Time to Cheat: chess and ’s performative history of dynastic marriage
Abstract and Keywords
The Tempest’s chess game has often been interpreted as a symbol for Prospero’s successful governance, underscoring his likeness to King James I, who similarly relied on dynastic marriage to solve political conflicts. Approaching the chess game not as an abstract symbol but as an embodied practice complicates such conclusions, however. Chess calls upon players and spectators to hold in tension and inhabit simultaneously different temporal moments, producing a recursive experience of time that conflicts with the linear, teleological narratives articulated by Prospero and much conventional historicist criticism. This essay draws on descriptions of chess’s polytemporality—from game studies, cognitive science, and the political philosophies of Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht—to explore how the phenomenology of chess-play mobilizes The Tempest’s spectators to critique the discourse of progress that subtends state rhetoric about dynastic marriage. Ultimately, this analysis also challenges commonplace critical assumptions about history as ‘context’ for dramatic performance.
When Prospero is ready to divulge the outcome of his political plot to wed his daughter to the heir of Naples, he draws aside the curtain to the stage’s discovery space to reveal the prospective princely couple playing a game of chess:
Here Prospero discovers Ferdinand and Miranda, playing at Chess
miranda. Sweet Lord, you play me false.
ferdinand. No my dearest love, I would not for the world.
miranda. Yes, for a score of Kingdoms, you should wrangle, An I would call it fair play.1
Because of chess’s historical and symbolic associations with politics and the training of good rulers,2 The Tempest’s chess game has often been read as emblematic of a peace between Prospero and his former enemies,3 underscoring the link many critics have seen between The Tempest and its Jacobean historical context.4 Prospero has been read as a figure (p. 420) for James I, who similarly pursued dynastic unions to solve his political problems, and the association of rulers is further cemented by the fact that The Tempest was performed in celebration of James’s daughter Elizabeth’s marriage to Frederick, the Elector Palatine. For these and other reasons, The Tempest has become paradigmatic of the ways Shakespearean drama intersects with history. This essay does not dispute that intersection, but I shall suggest that, in revealing its dynastic marriage through a chess game, The Tempest troubles conventional historicist approaches. The chess scene invites theatregoers to approach history as they would a game of chess, wherein players and spectators inhabit multiple temporal frames simultaneously during a game, their perspective on the present informed by their recollections of prior moments of play and anticipation of possible outcomes.
This recursive temporality is not so much represented or thematized in the play as it is made available to audiences through phenomenological engagement with the enacted game.5 Similar to the re-enactment performances Rebecca Schneider describes in Performing Remains, the (re-)enactment of chess onstage initiates ‘an intense, embodied inquiry into temporal repetition, temporal recurrence’ that can ‘loosen the habit of linear time’.6 Schneider’s work on civil war re-enactment argues for the body as a living archive, capable of storing and transmitting information across time, thereby participating in and producing history while imitating it. As re-enactors engage their embodied knowledge through performance, they feel as if they ‘can trip the transitivity of time’ 7 in much the way, I will suggest, chess players do when they engage their embodied knowledge of the game. Whereas Schneider focuses primarily on actor-participants, I am interested here in the perceptions of spectators, specifically early modern spectators who watched chess enacted on the theatre stage. Familiar with chess from playing or betting on matches elsewhere, most of these spectators had some level of familiarity with the game.8 The Tempest invites (p. 421) these spectators—informed, consciously or not, by their prior and/or anticipated experiences with chess—to engage their embodied knowledge and play the (re-)enacted game vicariously. Repurposing their competency in gameplay, theatre spectators, I shall go on to suggest, could hone their skills not only in interpreting history, but in consuming theatre, an art form defined by the same polytemporal rhythm that structures chess and history.
Approached from the perspective of the phenomenology of chess-play, Ferdinand’s alleged cheating and Miranda’s acceptance of it is less a commentary on the ethics of love,9 governance,10 or even gaming than it is a manipulation of chess’s temporal form. The stakes of cheating time are significant if we accept Walter Benjamin’s claim that cheating at chess explodes the temporal frameworks by which conventional history operates, thereby producing revolutionary forms of political agency. Indeed, I argue that Miranda’s accusation of cheating opens up a critique of official state narratives of dynastic marriage, as promulgated by Prospero, not to mention English rulers upon whom he was arguably modelled and/or for whom he provided a model. In what follows, I draw on Benjamin’s as well as Bertolt Brecht’s descriptions of chess’s temporality to explore how the phenomenology of chess-play, as it engages theatre spectators’ embodied knowledge of the game, mobilizes them to query the discourse of progress that subtends Jacobean state rhetoric about dynastic marriage at the same time that it challenges commonplace critical assumptions about the relation between dramatic performance and history.
The Temporality of Chess: Cheaters in Benjamin and Shakespeare
Benjamin’s treatment of chess in his essay ‘On the Concept of History’ is useful for understanding chess’s implications for temporality, history, and political agency in and of The Tempest. The essay opens with a story of cheating at chess, describing an eighteenth-century chess automaton, a puppet in Turkish dress, that won every game played against it, though it was discovered forty years and many games later that the puppet was, in fact, operated by a ‘dwarf’ chess master hidden in a cabinet beneath the board. Benjamin allegorizes the puppet as historical materialism and the hidden chess master as ‘theology’, historical materialism’s secret weapon, which pulls its strings, allowing it to ‘win all the time’.11 Benjamin thus sanctions cheating as a way to defeat the reigning victors of history (i.e. fascists and Social Democrats), who, he argues, adopt a rhetoric of historical progress to maintain their power. They presume that time moves in one direction towards inevitable improvement, (p. 422) and their rhetoric of progress secures their continued power over others, whose stories they silence: ‘even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious’ (391). The only way to defeat such an indefatigable opponent, Benjamin argues, is to covertly allow ‘theology’ to drive one’s actions, violating the unfair rules of the game so that historical materialism will win it. What Benjamin means by theology might best be understood through his concept of ‘redemption’, a future state of happiness to be achieved, paradoxically, by disrupting the fluid temporality of progress. Somewhat counterintuitively, Benjamin argues for the value of taking action towards that future during moments of stillness. He maintains that revolutionary classes at the moment of action are marked by an ‘awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode’ (395); thus the historical materialist must hold to a view of the present as not a time of transition but a time ‘in which time takes a stand [einsteht] and has come to a standstill’ (396).
