In this last tempest. I perceive these lords
At this encounter do so much admire
That they devour their reason and scarce think
Their eyes do offices of truth, their words
Are natural breath: but, howsoe’er you have
Been justled from your senses, know for certain
That I am Prospero and that very duke
Which was thrust forth of Milan, who most strangely
Upon this shore, where you were wreck’d, was landed,
To be the lord on’t. No more yet of this;
For ’tis a chronicle of day by day,
Not a relation for a breakfast nor
Befitting this first meeting. Welcome, sir;
This cell’s my court: here have I few attendants
And subjects none abroad: pray you, look in.
My dukedom since you have given me again,
I will requite you with as good a thing;
At least bring forth a wonder, to content ye
As much as me my dukedom.
Here PROSPERO discovers FERDINAND and MIRANDA playing at chess
So runs Act V Scene 1 from around lines 175-205 in The Tempest. Traditionally regarded as Shakespeare’s last play, it holds an important place among his work for any number of reasons. Arguably more than any other play, The Tempest seems to invite comparisons between the playwright who is about to retire and the enchanter, Prospero, who likewise “abjures” his art by the finale. Brave New World, the seminal dystopia by Aldous Huxley, takes its title and much of its inspiration from this very same scene. Likewise the dominant imagery and themes of Jose Enrique Rodo’s influential philosophical monologue, Ariel, are formed by the spirit and matter of this play, which uniquely among Shakespeare’s work seems to have been informed by news from the Americas. In turn, defenses of the native of the island, Caliban, and revisionary readings of all sorts have followed up on the colonialism and patriarchy which can easily be read into the play.
As anyone should know who has sat through an English class at any level, Shakespeare is infinitely amenable to interpretation. It is impossible to say how much of the discussion his works give rise to was “intended” by him when he wrote it, or what he “really” thought about any of the questions large and small which we wrangle over in reading his texts. One thing that is always worth remembering, though, is that these are not just written texts but plays which have always been popular in live performance, even when Shakespeare and his art were not worshipped the way they are now. Whatever else Shakespeare was, literary genius of the English language, poet of all humanity, or nonentity standing in for other authorial and editorial minds, he was a brilliant storyteller and craftsman of dramatic spectacle. He arguably created the modern concept of a fully rounded personality, but he certainly knew what people wanted to see.
For our purposes (with due respect to Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck), no single moment in all of Shakespeare might be quite as evocative, interesting, debatable for games studies insights than the passage cited above. Here Prospero reveals the prince, Ferdinand, to his father, Alonso. Each of them had feared the other dead. Ferdinand, it must be said, seems for his part torn as to whether that loss is such a bad thing, since it would mean he had inherited the kingdom of Naples; even Alonso, unable to believe at first what he sees, suffers the shock of knowing how wrong he was by this revelation, along with the relief of recognizing his son is still alive. This sort of moment, this reveal, is characteristic not just of Shakespeare’s late Romances, where characters thought to be dead are miraculously brought back to life, but runs through all his work, from The Comedy of Errors onwards.
For Prospero, too, there is a mixture of recovery and loss in this moment so long awaited and prepared. Rightly or wrongly, we sense the same is true for the playwright who stands behind the characters undergoing all the emotions onstage. The enchanter’s daughter, Miranda, has fallen in love with Ferdinand, just as he foresaw, hoped, and perhaps worried would happen. In revenging himself on those who wronged him and regaining his dukedom, Prospero also gives away his dear Miranda, albeit in a marriage very beneficial to her status and future prospects. Moreover, as we’ve alluded to, in leaving the island to return to civilization, he chooses to forgo the magical powers that allowed him to orchestrate all the events of the play. In so doing, he keeps his word to Ariel, his chief minion, to set him free, Genie-style. The fate of Caliban is unclear.
In this scene, as the truth behind the marvelous events of the play is being revealed, as the son is restored to his father and the daughter enjoys a taste of future bliss apart from hers, a further layer of spectacle is introduced: not a play within a play, as in Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but a game of chess. Scholars point out the particular coded meanings of games in Renaissance literature–chess is evidently associated with lovemaking, so Ivana Humpalot and Austin Powers had it right all along–but even without specialized knowledge or symbolic skeleton keys, we can see how the game of chess here functions in tandem with the immediate dialogue and, in turn, with the play’s larger themes of concealment and revelation, control and release.
The moment they are revealed also appears to be the moment that Miranda catches Ferdinand cheating at the game. In the same breath, he denies it and she forgives him–and much more. The implication is clear: he will try to deceive her, she will catch him, and she will call it “fair play,” not “play[ing her] false,” out of love. So intent on their game and so wrapped up in one another are they, the young lovers don’t seem to notice at first that they are observed, much less who their audience is. But just as they and Prospero both mix language of territory gained and lost into their wordplay, their marriage will carry considerations and repercussions beyond them. Not just a love-match, their union represents the continuance of their family lines and the knitting together of their lands and peoples. The same subject is present in Prospero’s other major set-piece, in which he summons the Greek gods Ceres (land, harvest) and Juno (rule, matrimony) and puts on a dance of Reapers and Nymphs (mankind and nature, or if you like, work and play). That is also the moment where he seems most vulnerable, almost forgetting “that foul conspiracy / Of the beast Caliban and his confederates,” and in his vexation delivering his great lines on ephemerality and dreams (IV.1.156 and following). By playing and trading puns against one another, the lovers show their rapport with one another. Just how lasting that will prove to be, we might be apt to judge less forgivingly than Miranda. Meanwhile, juxtaposed against his mastery of the pagan gods, Prospero shows his human frailty and dependence on others, and perhaps his simple loneliness. His cruelty, here and throughout, towards Caliban, like Alyosha’s coldness towards Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, imparts that tinge of guilt in the midst of their sympathetic heroism, beauty, and grace, lends that weight and complexity to the “insubstantial pageant” of their words, which makes them everlastingly worthy of reading.
In The Tempest, as in chess, human pieces have been moved in pursuit of a strategy, whether it is the microcosm of the sailors trying to save the ship in the opening scene, the shipwrecked nobles drawn together in the salvific plan pursued by Prospero, or some still more encompassing macrocosmic message about the powers and limits of art or mercy. Each act of the play (until the last) is structured as a give and take between two players, so to speak, taking turns one scene apiece; the symmetry is startling given Shakespeare’s tendency elsewhere to run rampant (see in Antony and Cleopatra). And as in chess, where pieces are only captured in service, ultimately, of a checkmate, the epilogue of the play is spoken by Prospero alone, directly to the audience: has he actually succeeded, or is he caught himself, depending on us to set him free? That is, winning and ending the game might not be the true goal here; chess, like any play or pastime, might serve some superordinate goal of delight, wish-fulfilment, liberation, or indeed repetition.
Up next: Montaigne, Shakespeare’s near-contemporary, reflects on chess along with practically every other topic under the sun in the course of his Essays, but the critical moment in his work for the student of play is an aside about his cat.