Wednesday, 25 July 2012

William Tell and Gay Marriage

Until last week, the only things I knew about William Tell were him shooting an arrow off his son's head and a catchy overture by Rossini, used for the theme tune to The Lone Ranger.

We were looking for card games to while away our evenings in our hut in Austria. I was lucky enough to come across a traditional Austrian card game for us to learn: Schnapsen, also known as Sixty Six.

The game of Schnapsen uses a reduced pack of twenty cards (Tens through Aces), and features the declaration of "marriages" between King and Queens. (These are worth 40 points for a trump marriage and 20 points for a marriage in any other suit.) For added authenticity, we bought a special pack of Schnapsen cards in a traditional design from the local shop.

However, when we opened up the pack, we found it contained cards of the Hungarian deck, which is very unlike the familiar Western deck. The first thing we noticed was that it uses the Southern German suits – with Acorns, Bells, Hearts and Leaves instead of Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts and Spades. But more surprisingly, we discovered that there are no Queens in the deck. Instead, each suit has two Jacks: an ober Knave and an under Knave. So with this deck, you declare a "marriage" between the King and the ober Knave. I could hardly believe it, at first, but I double-checked the rules: there was no mistake. 

Hungarian playing cards. The Aces depict the four seasons.

This deck was designed in 1837 by József Schneider, a painter from Pest. The ober and under Knaves feature characters from Friedrich Schiller's 1804 play, William Tell. Tell is a legendary fourteenth-century Swiss national hero. He uses his almost superhuman strength and skill with a crossbow to kill the oppressive local overlord Gessler; and he sets in motion the popular rebellion that will lead eventually to the establishment of modern Switzerland.

At the time this deck of cards was produced, Revolution was sweeping Europe, so the decision to depict characters from a drama about a freedom fighter assassinating a tyrant was undoubtedly a political one. It is thought that Schneider chose a Swiss hero, rather than a native Hungarian one, in order to evade the strict censorship laws of his day. The Revolution arrived in Hungary not long after, in the turbulent year of 1848.

While Robin Hood has become the patron of a series of bold new tax proposals, his cousin William Tell languishes in the shadows of public imagination. This seems such a pity. Surely the logical thing to do would be to revive and modernize him, to use him as a vehicle to overthrow oppressive legislature without, it is to be hoped, the violence of 1848. I propose that William Tell – through his association with the same-sex-marriage-endorsing game of Schnapsen – aim his arrows at the apple of conservative prejudice, and once again take up the role of a freedom fighter for the people. 

Schnapsen is a fast-moving game involving concentration, a good memory, tactics and a small degree of luck. We have become addicted. I invite you to learn it and to teach it to your children. By doing so, we will be celebrating the liberty-loving William Tell and supporting the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry.

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