Although Benjamin does not expand on his chess analogy, an understanding of the phenomenology of chess—its peculiar temporality and particularly how one cheats at the game—helps explain his as well as Shakespeare’s investments in chess as a material analogy for an alternate conception of history. Chess encourages its players and invested spectators to switch among multiple temporal frames, holding the future and past in tension as they contemplate a move in the present. This competency, though part of many games, is especially essential in chess, because it is a game of ‘perfect information’, where players see the board equally at all times and thus share the same basic facts.12 The significance of this formal designation can be appreciated by comparing chess to cards, a game of ‘imperfect information’. Cards, being two-sided, are designed for use in games where information is at times hidden and then divulged strategically during the course of play. Thus, card games provoke participants to develop their interpretive skills so that they can figure out hidden information and use it effectively before other participants do. Chess relies on, encourages, and teaches mastery in a different set of competencies. To be sure, there are unknowns in chess: each player works to figure out the opponent’s overall strategy, which the opponent tries to keep secret. But because the objects of chess-play (board and pieces) can be seen at all times equally by both players, as well as by spectators, there is nothing internal to the game that prevents a player from discovering and undermining the opponent’s broader strategy. In terms of formal structure, chess is a game of skill at which anyone practised enough may flourish. For this reason, one of the characters in John Florio’s Second Frutes (1591) describes losing at chess as more shameful than losing at cards:
In Chess-play … all is unskilfulnes, and carelesnes of him that looseth and providence and attentivenes of him that is the winner; so when a man is overcaught in a matter within his own power, wherein he cannot pretend any excuse or hindrance, but his owne ignorance, he cannot choose but be ashamed.13
(p. 423) As a game of perfect information, chess rewards players who have ‘attentiveness’ and ‘providence’: in other words, careful focus on what has happened thus far in the match combined with keen analysis of the repercussions of potential moves. These skills, entirely ‘within [the player’s] own power’, enable his or her victory.
It is not just the temporal unfolding of a particular match that matters in chess; as participants assess the consequences of a move, they may also draw on memories of prior games played, watched, or read about. The relation of such memories to players’ decisions in the present is so elemental and virtually peculiar to chess that the game has been at the centre of cognitive research on memory and decision-making for the last half century.14 Regardless of whether we accept the empirical methodologies of this research, its terms for theorizing the temporalities of chess are worth noting in light of Benjamin’s and Shakespeare’s uses of the game. Some researchers of chess and cognition maintain that when chess masters contemplate a move, they do not methodically rehearse a series of scenarios that would follow from each possible choice; this would take far too long. Instead, they filter the information on the board through recollections of prior games—actual games played, but also experiences watching others play or reading about chess—which have been stored in players’ minds as memory modules.15 It is as if at each moment of the game, proficient chess players take a mental photograph of the board’s configuration and, usually unconsciously, check this against images of prior play scenarios. The past shapes the present and future of the match, but it does not limit that future, since no matter how many memory modules players have stored, they cannot anticipate every eventuality. Although each moment of the game bears traces of prior moments (within this and in relation to other matches), even the best of players cannot be sure of victory, for every time the pieces on the board change positions, that future is reshaped. Chess participants, even as early learners, excel at the game if they are able to perform this complicated and creative temporal juggling, projecting possible futures by looking to a game’s continually unfolding history.
Crucially, this balancing of past and future happens in the moment between the move of one player and the move of the other. This moment is charged in any turn-taking game, but is particularly significant in a game of perfect information, because the status of the game—the information that players have—depends only on what a player chooses to do after this pause. Once a move is made on the board, the information both players have changes: new algorithms for victory are produced, new strategies formulated, and the past of the game is brought into new relief. It is no wonder that Benjamin looks to chess to theorize his concept of ‘now-time’, the pregnant pause of history, for in a chess game the pause between each move is full of potential for bringing about a ‘redemptive’ future that will, in turn, create new understandings of the past.
Given how central cheating is to Benjamin’s and Shakespeare’s representations of chess, it is useful to explore why the pause in chess-play is instrumental in cheating. (p. 424) Here, a phenomenological approach (which attends to the embodied, lived experiences of chess-play and chess spectatorship) offers insights that a literary symbolic reading (which focuses on chess primarily as a metaphor or abstract representation) can miss. Although the history of chess is full of stories of cheating, the dice-less form of the game played in the early modern period—the same version played by the chess automaton in Benjamin’s account and by most players today—is, in practice, quite difficult to rig. Players can cheat at games of imperfect information like cards or dice without being easily detected because they can convert unknown into known variables by doctoring the objects of play before the game begins—for example, marking cards. In effect, participants in a game of imperfect information cheat by exploiting the disparities in knowledge that structure these games. Since in chess there is no formal difference in participants’ knowledge, cheating requires very different approaches. One way to cheat is by colluding with someone else (a spectator, one’s opponent, or some other external source, such as a reference book of chess strategies), as was done by the famous chess automaton Benjamin describes. Other ways of cheating can conceivably be obvious to anyone who is paying close attention to the match: for instance, reintroducing a piece that had been captured or disobeying the rules that govern the movement of pieces. These techniques of foul play help explain the development of what is known today as the touch–move rule, where a piece that is touched must be played if there is a legal move it can make. The rule helps counter any sleight-of-hand techniques by which a player might cheat by mishandling pieces on the board during a turn.
