The Game of Chess in The Tempest

The Game of Chess in the RSC’s THE TEMPEST
There is so much to praise in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of THE TEMPEST at the Power Center that it may well seem unnecessary to undertake any clarification or commentary on it. It is a remarkably clear and transparent production. The line speaking is flawless, the attention to acting detail exceptional, and the use of spectacle judicious and effective. But there is a puzzle about a chess board in the last minutes of the play. Ferdinand runs on stage from behind Prospero’s cell carrying a fabric chess board. He drops it when he sees his father, and no further use is made of it. Why, we may ask, is the character made to run on stage carrying a chess board?
The First Folio has a different stage direction: “Here Prospero discovers Ferdinand and Miranda, playing at Chess.”(orthography modernized). Presumably Prospero is intended to pull back the curtain that serves as the door of his “cell’ or cave, to show his daughter and the King’s son playing chess. If Shakespeare’s playhouse had an “inner stage” covered by a curtain, that disclosure would have been easy. What is the point of this association of chess playing with Ferdinand?
Miranda and Ferdinand had fallen in love at first sight and had become engaged. Prospero pretends to treat Ferdinand harshly to test his love for Miranda. He sets Ferdinand to piling up a thousand logs, the same kind of work he compels Caliban to perform. Caliban does so only under threat of pain, and even then still with utter begrudgement. Ferdinand, however, because he is doing it for Miranda, does it with humility and without complaint. In fact he finds such degrading labor, so ill befitting a royal prince, a “pleasure” since it is done for Miranda. She reciprocates. She begs Ferdinand to rest a bit from his log carrying while she takes it over. For her too, love lifts any degradation of labor to noble service.
The mutual virtue of these two noble lovers convinces Prospero to permit the marriage. He tells them so and indicates he will now allow them to talk in private together inside his cave. Before he lets them go off by themselves, however, he lays upon Ferdinand a stern injunction not to break Miranda’s “Virgin-knot” before the marriage is solemnized in church. Who knows how long that will be? It can’t be until they have returned to Naples. It might be days, weeks, months? What are engaged lovers to do? Refrain?
They are true lovers. There is no question of seduction. Miranda’s delight in Ferdinand is such that presumably she would not refuse the consummation before the ceremony, should Ferdinand lead her down that pathway. The consequences of getting the ceremony and the consummation in reverse order, are, however, according to Prospero, disastrous:
“No sweet aspersions shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow; but barraine hate,
Sower eyed disdain, and discord shall bestrew
The union of your bed, with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both”
Ferdinand easily reassures his father in law to be, saying:
“As I hope
For quiet dayes, faire issue, and long life,
With such love, as ‘tis now the murkiest den,
The most opportune place, the strongest suggestion,
Our worser Genius can, shall never melt
Mine honor into lust, to take away
The edge of that day’s celebration.”

Prospero is satisfied. While he takes a turn outside his cell (in the RSC production, a little wooden cabin) to cool his angry mind at the plottings of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, Prospero invites the young lovers to “If you be pleased, retire into my Cell,/ And there repose . . . .”
Prospero exits his cabin. They are alone. Certainly an opportune place and time. Will they “do it,” in spite of their pledge, or at least Ferdinand’s? We see Miranda climb up into the top bunk, lie down flat on her back, and cross her hands over her chest. Ferdinand hesitates for a moment, but eventually throws himself into the lower bunk, yet remains sitting, presumably thinking about the proximity and ease of ascent to the heaven lying just above him. Did he really mean what he said to Prospero, or are his promises, like “the strongest oaths . . . straw/To th’fire ith’ blood.” Will he actually have the restraint to wait?
All of the other plots of THE TEMPEST turn on restraint as well. Sebastian, Prospero’s brother wanted the sole power of the Duke of Milan, and set afloat his brother and niece in a rotted boat to get rid of him. Alonso, the King of Naples assisted Sebastian in overthrowing Prospero. Caliban was taken in by Prospero and Miranda and treated as a member of the family at first, and taught to speak human language, but in a lack of restraint Caliban made an attempt to rape Miranda. The drunken clowns, Stephano and Trinculo, are clear models of drunken lack of restraint. Even Prospero in his own plot will be tested for restraint. His enemies have been wrecked on his island by his magic. He has them in his absolute power. Will he avenge himself on them, or, like a good Christian, will he forgive them? His rage at how he has been betrayed by his brother, by Caliban, by the entire civilized world except the old counselor Gonzalo, might well bring him to vengeance. But he too, on their repentance, shows restraint. He offers forgiveness to all who have mistreated him:
“the rarer Action is
In virtue, then in vengeance. They, being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frowne further.”
Thus, the restraint, or absence of it, between the young people is essential to completing the action and thought of the play. Will they too show the restraint this play postulates as necessary for happiness? How will we know that they didn’t misbehave while they were alone in the cell?
In this production the answer is given outside Prospero’s shack. We remember than Miranda and Ferdinand have been left in bunk beds within. How is the disclosure to be wrought? The shack is not on a turntable in this production. Rather, Ferdinand come running on stage from around the back of the shack being chased by Miranda as she complains that he cheated her in the game they were playing. Ferdinand carries a small flexible mat marked off in the traditional alternating dark and light squares pattern of a chessboard. He drops the mat on stage as soon as he sees his father. If you were passingly puzzled as to why Ferdinand was carrying a fabric chessboard, the reason he does so is that chess is a legitimate nearly natural symbol of the cool strategy and restraint needed for happiness in life. Although no further use is made of the mat, it is the crucial, necessary allusion to the game of chess as a symbol of their having obeyed their “nobler reason” rather than their blood. I think we can conclude that Ferdinand and Mariana have indeed whiled away their private time together playing chess rather than consummating the marriage before it had been celebrated.

In this, as in every other aspect, the RSC has mounted an immensely thoughtful production worth every penny of its ticket price for its insight into the life of the lines, into the meaning of the play, and into the right balance of spectacle and performance. Many thanks to Ralph Williams, Ken Fisher, and The University of Michigan for bringing the RSC’s version of THE TEMPEST to Ann Arbor.

John H. Underhill


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