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The Tempest, part 3: Check and mate

During the big reveal in Act V, scene 1, Prospero pulls a curtain back to reveal Ferdinand, Prince of Naples, playing chess with his fiancée, Miranda, daughter of the Duke of Milan.

As soon as I read that, I was all "what's the significance of the chess game?", only to find commentary after commentary that said something like "the chess game is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing except a scene of quiet domesticity" or "journeys end in lovers meeting over a chess board, especially when one of them is from Naples" or "sometimes a banana is just a banana". And frankly, I didn't buy it. Especially since we not only see them playing chess, but also eavesdrop on a bit of their conversation. Here are the lines in question:

Here PROSPERO discovers FERDINAND and MIRANDA playing at chess


Sweet lord, you play me false.


No, my dear'st love,
I would not for the world.


Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle,
And I would call it, fair play.

That's right - Miranda accuses Ferdinand of cheating, and when he says he wouldn't do so "for the world", she says "if you were going after twenty kingdoms, I would allow it" or, maybe, "you ought to go after twenty kingdoms, and I would not mind."

Here's what I think - and it's a hodgpodge, based on scrambling around books and the internet for information, so I feel a list coming on:

1. It's clear that Shakespeare wanted to give the audience one last look at the happy couple being happy. The choice of chess, however, is not strictly speaking necessary, and therefore has to have some sort of significance. Nevermind the naysayers - sometimes

2. Chess is "the game of kings", and was so during Shakespeare's time. Ferdinand is the Prince of Naples who will someday be king; Miranda will be queen. Interestingly, although it's the game of kings, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board.

3. In a play presumed to have been written at least 10 years earlier, The Life and Death of King John, Queen Elinor (Eleanor of Aquitaine, a distant ancestor of mine) accuses her rival in Act II as follows, "Out, insolent! Thy bastard shall be king./That thou mayst be a queen and check the world!" On its face, that second line means "you want to be the queen and thereby control the world," but that is evidently not what Queen Elinor's second meaning indicates.

I've not read the play, but I tracked down some commentaries to investigate the context, and it turns out that Queen Elinor is a bit like Lady Macbeth, urging her king (in this case, her youngest son, King John) to do what she wants. She is falsely accusing Constance, the mother of Arthur, of adultery (hence the term bastard) and of being a whore (a second meaning of "queen" in conjunction with "check" - as in checkmate), despite knowing that Constance is neither. And the phrase "Thy bastard shall be king" is not a command, but one of those "As if" sorts of constructions, at least in Shakespeare's time. One of those "this is what you want and why you want it" moments, which actually tells you more about the speaker than about the subject of the sentence. But I digress.

4. As a sidenote, for chess aficianados out there, the queen didn't actually become the most powerful piece on the board until the early 16th century, so Queen Elinor's lines are one of the many anachronisms found in Shakespeare's work. In earlier times, the queen could only jump three spaces, and did not have the run of the board.

5. In chess, in Shakespeare's time as now, the Queen has the run of the board - she may move as many spaces as she likes (or as are possible) in any direction - horizontal, vertical, or diagonal. The King, on the other hand, is far more confined and can move only one space at a time (in any direction).

6. In Shakespeare's time, as in T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland's second part, "A Game of Chess", chess could be a metaphor for sex - you move here, I move there, etc. Not that they were having sex - they were actually playing a board game. But a loaded one.

7. In Shakespeare's time, chess was extremely popular - it had been a great favorite of Queen Elizabeth I's - and it was everywhere recognized that Naples was the center of the chess world. Howard Furness, editor of an 1892 edition of the play that can be found online at GoogleBooks in its entirety (it's in the public domain), has nearly three full pages of notes between pages 249-252, devoted to information such as this and interpretations by Dr. Samuel Johnson and others (none of whom I agree with, actually).

8. The object of the game of chess is to capture the opposing King. Miranda, the future queen, has already captured Ferdinand, the opposing future king, and has therefore already won the game. More to the point, Prospero has used Miranda & Ferdinand as pawns in a game whereby he seeks to capture Alonso's loyalty and repentance and to reclaim his social status, which will be helped by a strong political alliance such as their marriage would bring about. The "reveal" is akin to a play within a play, showing the same sort of "wrangling" unfolding, but writ small.

9. At least one commentary I found in Some Textual Difficulties in Shakespeare by Charles David Stewart, suggests that the five-lines above are supposed to telegraph the couple's happiness to the audience - something that cannot be done if we are to believe that Ferdinand has won the game by cheating (a suggestion of many over the years), or that Miranda has actually upbraided him for it in a serious manner. Rather, Stewart proposes the following (which comes down to a specific staging of the pieces on the board), which makes perfect sense to me:

As a matter of fact, the trouble here is not one of this word or that, for they are all perfectly familiar, nor of a particular phrase nor yet any doubtful grammatical construction. What is wanted is an insight of the spirit in which the lovers are speaking throughout. If we ask what Miranda means in this remark, why do we not go further and inquire what she means by saying "Sweet lord, you play me false." Was Ferdinand cheating? If so, what sort of ideal lover is he, and how has his character changed so utterly of a sudden? If he was not playing her false, what does she mean by saying he is? Is she just doing this for the pleasure of hearing him deny it and declare his devotion? If she was so politic a coquette here she is certainly not the utterly sincere and frank Miranda we have learned to take pleasure in.