The presence of the rule highlights the degree to which cheating at chess relies on players’ bodily interaction with gaming objects during the match itself. Although a chess player may intend on cheating well before the game begins, the actual cheating can only happen and be caught when it is the player’s turn to interact with the board, during the pause between the completion of the opponent’s and of his or her own move. It is no wonder that chess rules attend so carefully to what happens during this window of time, which, in some versions of chess, is even regulated by a clock.16 Since at least the sixteenth century, chess rules establish that players can only formally raise accusations of cheating during the pause between moves. As one early modern writer explains, ‘If your adversary play a false draught and you se it not till you have playd your next draught, it will be then too late to challenge him for it.’17 By interfering in the organic temporality of the game, cheating at chess and/or levelling an accusation of the same is, in effect, a way of exploiting the pause that is structurally necessary in any turn-taking game, but that is particularly replete with possibility in a game of perfect information.
Cheating is not simply an ethical violation, then; it and debates about it are acts with the power to change or, as Benjamin would say, to revolutionize historical processes. Game studies scholarship on cheating has suggested something similar in demonstrating how new forms of a game emerge out of creative efforts to rethink and challenge its rules.18 Perhaps no better illustration of the productive work of foul play is the emergence in (p. 425) today’s online gaming world of ‘griefers’, who theatrically break the rules of online games.19 Griefers call attention, by refusing to conform, to the frame of the game. And as they interfere in the game-as-played in order to spur discussion about its rules, griefers perform what anthropologist Gregory Bateson, in his groundbreaking study of play, describes as a meta-communicative act with transformational possibilities.20
At the end of The Tempest, when Miranda openly raises the spectre of cheating, she acts the part of griefer to Prospero’s game, pausing (the) play to question, and possibly change, the game rules. Specifically, when she halts the chess game, she interrupts the steady march of Prospero’s plot to marry her to Ferdinand and thus makes space for theatre spectators to rethink Prospero’s conception of dynastic marriage as progressive, teleological history.21 In his pursuit not only of revenge, but a long-delayed yet future-oriented form of political reconstitution, Prospero in many ways resembles the traditional historicists Benjamin critiques. Scholars have observed the ways Prospero narrates the past in order to impose his own view on the present and thus shape the future. His most powerful and troubling weapons are his attempts to master time and to control history by framing his unethical actions in the present—from the subjugation of Caliban and Ariel to the emotional and physical manipulations of the ship’s passengers—as natural and necessary responses to past injustices. Prospero represents himself to Miranda and theatre spectators as a victim of history (of Antonio and Alonso’s past mistreatment of him), but he is, as postcolonial and feminist critics have shown, more victor than victim.22 Like the victors of history Benjamin describes, Prospero tells the stories of those he has oppressed (Caliban, Ariel, and Miranda) in his own language so as to suit his own triumphal narrative. For Prospero, history is a totality, where the past’s injustices legitimate his actions in the (p. 426) present, which will lead to a future victory.23 The teleology of this narrative is Miranda’s marriage to Ferdinand and, thus, the instalment of Prospero’s heirs on the thrones of both Milan and Naples. In other words, Prospero’s reconciliation plot is designed not simply to right past wrongs and return to the political state/State that existed before Prospero was ousted; it is a bid for progression beyond that state/State. The chess game between Miranda and Ferdinand is, for Prospero, a seemingly perfect image of this progression, perhaps because of the game’s symbolic caché for representing simultaneously good governance and romantic love, which are the key variables Prospero manipulates in his plot to convince Miranda and Ferdinand that their dynastic marriage is actually a match of their own choosing.24 But the play complicates Prospero’s historical narrative and its heady determinism by revealing Prospero’s crowning achievement through a moment of imperfection, a moment where the strict rules and logical progression of a chess game are overturned by Prospero’s own pawn.
The scene’s intriguing staging raises the stakes of Miranda’s accusation of cheating. Members of the theatre audience witness only the moment in the game where her allegation is levelled and debated. Even after the curtain is pulled aside to ‘discover’ the match in progress, much remains unknown to audiences since the game board is placed in the alcove of the theatre’s discovery space, thereby denying spectators (even those that paid more for a stage stool at the Blackfriars or a balcony seat at the Globe) the bird’s-eye view of the board granted to Miranda and Ferdinand. This limited perspective of the game would have been unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable for the play’s first audiences. Chess was a spectator sport in early modern taverns and parlours, with matches the subject of betting. Spectators were used to closely watching the board, since they often had a monetary stake in the game’s outcome. Chess lends itself especially well to vicarious play because spectators have the same information as the players on whom they bet. When staged in a theatre, however, chess becomes for spectators a game of imperfect, not perfect, information, since spectators are positioned so far away from the board that they cannot hope to follow its action in the ways to which they are accustomed. Were this a staged card match, such as is presented in Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, the audience’s experience of it would resemble that of card games watched and betted on in any range of venues, within and outside the theatre—for wherever they are played, cards are games of imperfect information for players and spectators alike.25 But The Tempest’s enactment of chess draws attention to the fact that the scene divides onstage gamers from theatre spectators. Spectators are theatrically prevented from exercising the chess-playing competencies they may have developed from playing or watching in other contexts. Although it is not surprising that audiences, like critics, are invested in ascertaining whether Ferdinand is playing (p. 427) honestly, what matters here is not whether Ferdinand cheats, but that the play withholds an answer to that question.
