Translated by Hilary Collier Sy-Quia and Peter Oswald
Don’t read Schiller’s play about Mary, Queen of Scots, if you’re looking for historical accuracy. The catalyst for Mary’s ultimate downfall, Mortimer didn’t exist. Neither did Leicester, Queen Elizabeth’s favourite earl, have a thing for the Scottish queen. Nor, for that matter, did Mary and Elizabeth ever meet.
Do read Schiller’s play if you want a play full of concentrated action and suspense (despite knowing that there’s only one way in which this can end). These are the last 3 days of Mary’s life and Schiller plunges us in Act 1, Sc 1 into the ritual humiliation of Mary’s imprisonment in Fotheringhay castle. Her wardens break into her chambers to search and remove any valuables. Mary, it appears, has been using these to finance her supporters attempts at rebellion. A recent plot to restore Mary to her rightful position has failed and Mary’s trial for treason has taken place, although Mary was not allowed to attend and does not yet know the outcome. She feels sure that a meeting with Elizabeth, cousin to cousin, queen to queen, is all it takes to save her.
The figures of Mary and Elizabeth appear at first sight to be diametrically opposed. Mary is powerless and repentant of her previous sins, particularly the role she played in the death of her 2nd husband Darnley. She admits no guilt in any plot against the Queen of England. Elizabeth is in the ascendant , proud, haughty and a ditherer (at least Schiller portrayed this correctly), who couldn’t decide whether or not to sign Mary’s death warrant. And yet, it turns out that the two women have more in common than anyone could ever guess. Tinsel doth not make the queen and so those similarities jump right off the page in the Act 3 Scene IV – the dead centre of the play – in which the meeting of the queens occurs. It is the pivotal scene which starts with Mary pleading for her life to an unyielding and unforgiving queen whose harsh, arrogant statements finally goad the prisoner into making a fatal error of judgement.
Actually whether Elizabeth would have signed the death warrant at this point is a moot point because events spiral completely out of control when a rash supporter of Mary’s tries to assassinate Elizabeth on her journey back to London. That’s the trigger for Mortimer to break cover and persuade Mary to flee. When she decides he is a madman, it all goes horribly wrong ….
You have to ask yourself how Mary managed to exert such a pull over these young hotbloods. Undeniably beautiful in her youth and early womanhood, she was at the time of her death 44; her long, auburn tresses, short and grey. Schiller makes life easy for himself by making both Elizabeth and Mary at least a decade younger than they were in reality at the time of these events. The idea of rescuing a damsel in distress is always a motivator but also there was that thorny issue of religion. The persecuted Catholics wanted a restoration and Mary was their favoured route to that. In essence then, Schiller portrays things as they were: the religious divide, the scheming noblemen, the vascillating queen forced eventually to execute her cousin to protect her own position. Is that her motivation for signing the death warrant or is it an act of personal vengeance for what transpired at their manufactured meeting? Even if so, it’s not the dirtiest trick that Elizabeth plays on Schiller’s stage … poor, poor Davison.
Schiller clearly doesn’t like Elizabeth and a playwright’s justice demands a reckoning. Mary Stuart may be the one killed at the end, but she dies with dignity, at peace with her fate and with the love and support of her ladies intact. You get the feeling, however, that Elizabeth’s troubles are only just beginning.