The question should be: What does this whole scene mean? Why did Shakespeare write it at all? What was his object? The solution consists in pointing out the whole dramatic scheme of the author when he invented the scene.

When Shakespeare sat down to write this he had come to the fifth act of "The Tempest"; and almost the end of the act. The characters have all gone through their strange experience; deep lessons have been taught, past wrongs retributed and the fond lover tried; the magic wand has been discarded and Ariel is all done except for a slight remaining service. It is really the end of the play with only a formal conclusion to be observed.

At this point, Shakespeare wished to give us a final glimpse of the happy lovers; and he wanted to do it in some short climactic way which would give us the deepest and most delighted insight of perfect unselfish love. How would he contrive to do it? With only blank paper before him, and in his usual mood of close scrutiny into human nature, he sat and thought it over. When he was through he had done it in five lines; and here is what the audience saw:

The entrance to the cave or cell being uncovered, Miranda and Ferdinand were seen within at a game of chess. Pawns, knights, castles, bishops in their respective colors were prominent on the board; and (what an audience would take account of at once) they were mostly in Miranda's possession. Miranda was winning. And now we hear her say:

Sweet lord, you play me false.

In other words, Ferdinand was deliberately giving the game away to her. He answers:

No, my dearest love,
I would not for the world.

As a matter of fact he was not playing her false. So utter is his unselfishness toward her, so far removed from his mind is any thought but that of giving where she is concerned, that he has actually been helping her to win and taking pleasure every time a move was in her favor.

But a game is of such a nature that it will not go on under such conditions — it will not be a game. A game is in the nature of a contest, and there must at least be a mimic desire to gain the victory and leave the other person the loser. Miranda, knowing by the promptings of her own soul what the difficulty is, sees that he must, in order to be desirous of winning, stir his mind with a lively imagination of tremendous stakes. And so she stirs him up:

Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle, —

And then she adds (tell-tale words that show us she is just as pleased to lose to him as he is to her) —

And I would call it fair play.

By wrangle, she means contest by every means in his power, and whatever means he took to win she would call it fair. In short, these two cannot really play a game; their thoughts are all of love, and it consists only of unselfishness and joy in the other's success. They have only been playing because each thought it would give pleasure to the other.

In no way I can think of would it be possible to put such unique and telling emphasis, in short, upon the thing Shakespeare wished to show. The fundamental psychology of a game is love of a contest, victory and gain. To this engaged couple, in the first new joy of selfabnegating love, all this is just the opposite; and it is no wonder that the game was all going contrary to what it ought and that Miranda had to suggest tremendously big measures to make it be a real game. Its dramatic merit consists in the fact that it would deliver its message instantly and thoroughly in an unique and interesting way. It would amuse the audience. And the location of all the paraphernalia of victory, in connection with her opening remark, would make any profound interpretation unnecessary to the Elizabethan audience.

Some textual difficulties in Shakespeare by Charles David Stewart, excerpted from "The Chess Players", pp. 125-130. This text is in the public domain.

10. Last, but not least, really, the footnotes to Furness's edition of The Tempest propose that the idea for this particular "reveal" might have been borrowed from the 1607 play The Devil's Charter by Barnabe Barnes, a man who had died in 1609 (about two years before Shakespeare wrote The Tempest), and who had made an interest-free loan to Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, back in the 1590s. The Devil's Charter (then written "Divil") was acted by Shakespeare's company before King James in 1607. By then, Shakespeare's company was known as "The King's Men" after James ascended to the throne in 1603.

The play tells the story of Pope Alexander VI (formerly Rodrigo Borgia - yes, of that Borgia family), a notoriously awful Pope. (Anti-Catholic sentiment was particularly high after the 5th of November 1605, when the Gunpowder plot was disclosed - in which Guy Fawkes took the fall for a conspiracy to blow up the King and the Parliament - but I digress.) The Devil's Charter includes a "trick" played by Caesar Borgia on a woman named Katherine. Having convinced her that he had her sons killed, he later reveals that they are alive, and opens his tent flap (literally - not a double entendre) to reveal her two children playing a game of cards. Sounds like the sort of "device" that Shakespeare would lift, deepening its meaning by changing the game over the chess, doesn't it? (Furness notably doesn't attribute a deeper meaning to the chess - I suppose he thinks that Shakespeare was dodging a claim of outright plagiarism by switching the game, but without giving the Bard credit for actual method to his madness.)

11. Related point to #10: One of the primary sources for the story of The Tempest was an actual, sensational news report from 1609, regarding an English ship headed for Virginia that was wrecked during a massive storm a few years earlier. The ship and its survivors washed up on Bermuda, then called "the Divil's Iland" (you read it right - "the Devil's Island"). The people seeing this play in 1611 would have known that story, and the use of a reference to The Devil's Charter in a play associated with "the Devil's Island" sounds just like something Shakespeare would do (to me, anyhow). It's ever so clever, no?

Kiva - loans that change lives

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( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 6th, 2010 09:35 pm (UTC)
According to Stephen Hopkins's Wikipedia page (take it for what it's worth, but it's probably correct), "it is believed" that the Hopkins on the Sea Venture and the one on the Mayflower are one and the same. And he attempted to stage a mutiny, and was imprisoned and sentenced to death while on the island, but was eventually set free because he complained about what might happen to his wife & children. It is possible, therefore, that mutinous Stephano (the drunken butler - that's his actual character description in the list of players) and mutinous Stephen are related.
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