By staging only the pause after the alleged cheating has taken place and by hiding the board in the discovery space, the play explicitly renders this information unknowable not only to theatre audiences but to all onstage spectators of the game, including Prospero. In effect, the scene produces a cognitive tension for on- and off-stage spectators between the game of perfect information they ought to experience and the game of imperfect information provided. As such, it underscores through the phenomenology of gaming a logical flaw in Prospero’s political plots. Throughout The Tempest, Prospero plays something like a game of imperfect information with theatre spectators and with inhabitants of and visitors to the island, keeping knowledge to himself: for example, he hides Ferdinand from his father, Ferdinand’s identity from Miranda, interest in the marriage from Miranda and Ferdinand, and the full scope of his plots from theatre spectators. No one, not even Ariel, is made fully privy to all the details of Prospero’s plots. He presumes that as long as he has all the knowledge, his victory is certain. Critics have followed suit in viewing the dynastic marriage as a successful political outcome for Prospero, even if his means do not justify his ends.26 But The Tempest’s staged and yet occluded chess game intimates that Prospero cannot hold all the cards; if he is playing a game of imperfect information, so are others. Pace his presumption that Miranda’s dynastic match amounts to political progress, Prospero—like King James and the many other European leaders who arranged the marriages of their children—has no way to know or control what will transpire when his pawn marries Naples’s heir and gets promoted to queen.27 Perhaps, as turns out to be the case with the dynastic marriage in Shakespeare’s King John, antagonism between Naples and Milan will persist, despite the union of their princes. Perhaps Miranda will not be the dutiful wife Ferdinand and Prospero expect, complicating domestic and national balances of power. Or perhaps Miranda will fail to produce the heir who is needed to secure the unity of Milan and Naples well into the future. In short, the peace of entire states, nations, even empires rests on a partnership whose positive outcome cannot, in fact, be guaranteed.
Through its use of chess, The Tempest suggests that dynastic marriages are politically ineffective not simply because, as Melissa Sanchez argues, the erotic and affective underpinnings of the relationship threaten the political hierarchy these have helped make possible, but also because dynastic unions—whether or not grounded in affection—are (like all marriages) games. As Frances E. Dolan argues, conflict and competition are the logical consequence of early modern ideologies of marriage, which explains why marriages tend to (p. 428) end in loss for one partner.28 If marriage is a zero-sum game, then the only way to control its outcome is by cheating, imposing a certain ending on an otherwise wholly unpredictable venture. And even in such a rigged game, one side will likely lose. The Tempest’s chess scene challenges Prospero’s account of dynastic marriage as a linear and teleological story, where both sides inevitably win, instead exposing such unions as games with uncertain outcomes—and played by wily participants who may even refuse to follow the rules.
There is more at stake here than simply underscoring Miranda’s and Ferdinand’s agency in their marital choice. For if Benjamin is right that an alternate conception of history is possible if cheaters remain undiscovered—if covert theology drives historical materialism, like the hidden chess master that pulls the strings of the chess-playing puppet—then when The Tempest uses the stage’s discovery space to inhibit spectatorship of the chess game, it covers up Ferdinand’s alleged cheating, in effect putting the dwarf back into the cupboard and letting the revolutionary potential of this moment linger. In this way, the chess scene prompts its spectators to question the logic of dynastic marriage: the belief that the conflicts of the past can be remedied in the present through a marriage that will ensure peace in the future. The performance of dynastic marriage through chess—a game that plays on and through time’s recursive qualities—destabilizes this sort of linear, teleological temporal logic.
It is tempting to speculate on how this lesson would have been received in 1613 when The Tempest was performed as part of the celebration of the dynastic marriage of King James I’s daughter Elizabeth. If James was as adamantly opposed to princes learning chess as his advice to his son in Basilicon Doron suggests, he and his royal children may have been ill-prepared to grasp The Tempest’s sobering message about the potential pitfalls of dynastic marriage as a political solution. By the 1620s, when perhaps the most famous play to stage chess, Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess, was performed, James’s lack of foresight would have been acutely felt. After all, the dynastic marriage that Middleton’s play ostensibly allegorizes—the marriage between England’s Prince Charles and the Infanta of Spain—was arranged by James partly to address the political turmoil that ensued from his daughter’s 1613 marriage. In short, the historical ironies are palpable. The concept of historical irony can be useful to a reading of dynastic marriage in The Tempest insofar as it can underscore the polytemporal terms of historiography.29 But the concept is limiting if it presumes a narrowly synchronic relationship between history and drama, such that Jacobean politics are ‘historical context’ for The Tempest. As I have been suggesting, through its staging of chess, the play calls for a more complex approach to temporality—one that puts pressure on conventional readings of The Tempest’s relation to its historical moment. For The (p. 429) Tempest’s audience members, as for players and spectators of a game of chess, time does not necessarily exist in discrete units such that one event (a marriage at court) shares the self-same moment in time as another event (the performance of a drama). Like participants in a chess match, The Tempest’s spectators can experience the present as infused with both memories of the past and possibilities for the future, producing an experience of recursive time and a perspective on history not as unfolding but as folding in on itself at every turn.
Chess is not alone in prompting such a polytemporal approach to history, for all games resist synchronic as well as straightforwardly diachronic forms of analysis. To be sure, games leave material traces that invite these analytic methods. A range of evidence—including early chess pieces, verbal and visual representations of chess games, and books of chess rules and problems—can document how the game has changed over time. They can tell us, for instance, that in the early modern period the chess queen had significantly more mobility, resulting in a faster game. But material remnants are only part of a game’s history. Players bend rules and redesign gaming objects all the time to create more pleasurable gaming experiences, and variations may be reiterated over and over until they become institutionalized. In other words, the rules and objects that comprise and define a game materialize through repeated performance. Chess is a particularly rich game through which to investigate the ‘performativity’ of games because recursive temporality is so fundamental to the experience of playing and watching this particular game. During every pause between moves, players and spectators anticipate the future of a match by rehearsing its past at the same time that they recall other pasts in order to envision possible moves that may lead to victory.
