A Game At Chess

The following is an extract from a letter written by the Spanish Ambassador, in which he outlines the performance of a play at the Globe written by Thomas Middleton. A Game at Chess is a notoriously anti-Catholic play. It was licensed for performance on 12th June 1624, but was not performed by the King’s Men at the Globe until 6th August, by which time James I was out of London. It ran for nine days before being closed by the authorities. In addition to the rabid anti-Catholic slant the ambassador so objects to, and it is important to remember the play was performed at the height of English anxiety about the Spanish Match, his account reveals some fascinating details about production and performance styles on the London stage at this time

The actors whom they call here ‘the King’s Men’ have recently acted, and are still acting, in London a play that so many people come to see, that there were more than 3,000 on the day that the audience was the smallest. There was such merriment, hubbub and applause that even if I had been many leagues away it would not have been possible for me not have taken notice of it…

The subject  of the play is a game of chess, with white squares and black squares, their kings and other pieces, acted by the players, and the king of the blacks has easily been taken for our lord the King, because of his youth, dress and other details. The first act, or rather game was played by their ministers, impersonated by the white pieces, and the Jesuits, by the black ones. Here there were remarkable acts of sacrilege and, among other abominations, a minister summoned St Ignatius from hell, and when he found himself again in the world, the first thing he did was to rape one of his female penitents; in all this, these accursed and abominable men revealed the depths of their heresy by their lewd and obscene actions.

The second act was directed against the Archbishop of Spalatro, at that time a white piece, but afterwards won over to the black side by the Count of Gondomar, who, brought onto the stage in his litter almost to the life, and seated in his chair with a hole in it (they said), confessed all the treacherous actions with which he had deceived and soothed the king of the whites, and, when he discussed the matter of confession with the Jesuits, the actor disguised as the Count took out a book in which were rated all the prices for which henceforwards sins were to be forgiven…

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 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.

It cannot be pleaded that those who repeat and hear these insults are merely rogues because during these last four days more than 12,000 persons have all heard the play of A Game at Chess, for so they call it, including all the nobility still in London. All these people come out of the theatre so inflamed against Spain that, as a few Catholics have told me who went secretly to the play, my person would not be safe in the streets; others have advised me to keep to my house with a good guard, and this is being done.

Don Carlos Coloma to the Count-Duke of Olivares, 10 August 1624.

Cited in Houston, S J., James I, Second Edition (Longman, 1995), 128-9

Comments are closed.

All original content on these pages is fingerprinted and certified by Digiprove
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers:

© Shakespeare's England 2009-2014