In recent weeks there has been considerable controversy over the portrayal on TV, by black actress Jodie Turner-Smith, of Queen Anne Boleyn, who was palpably white. Surely the wrong kind of queen for a chess column, one might object, but there are interesting familial and royal associations. As I have been regularly demonstrating in this column, chess is one of the world’s oldest games of war, sharing a similar antiquity to the Chinese encirclement game of Go, Chinese chess aka Xiangqi, and the Japanese game Shogi. Chess is generally said to have been developed in the north of India at some period before 500AD.
The original pieces, far less mobile than their modern counterparts, represented units of the ancient Indian army: foot-soldiers, cavalry, armed chariots and, of course, elephants. The fighting troops were led on the chessboard, as in real life, by the King and his senior minister, the vizier (which became the queen in the modern game). From India, chess spread through central Asia, China, Persia, and Europe. The game was popular in Constantinople in the 11th century AD, and was recorded as a favourite past time of Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus.
Once the game had reached the West, the identity and design of the individual chess pieces was gradually modified to reflect the social milieu of feudal Europe. The king, of course, remained unchanged, while pawns still represented infantry. The elephant, the heavy cavalry of Indian arms, was, however, replaced by the bishop, reflecting the power of the church in the mediaeval landscape. The elephant, in any case, was virtually unknown as an engine of war in the West. The most notable example, perhaps, is Livy‘s mention of Hannibal‘s use of the beasts against Rome during the second Punic War on the Italian mainland. The horse of the Indian game, as one might expect, became the knight, the universally recognised symbol of feudal chivalry. The out-dated chariot became the castle (“Turm” in German, “torre” in Spanish, “tour” in French, naturally signifying tower). In English, however, the accepted term is “rook”. This word harks back to the ancient Persian word (“rukh”) for war chariot or perhaps to “rocco”, an Italian alternative for ‘tower’. Finally, the vizier was transformed into the queen, a vital component of the medieval court and about to become even more powerful during the Renaissance, with dominant figures on the political scene, such as Queen Isabella of Castile, Margaret of Parma, Vicereine of the Spanish Netherlands, Catherine de Medici and of course, Queen Elizabeth I.
Towards the close of the 15th century, in Europe a sweeping change in the rules spontaneously occurred. The most important alteration in the rules was the emergence of the chess queen. From being the creepingly feeble companion of the old king, the piece was transformed in Phoenix-like resurrection to the most powerful piece on the chessboard. If one adds to this the double move available to pawns on their first turn, the ability of the new bishop to sweep along entire diagonals and the right to castle the king into safety, one virtually has the modern version of chess that is played worldwide today in 130 countries around the globe. This is the version officially recognised by the International ruling body of chess, the World Chess Federation, FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs) which embraces over five million individual members.
Until the 20th century chess was often regarded as a game for the aristocratic, wealthy or leisured classes of society. But today, to a certain extent as a result of the impetus given to chess in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution of 1917, chess exerts a much broader appeal. If FIDE has five million registered players, that number represents but the minute tip of competitors, topping a vastly greater mountain of ordinary enthusiasts and lovers of the game. Indeed, in the Soviet Union, chess was the national sport, more popular than football. As a result of massive state encouragement for the game, Soviet grandmasters more or less dominated world chess from the 1940s until the Soviet megalith itself suddenly expired. Even more impressive is the figure of fifty million chess lovers, who have taken to playing online during the Covid pandemic.
Among all the board games, chess appears to have the ideal blend of strategy, tactics and pure skill. Compare it, say, with backgammon where the outcome is unduly influenced by the fortuitous throw of the dice, or with draughts, where the uniformity of the pieces tends to engineer a predominance of tactical solutions. The only games that compare in subtlety, science and depth with chess are Xiangqi, Shogi and Go.
Chess is an almost perfect combination of art, investigative calculation, knowledge and inspiration. Analysing a game of chess is primarily an exercise in logic, yet executing a brilliant mating attack or solving a profound strategic question can also bring a genuine feeling of creative achievement. But chess is far from a solitary intellectual undertaking, like the solving of a crossword puzzle. A competition aspect of chess makes it a battle between two individuals, a battle without bloodshed, but still a fierce struggle of mind, willpower and, at the highest levels, physical endurance.
More than anything else though, chess has an ancient and distinguished history. The game provides a deep sense of continuity with the intellectual community of past ages, extending through many hundreds of years and embracing all nations and cultures with some astonishing connections.
Thus, surprisingly, in real life the Aladdin of the pantomime fairy tale was a noted chess player, a lawyer from Samarkand in the court of Tamburlaine, the 14th-century conqueror of much of Asia. Tamburlaine himself loved to play chess; he named his son Shah Rukh, for he was moving a rook on the megalomaniac giant chessboard he preferred (112 square board, and with extra pieces such as the gryphon, giraffe and cannon) when the birth was announced. Goethe was an avid chessplayer and believed, with Leibnitz, that the game was essential to the cultivation of the intellect. Benjamin Franklin, another genius, was also an enthusiast – his Morals of Chess, published in 1786, was the first chess publication in America. Shakespeare and Einstein both played chess; Ivan the Terrible, Queen Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great and Napoleon were all chess enthusiasts, while Lenin described chess as “the gymnasium of the mind”.
Among English monarchs, King Henry VIII possessed a chessboard plus pieces and it can doubtless be assumed that Henry regarded chess as a natural accomplishment of a renaissance prince, along with writing poetry and jousting.
Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII brings to a close the mighty history cycle commencing with Edward III, now generally regarded as at least partly a Shakespeare original, and one of the very few which specifically mentions chess: “And bid the lords hold on their play at chess, For we will walk and meditate alone.” Scene 3 in the Royal Shakespeare Company edition.
The cycle continues with Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two, Henry V, Henry VI Parts One, Two and Three, and Richard III. It is my opinion that this huge dramatic cycle, essentially one long play, represents the true English national epic in a way that Beowulf (too early in our national lifeline) and Paradise Lost (too Latinate for most readers, though a treat for those who like their English poetry in a Latin word order) do not.
If I am correct, then the Shakespeare histories together create our epic poem of national identity, on a par with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Welsh Mabinogion, Finland’s Kalevala, Portugal’s Lusiads and for the Jewish people, the epic story of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament.
If you are looking for kings, queens, castles, knights and bishops in abundance, then Shakespeare’s histories are the place to go. Which brings me to the original question of the controversy stirred up by Turner-Smith playing Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII’s queen number two). Does this flagrant violation of historical fact really matter?
There was nothing black about Anne Boleyn, though her daughter with Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, was a distant descendant of Edward the Black Prince (so named after his black armour), whose great grandfather, King Edward I, is actually depicted playing chess in the board games manuscript of the Castilian King Alfonso the Wise (Alfonso el Sabio). Should anyone doubt that Edward III is a true Shakespeare creation, consider these ringingly metaphorical lines from King Edward’s son, Edward the Black Prince, great, great, great, great, great uncle of Elizabeth I, hurling defiance at the French (standing in for the Spanish from the Armada of Shakespeare’s day):
“Defiance, Frenchman? We rebound it back,
Even to the bottom of thy master’s throat;
And be it spoke with reverence of the King
My gracious father and these other lords,
I hold thy message but as scurrilous,
And him that sent thee like the lazy drone
Crept up by stealth unto the eagle’s nest,
From whence we’ll shake him with so rough a storm
As others shall be warnèd by his harm.”
Nine plays later, Shakespeare predicts the reigns of Elizabeth I and her successor James 1st and 6th as follows:
Henry VIII Act V, Scene 5:
“In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,
And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.
Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir,
As great in admiration as herself;
So shall she leave her blessedness to one,
When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness,
Who from the sacred ashes of her honour
Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was,
And so stand fix’d: peace, plenty, love, truth, terror,
That were the servants to this chosen infant,
Shall then be his, and like a vine grow to him:
Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine,
His honour and the greatness of his name
Shall be, and make new nations: he shall flourish,
And, like a mountain cedar, reach his branches
To all the plains about him: our children’s children
Shall see this, and bless heaven.”
Even Shakespeare was not averse to buttering up the Tudor and Stuart monarchs. In the film version of 101 Dalmations, the question posed by her butler Frederick (played by Hugh Fraser) to Cruella de Vil springs to mind: “What type of sycophant would you like me to be?” Not to mention Virgil’s ekphrastic panegyric of Octavian at the Battle of Actium: “His happy brow shoots out twin flames, and from his forehead, blazes forth the star of his father.”
So, should the mother of our historically greatest queen, the tutelary semi-divinity presiding over the Armada’s defeat, be portrayed by an actress of a markedly different colour?
The defeat of the Armada is a highly significant moment in English history and Anne Boleyn with her daughter Elizabeth are key parts of that national mythology. The supreme emotion of the episode is captured in the poem “Drake’s Drum” by Sir Henry Newbolt: “Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore, Strike et when your powder’s runnin’ low; If the Dons sight Devon, I’ll quit the porto’ Heaven, An’ drum them up the Channel as we drumm’d them long ago.” The Dons are the Spanish of course, not members of the Corleone family.
For my part, I have no objection to a white historical character being played by a black actor or actress. Surely part of the magic of theatrical performance is the suspension of disbelief. In Shakespeare’s day, women were not even permitted on stage and such archetypal feminine roles as Juliet, Cleopatra and Helen of Troy in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, were always portrayed by trained boy actors. This might also help to account for the gender confusion in, for example, Twelfth Night, where Viola’s attempts to disguise herself as a boy gain added verisimilitude from the fact that the part was actually being played by a boy.
I have seen the parts of both Hamlet and Henry V played by female actors, twice with black actors, while Glenda Jackson’s interpretation of King Lear was outstanding. I have even seen a tub of lard stand in most effectively for Labour politician Roy Hattersley (June 4 1993, Have I Got News For You?)
What I object to is the woking-class insistence that black characters must be played by black thespians, ditto gay, disabled “etcetera etcetera “, as Yul Brynner tended to conclude his sentences in The King and I. Surely sauce for the goose must be balanced by sauce for the gander.
We will know that parity of (non) prejudice has been attained, when the Moor Othello can be played by a white actress and no squeak of complaint is heard from any of the usual suspects. White queens and Black queens have coexisted happily on the chessboard for over 500 years, so why not on the stage? And, as Shakespeare also wrote: “All the world’s a stage!”
This week’s games, in the absence of a chessboard feat by King Henry, of that name the Eighth, are a trio of victories by later chess playing Henries: Henry Bird, Joseph Henry Blackburne and the doyen of the RAC chess circle, Henry Mutkin. The third Henry sensationally defeats two Grandmasters in one of the most brilliant wins ever achieved by the presumed weaker side in a simultaneous display.
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