The polytemporality of chess urges us to rethink the methodologies that many theatre historians and new historicists have used to study drama, challenging in particular the ways these approaches presume an event-based model of performance: that a theatrical performance occurs in a particular place and at a particular time. Not all, if any, elements of a performance can be fixed spatially and temporally, however. Theatrical performances, no matter how unique each may seem, draw on—indeed are made from—a common and temporally diffuse repertoire of gestures, actions, and styles so that the relation between various ‘instances’ of performance may be defined by a logic that is not always chronological. All theatre, we might say, is intertheatrical.30 Certainly, one can pursue a diachronic analysis of a play by searching for a point of origin of a particular stylistic convention and then tracing its genealogy. And one can pursue a synchronic analysis by situating that convention in relation to events and discourses coterminous with it. There are other options, however. One can also focus on how a convention becomes intelligible to theatre audiences through the very operation of its repetition. Accounting for the intertheatricality of early modern dramatic performance can thus alter our sense of the relation between theatre and (p. 430) history. As Anston Bosman, William N. West, and I have argued, the inherent polytemporality of theatrical performance challenges the oft-cited truism that performance is ephemeral and always disappearing, as the performed ‘event’ passes into history.31 To the contrary, history is constantly being made in and through theatre, which ‘stretches the event open, such that it is simultaneously a preservation of the past and a preparation for the future’.32 For theatre performers and their spectators, the present may be a sedimentation of the past, but through performance, the past passes into the future, which is set before audiences as a beckoning horizon full of possibility.
If we follow this line of thought, then the staging of dynastic marriage through a chess game does not stabilize The Tempest’s relationship to a particular moment in English history, but urges early modern spectators and modern critics to treat the play as part of a temporally and spatially diffuse network of chess matches, some ‘staged’ in the taverns and parlours that competed with early modern theatres for customers, others staged in politically engaged dramas. Thus, The Tempest is in dialogue with King John, a play about doomed dynastic marriage that also, perhaps not coincidentally, is the only play besides The Tempest where Shakespeare explicitly used chess imagery. Both plays are in conversation, too, with Middleton’s A Game at Chess, which turns chess pieces into characters that allegorize political figures negotiating a dynastic union. My point is not that King John influences The Tempest, which in turn influences A Game at Chess, but rather that the three dramas are part of the same performance network—a web that also includes every game of chess that theatre spectators had played, watched, or read about.
Some might be tempted to relate this web of diffuse, distributed citation to the concept of ‘intertextuality’,33 but to do so misses the point. Intertextuality tends to presume that the process of citation is traceable, if not necessarily intentional. But the lines of influence or precedence between the nodes in the theatrical network I am describing cannot be so neatly drawn, because theatre, much like gameplay, is encoded in and through bodies. Not always expressed through texts, the embodied practices that comprise theatrical performance are not always legible enough to be traced, even indirectly, from one point to another. They exist, to borrow terminology from performance studies theorist Diana Taylor, in ‘repertoires’, not only in archives.34 Indeed, members of theatre audiences, like game players, do not themselves always know how or where they have developed competencies of play: they may feel the recursive temporality of a chess game without knowing for sure how, where, when, or even whether they have experienced it before.
(p. 431) Recursive Temporality, Political Agency, and Embodied Skill
At stake in theorizing this recursive temporality—a feature of chess, theatre, and to follow Benjamin, history itself—is our understanding of the political agency available to The Tempest’s spectators. These stakes become clearer when we consider how Benjamin’s theories of history and political agency resonate with his embodied experience of playing chess with the experimental dramatist Bertolt Brecht, who famously used the theatre to spur his audiences towards political critique and social transformation. It is well known that Brecht and Benjamin influenced each other’s conceptions of historical materialism, though virtually nothing has been said about the role of chess in their political thought.35 Yet three of the four surviving photographs of these friends show them playing chess together, which seems to have been their nightly ritual whenever they lived and worked in close proximity—for a total of about eleven months between 1933 and 1940, when Benjamin intermittently visited Brecht in Denmark, sometimes for extended stretches of time.36 One of Benjamin’s many mentions of playing chess with Brecht is worthy of closer attention in relation to ‘On the Concept of History’. Several years before writing the essay, Benjamin describes Brecht’s idea for a new version of chess:
So, when [Karl] Korsch comes, we ought to work out a new game with him. A game where the positions don’t always remain the same; where the function of the figures changes when they have stood in the same place for a while—then they would become either more effective, or perhaps weaker. As it is now, there is no development; it stays the same for too long.37
Benjamin records Brecht complaining about the problem of stasis in chess and proposing a creative solution: propel the game forward by allowing the past of the pieces to impinge upon their present function. How long a piece has stood in its place will determine its options for movement. Benjamin’s model of history and political agency in ‘On the Concept of History’ proposes a similar solution to the problem of historical stasis. Criticizing the staleness of conventional historicism, its view of history as ‘homogeneous, empty time’ (395), Benjamin argues that political change is impossible if we conceive of history as something that happened in the past. At the same time, Benjamin questions the kind of historical ‘development’ posited by fascists and others who envision history as a totality and the present as a transition on the way towards ‘progress’. As will Benjamin in his later essay, Brecht’s experimental form of chess conceives of the relation between past, present, and future quite differently: use the past to pressure the present so as to compel the game forward. In a similar way, Benjamin imagines that revolution will best be achieved (p. 432) by pausing in a ‘now-time’ that holds the past and future in productive tension with each other. For Benjamin, as for Brecht, this pausing in now-time comprises a strategy for political action. Feminist theorist Wendy Brown summarizes Benjamin’s polytemporal view of political agency especially clearly:
In contrast with a conventional historical materialism that renders the present in terms of unfolding laws of history, Benjamin argues for the political and the philosophical value of conceiving the present as a time in which time is still(ed). But not only still—rather it is a present in which time has come to a stop, thereby implying movement behind it. The affirmation of this temporal rush behind a still present … avoids presentism and ahistoricity in political thinking even as it conceptually breaks the present out of history.38
The value of this breaking is that we get ‘a present that calls to us, calls on us to respond to it’. It leads to a sense of political urgency that is not determined entirely, but still informed, by the past.
