, this time with the failed puppet-master, Gondomar. This performance can be presented as a social commentary that showed the public consensus was that of Hispanophobia. A startlingly topical play, stuck within it’s context, A Game at Chess was unique in that a play with such a bold political statement to the current culture was allowed to be performed, even if for only nine days.

In this essay I have examined the ideas of the popularity of A Game at Chess, indeed, it appears that this play is stuck within the popularity of its specific time and place. Much like an episode of Spitting Image (Curtis, ITV, 1984 – 2014), it is designed and crafted to receive appreciation for its contemporary audience. Middleton and the King’s Men carefully worked on the current political climate, popular opinions, belief systems and the joyfully popular dislike of individual former ambassador of Spain. The most interesting aspect for a current reader of A Game at Chess, isn’t the text itself, instead, it has been the reactions, critical engagement and the political furore which surround the original performance itself. Unlike most of Shakespeare’s plays that can be universally appreciated across times and cultures, there is a particular energy that feeds off the political drama. This noisy event of a bursting Globe theatre, that held the audience of 1624 London for nine consecutive days was one of the greatest box office hit that now, is unlikely to be popularly performed again. Taylor ends the analysis of the play in the 2007 Collected Works: “despite the characteristic modesty about its own merit, there will never be another play quite like this. It belongs to a category of one.” (2007, p1829)

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