How Netflix and Shakespeare use Women and Chess

Sunday, February 07

By Simone Harrison

The art of storytelling has, by every stretch of the imagination, evolved throughout the past 500 years. Prior to the era of the printing press, fables were predominantly told viva voce (or ‘word-of-mouth’ to you and I) relying on the reader to utilize their imagination and construct their own version of narrative. Fast forward to the modern day, and over 180 films and 27,000 hours of television are produced a year in the UK alone. The art of storytelling has encapsulated us for hundreds of thousands of years, the liberty to express ourselves through word and image has shaped society, and by all means, changed it. However, even with these vast shifts in the ways we consume our media, this does not mean similar plotlines and characterisations are not employed by various writers.

Take for example, Netflix. A multibillion-dollar corporation established in 1997 by Reed Hastings and Marc Raldolph. Responsible for the birth of hooking series such as ‘Stranger Things’ (2016), ‘Tiger King’ (2020), and one of last Autumn’s most watched mini- series ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ (2020). All these incredible programmes have mesmerised their hundreds of thousands of viewers, the latter of which, The Queen’s Gambit (TQG), receiving over 62 million viewers worldwide. However, this somewhat ground-breaking series embodies similar traits to one of history’s most influential playwrights.

Based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 homonymous novel, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ follows orphan, Beth Harmon, a child prodigy at Chess circa 1960. Throughout the series, we witness Beth’s flourishment into the international Grand Master at Chess – competing all over the USA and even internationally. Despite this, Beth’s mastery is significantly challenged by the USSR’s international Champion, Borgov. Her fear appears to override her skill during her various meetings with the victor – “There is one player that scares me. The Russian. Borgov.”

To interpret the series historically, one could place the two rivals – Borgov and Harmon- as chess pawns. The aim of chess is to overthrow the King, signifying the superiority one holds over their opponent. Given the board is constructed of two opposite colours – white and black- one could suggest that Borgov and Harmon are metaphorical chess pawns in the game of ideologies. Beth, representing the USA’s laissez- faire principle, is encouraged to compete against the Russians by a Christian charity, who offers to fund the trip in order to secure her winning – “If you are going to play the Soviet’s, you need help.”. The financial support Beth is offered from the charity highlights the fears felt by threatened ideals such as religion. It is not Beth the public are supporting, simply her winning over the ever-materialising opposing communist ideologies Borgov embodies. The series concludes with Beth’s triumphant win over the USSR, perhaps mimetically alluding to the later downfall of the Soviet Empire during the 1990s. Beth is encouraged to express her privilege of being American to the press – “Tell them that being in Russia has made you feel lucky to be an American.”, “It’s a big deal, beating the Soviets at their own game.”- further heightening anti- communistic perspectives in 1960s America.

Beth, as a powerful and inspirational woman overthrows the opposing leader on her board – and as and perhaps threatens the communist regime. Her winning of the game arguably allows her to be free of the pressures that haunted her during the series.

However, Beth is not the only woman within literary art to be used as political pawn against a threatening ideal.

Take Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. Written in around 1603, the play follows Prospero, a Duke who was usurped by his Brother, Alonso, due to the abandonment of his requirements in favour of the development of his magic. As a result, Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, are banished to an Island where Prospero seeks revenge from his Brother. In order to achieve this, Prospero conjures a tempest which shipwrecks the noblemen, along with Alonso’s son, Ferdinand.

In order to regain his citizenship back on the mainland, Prospero enslaves Ferdinand and uses Goetia to manufacture a love between his daughter and the Duke’s son. As a result, the two fall deeply in love and are pictured at the denounce of the play “playing at chess”. The mimetic display of the two lovers playing chess illustrates how Prospero has anonymously orchestrated the romance in order to gain revenge upon an opposing party, his Brother. The game of chess is a metaphorical interpretation of the Island itself, how Prospero has controlled each person for his own Machiavellian benefit. Miranda, like Beth, has been used as political pawn against a powerful leadership, for her, overthrowing a King benefitted both her, and her Father.

Both females in ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and ‘The Tempest’ are somewhat controlled by the tense environments they reside within. Beth is encouraged to battle against the Soviet leadership and win the game of chess, whereas Miranda plays at chess with her lover, displaying Prospero’s triumph over his threatening opponent. Each woman acts with strength and determination; however, it is Beth’s free will which significantly distinguishes her from Miranda. Unbeknownst to her, Miranda has been coerced into becoming collateral for Prospero to harvest and manipulate, whereas Beth understands the pressure on her to succeed.


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