Brecht and Benjamin prompt us to consider how The Tempest uses chess to issue this kind of call. By staging Prospero’s climactic revelation as a pause in a game of chess, the play invites its spectators to question the temporal logic that underwrites the politically ‘progressive’ narrative of dynastic marriage, showing it to be a kind of false consciousness. It does so not simply through an abstract symbolic economy where chess is an analogy for political marriages, but by appealing to, drawing its energies from, and exploiting spectators’ phenomenological experience of chess-play. The Tempest’s chess game calls upon spectators to engage their embodied knowledge of gameplay to make sense of the drama as well as of history.
In approaching games, theatre, and history phenomenologically, I have drawn attention to the spectator’s body as a site of knowledge production and acquisition and in so doing join with other performance theorists who argue persuasively for the political payoff of recognizing the body as a living archive. As Rebecca Schneider and Diana Taylor have shown, when the body operates as a house of memory and a medium of (re-)enactment, the information it carries and transmits can compete powerfully with official narratives about the past and future—the very sorts of narratives that Prospero spins to justify his plots. From this perspective, games, regardless of whether they take up explicit political themes, can be political in their form; through the embodied practices of playing and spectating, gamers create and transmit alternatives to authored/authorized texts (rule books, printed game boards, etc.) and narratives. Gaming is an especially rich example of how political agency emerges out of these kinds of embodied knowledge practices, because games showcase the degree to which embodied knowledge may be generated and communicated beneath the horizon of consciousness. Here, performance studies scholarship on the body as an archive might be usefully supplemented by cognitive philosophy, which makes a useful distinction between ‘habit’ and ‘personal’ memories. John Sutton, in his analysis of batters in the game of cricket, explains that whereas personal memory is comprised of recollections of ‘unique, irreversible moments’, habit memory ‘can only derive from long, repeated training, from routines and practices, from many related experiences rather than one’—a process that, (p. 433) like the intertheatricality I discuss above, may be ‘consciously inaccessible and verbally inarticulable’.39 Habit memory is performatively produced; like theatre, it is encoded in and by bodies as they repeatedly rehearse an action or cognitive process, whether that is batting in cricket or, as Sutton argues elsewhere with Evelyn B. Tribble, theatrical performance.
Sutton, Tribble, and other scholars of embodied cognition, though they view spectators as crucial to the theatrical transaction, have focused primarily on the theatrical ‘enskillment’ of actors/performers.40 But playgoing—especially at the moment commercial theatre was emerging in London as a new form of entertainment—was also an embodied skill that needed to be taught and fostered through ‘related experiences’.41 Games like chess were one such commensurate experience. And as such games honed theatregoers’ theatrical skills, they at the same time could provoke political critique and, if Benjamin and Brecht are right, possibly inspire acts that culminate in revolution. I have argued that as The Tempest solicits and frustrates its spectators’ application of their experience of chess-play to the dramatic narrative, the play opens up an avenue for critique not only of Prospero, but of current, past, and future arguments for the strategic value of dynastic marriage. Invited to repurpose their chess-playing competencies—specifically, their capacity to experience time in non-progressive terms—early modern spectators could inhabit their present as a now-time infused by possibility; they thus may have been able to imagine future historical outcomes that official state narratives of dynastic marriage foreclosed.42
Benjamin, Walter, ‘On the Concept of History’, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 4, 1938–1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006).Find this resource:
Bloom, Gina, ‘Games’, in Early Modern Theatricality, ed. Henry Turner (Oxford Twenty–First Century Approaches to Literature; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 189–211.Find this resource:
Bloom, Gina, Anston Bosman, and William N. West, ‘Ophelia’s Intertheatricality, or How Performance is History’, Theatre Journal 65:2 (2013), 165–82.Find this resource:
(p. 434) Brown, Eric C., ‘ “Like men at chess”: Time and Control in The Tempest’, Shakespeare Yearbook 10 (1999), 481–9.Find this resource:
Dolan, Frances E., Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).Find this resource:
Hall, Kim F., Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996).Find this resource:
Hodgdon, Barbara, ‘Material Remains at Play’, Theatre Journal 64:3 (2012): 373–88.Find this resource:
Kastan, David Scott, ‘ “The Duke of Milan / And his Brave Son”: Old Histories and New in The Tempest’, in Shakespeare’s Romances, ed. Alison Thorne (New Casebooks; Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 226–44.Find this resource:
Loughrey, Bryan, and Neil Taylor, ‘Ferdinand and Miranda at Chess’, Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production 35 (1982), 113–18.Find this resource:
Poole, William, ‘False Play: Shakespeare and Chess’, Shakespeare Quarterly 55:1 (2004), 50–70.Find this resource:
Sanchez, Melissa E., ‘Seduction and Service in The Tempest’, Studies in Philology 105:1 (2008), 50–82.Find this resource:
Schneider, Rebecca, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (London: Routledge, 2011).Find this resource:
Smith, Bruce R., Phenomenal Shakespeare (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).Find this resource:
Sutton, John, ‘Batting, Habit, and Memory: The Embodied Mind and the Nature of Skill’, Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics 10:5 (2007), 763–86.Find this resource:
Taylor, Diana, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).Find this resource:
Tribble, Evelyn B., and John Sutton, ‘Minds in and out of Time: Memory, Embodied Skill, Anachronism, and Performance’, Textual Practice 24:4 (2012), 587–607.Find this resource:
(1) William Shakespeare, The Tempest, in The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1997), 5.1.174–8. On the stage architecture involved in ‘discovery’ scenes, see Andrew Gurr and Mariko Ichikawa, Staging in Shakespeare’s Theatres (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 156. See also the entry for ‘discover’ in Alan C. Dessen and Leslie Thompson, A Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama, 1580–1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 70. On the presence of a curtain or other cloth covering the discovery space, see Bruce R. Smith, The Key of Green: Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 240.
