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Stakes and hazards: games and gaming in early modern drama

Baird, C. C. (2019) Stakes and hazards: games and gaming in early modern drama. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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To link to this item DOI: 10.48683/1926.00088555


Twenty-four plays in the extant early modern dramatic canon feature gamesters at play, and over eighty reference games. This reflects the period’s passion for the pastime. Many games were new, with a frisson deriving from prohibition attempts and their magical mix of astrology, sacred geometry, entertainment and hazard. The game motif has received little in-depth analysis until recently. Offering a fresh, critical approach I demonstrate how understanding games advances our appreciation of early modern dramaturgy. Games are not merely decorative for ‘local colour’. They serve the innate playfulness of an age in which wit was a game, but with a serious dramatic purpose. Their currency provides dramatists with a lingua franca and a lens for a variety of contests. The introduction of a game (or embellishment thereof) is a conscious choice with a crucial purpose, the game proving to be the fulcrum of the dramatic action. I show the clear congruence between the form of a featured game and the action. An entire play can sometimes become an extension of the game which operates as a dynamic, nuanced synthesis of plot device and emblem, intersecting with thematic discourses. Medieval writers used the hierarchy of chessmen in Moralities, and, dice, conveniently rhyming with vice, were a feature of some early Interludes as a form of parable. It is with the early modernists that the game metaphor develops sophistication and subtlety. Through close readings of plays dating from c. 1560 to 1624 and study of seventeenth-century game treatises, one only recently available, I show, in chapters on Dice, Cards, Tables (now Backgammon) and Chess, how each game has different signification through its defining characteristics. Features such as the ‘faces’ and ‘hearts’ of cards and game boards symbolic of the cosmos or human body, turn games into perfect allegories of life, both its pleasures and its stakes and hazards.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Hutchings, M.
Thesis/Report Department:School of Literature and Languages
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Literature and Languages > English Literature
ID Code:88555
Additional Information:A revision of this thesis has been published by Palgrave Macmillan: Baird, C. (2020) Games and Gaming in Early Modern Drama: Stakes and Hazards. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9783030508579 doi 10.1007/978-3-030-50857-9. See


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