(2) One early modern endorsement of chess for the training of princes is Thomas Elyot, The Boke Named the Governour (New York: B. Franklin, 1967).
(3) Gary Schmidgall, ‘The Discovery at Chess in The Tempest’, English Language Notes 23:4 (1986), 11–16; Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor, ‘Ferdinand and Miranda at Chess’, Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production 35 (1982), 113–18 (115).
(4) On The Tempest as tightly connected to James I and/or Jacobean politics, see David M. Bergeron, Shakespeare’s Romances and the Royal Family (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1985); David Scott Kastan, ‘ “The Duke of Milan / And his Brave Son”: Old Histories and New in The Tempest’, in Shakespeare’s Romances, ed. Alison Thorne (New Casebooks; Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 226–44; Robin Headlam Wells, Shakespeare on Masculinity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996); Heather Campbell, ‘Bringing forth Wonders: Temporal and Divine Power in The Tempest’, in The Witness of Times: Manifestations of Ideology in Seventeenth Century England, ed. Katherine Z. Zeller and Gerald J. Schiffhorst (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1993), 69–89; Melissa E. Sanchez, ‘Seduction and Service in The Tempest’, Studies in Philology 105:1 (2008), 50–82; Lorie Jerrell Leininger, ‘The Miranda Trap: Sexism and Racism in Shakespeare’s Tempest’, in The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 285–94; Paul Siegel, ‘Historical Ironies in The Tempest’, Shakespeare-Jahrbuch 119 (1983), 104–11. Stephen Orgel, ed. The Tempest (The Oxford Shakespeare; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987) is suspicious of efforts to read the play as tied in some special way to the Jacobean court simply because of its performances there, but he is still convinced of the play’s connections to the politics of dynastic marriage in the early modern period.
(5) For an introduction to phenomenological approaches to reading drama (as well as other cultural objects and texts), see Bruce R. Smith, Phenomenal Shakespeare (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), which draws, as I do, on the tradition of phenomenology associated with philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
(6) Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (London: Routledge, 2011), 2, 19.
(8) Although chess had traditionally been a game for the elite, it was increasingly available to a range of players in the early modern period, in part because new rules that made for faster play turned it into a wagering game and in part because the printing press supported the publication of texts that taught chess rules and strategies. An English example of the latter is G. B., Ludus Scacchiae: chesse-play. A game, both pleasant, wittie, and politicke … translated out of the Italian into the English tongue (London, 1597). On the development of ‘new chess’ in the period, see H. J. R. Murray, A History of Chess (London: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1962).
(9) Frank Kermode, ed., The Tempest (New York: Random House, 1958).
(10) William Poole, ‘False Play: Shakespeare and Chess’, Shakespeare Quarterly 55:1 (2004), 50–70; and Sanchez, ‘Seduction and Service’.
(11) Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938–1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 389. Further citations appear in the main text.
(12) On games as systems of information, see Celia Pearce, The Interactive Book: A Guide to the Interactive Revolution (Indianapolis: Macmillan Technical, 1997); Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
(13) John Florio, Florio’s Second Frutes, To be Gathered of Twelve Trees, of Divers but Delightsome Tastes to the Tongues of Italians and Englishmen (London, 1591), 77.
(14) Diego Rasskin-Gutman, Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind, trans. Deborah Klosky (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).
(15) This research is summarized and taken up in Pertti Saariluoma, Chess Players’ Thinking: A Cognitive Psychological Approach (London: Routledge, 1995). The polytemporal structure of memory has been discussed widely in cognitive science, whose findings have been applied to early modern drama and performance. See, for example, Evelyn B. Tribble and John Sutton, ‘Minds in and out of Time: Memory, Embodied Skill, Anachronism, and Performance’, Textual Practice 24:4 (2012), 587–607.
(16) See the entries for ‘lightning chess’ and ‘timing of moves’ in David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld, The Oxford Companion to Chess (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn, 1996), 226, 422–3.
(17) Randle Holme, The Academy of Armory, or, A Storehouse of Armory and Blazon, vol. 2, ed. I. H. Jeayes (London: Rorburghe Club, 1905), 67.
(18) Mia Consalvo, Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).
(19) Julian Dibbell, ‘Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World’, Wired Magazine 16:2 (2008), 90–100. On how gamers have responded to griefer attacks, see Colin Milburn, ‘Atoms and Avatars: Virtual Worlds as Massively-Multiplayer Laboratories’, Spontaneous Generations 2:1 (2008), 63–89.
(20) Gregory Bateson, ‘A Theory of Play and Fantasy’, in Steps to an Ecology of the Mind (New York: Ballantine, 1972), 177–93 (191–3).
(21) By contrast, Eric C. Brown, ‘ “Like men at chess”: Time and Control in The Tempest’, Shakespeare Yearbook 10 (1999), 481–9, argues that the chess game ushers in a shift from the ‘temporal blending’ seen throughout the play towards a more conventional temporality, such that ‘the future may proceed unimpeded’ (486).
(22) Examples include Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992); Coppélia Kahn, ‘The Providential Tempest and the Shakespearean Family’, in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 217–43; Leininger, ‘The Miranda Trap’; Thomas Cartelli, ‘Prospero in Africa: The Tempest as Colonialist Text and Pretext’, in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), 99–115; Francis Barker and Peter Hulme, ‘Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: The Discursive Con-texts of The Tempest’, in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London and New York: Methuen, 2002 (1985)), 191–205; Paul Brown, ‘ “This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine”: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism’, in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 48–71; Jessica Slights, ‘Rape and the Romanticization of Shakespeare’s Miranda’, SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 41:2 (2001), 357–79; Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989); Sanchez, ‘Seduction and Service’; and Orgel, ed., The Tempest.
(23) Michael Neill writes, ‘A restoration of the past is found necessary to the full discovery and possession of a “brave new world”.’ Putting History to the Question: Power, Politics, and Society in English Renaissance Drama (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 391.
(24) On early modern views of arranged marriages as inferior to companionate marriages, see Suzanne Gossett, ‘ “I’ll Look to Like”: Arranged Marriages in Shakespeare’s Plays’, in Sexuality and Politics in Renaissance Drama, ed. Carole Levin and Karen Robertson (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991).
(25) Gina Bloom, ‘Games’, in Early Modern Theatricality, ed. Henry Turner (Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 189–211.
(26) This view is widely accepted. See, for example, Deborah Willis, ‘Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism’, Studies in English Literature 29 (1989), 277–89; Kastan, ‘ “The Duke of Milan” ’; and Hall, Things of Darkness, who argues that while the play criticizes Alonso’s arranged marriage between Claribel and an African outsider, it celebrates Prospero’s match. An exception is Sanchez, ‘Seduction and Service’.
(27) In the form of chess played by Shakespeare’s audiences—the same form played today—pawns that reach the other side of the board can be promoted, usually to queen. Another early modern author who twists this game strategy into a narrative about marriage was Marco Girolamo Vida. His early sixteenth-century Italian narrative poem, an English free rendering of which appears in G. B., Ludus Scacchiae (1597), describes a pawn who ‘hopes by valor to obtaine / the marriage of the King’ (D3r), and when she reaches the other end of the board, the King ‘takes her to his loving wife, / which was her whole desire’ (D3v).
(28) Frances E. Dolan, Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).
(29) Feminist scholars theorizing the ‘future anterior’ would point us towards such a view of historical irony. See for example, Diane Elam, Feminism and Deconstruction (New York: Routledge, 1994).
(30) Gina Bloom, Anston Bosman, and William N. West, ‘Ophelia’s Intertheatricality, or How Performance is History’, Theatre Journal 65:2 (2013), 165–82. Further analysis of the concept of the ‘intertheatrical’ can be found in Jonathan Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); William N. West, ‘Replaying Early Modern Performances’, in New Directions in Renaissance Drama and Performance Studies, ed. Sarah Werner (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Anston Bosman, ‘Renaissance Intertheatre and the Staging of Nobody’, ELH 71 (2004), 559–85; Jacqueline S. Bratton, New Readings in Theatre History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
(31) Bloom et al. ‘Ophelia’s Intertheatricality’, 166–7. This truism is articulated even in scholarship that explicitly argues for the polytemporality of early modern drama and performance. E.g. Matthew D. Wagner, Shakespeare, Theatre, and Time (New York: Routledge, 2012); Brian Walsh, ‘ “Unkind Division”: The Double Absence of Performing History in 1 Henry VI’, Shakespeare Quarterly 55:2 (2004), 119–47; Tribble and Sutton, ‘Minds’, 601.
(32) Bloom et al., ‘Ophelia’s Intertheatricality’, 167.
(33) This is the approach of Jeffrey A. Netto, ‘Intertextuality and the Chess Motif: Shakespeare, Middleton, Greenaway’, in Shakespeare, Italy, and Intertextuality, ed. Michele Marrapodi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 216–26.
(34) Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003). Archive and repertoire need not be conceived of as binaries. For arguments concerning the performativity of archives, see Schneider; and Barbara Hodgdon, ‘Material Remains at Play’, Theatre Journal 64:3 (2012), 373–88.
(35) The only essay I have found that considers how their experience with chess is reflected in their ideas is Freddie Rokem, ‘Dramaturgies of Exile: Brecht and Benjamin “Playing” Chess and Go’, Theatre Research International 37:1 (2012), 5–19, which focuses on the spatial, but not temporal, aspects of chess-play.
(36) Erdmut Wizisla, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht: The Story of a Friendship (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 55.
(38) Wendy Brown, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 12.
(39) John Sutton, ‘Batting, Habit, and Memory: The Embodied Mind and the Nature of Skill’, Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics 10:5 (2007), 763–86 (765–6). This does not mean that the ‘enskilled’ body must be completely disarticulated from the mind. In fact, Sutton maintains that game players can improve their skill level by allowing conscious, even if not verbally articulated, thoughts or personal memories to shape their bodily habits.
(40) Tribble and Sutton, ‘Minds’; and Evelyn B. Tribble, Cognition in the Globe: Attention and Memory in Shakespeare’s Theatre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Mary Thomas Crane, ‘What Was Performance?’ Criticism 43:2 (2001), 169–87.
(41) Sutton, ‘Batting, Habit, and Memory’, 765. Bruce McConachie makes a similar point in Engaging Audiences: A Cognitive Approach to Spectating in the Theatre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) when he calls for ‘cognitive audience histories’ (190).
(42) My thanks to colleagues who offered feedback on portions of this essay delivered at conferences of Performance Studies International, the Shakespeare Association of America, the American Society for Theatre Research, and Attending to Early Modern Women. For valuable input on earlier drafts, I am grateful to my UC Davis 2012–13 reading group (Fran Dolan, Margie Ferguson, Stephanie Elsky, and Ari Friedlander) and most especially to Valerie Traub. Lee Emrich and Samantha Sniveley provided editorial assistance.