Like the Divine Retribution of Greek myth, Henry VIII so affronts the gods that their vengeance pursues his heirs until the final mutual destruction of the last Tudors. Henry set the scene for Frederich Schiller’s taut drama, Mary Stuart, through his Act of Supremacy (1534), wherein he declared himself and his progeny supreme leaders of the church in England in perpetuity. Henry’s older sister, Margaret, wife to Scotland’s King, disapproved. Among his children, “Bloody” Mary remained devoutly Catholic in keeping with the heritage of her Spanish mother, Catherine of Aragon. Between Henry’s death in 1547 and Mary Stuart’s execution in 1587, his children and his sisters’ grandchildren swirled through a maelstrom of successional wrangling caused less by their proportion of Tudor blood than by Henry’s restructuring of Cristendom.
To Catholics, Henry’s only sanctified wife was Catherine of Aragon; therefore, Catherine’s daughter, “Bloody” Mary, was the only legitimate successor to the throne, followed by Mary Stuart, the legitimate issue of Henry’s Scottish nephew, the late James V. Henry, however, declaring daughter Mary illegitimate, specifically excluded her from succession, deeming his marriage to Catherine “unlawful under God.” His son, Edward VI, as his short life ended, disowned both his Catholic sister, Mary, and his Protestant sister, Elizabeth, also passing over Catholic cousin Mary Stuart in favor of Protestant-leaning cousin, Lady Jane Grey.
“Bloody” Mary wrested the throne from Jane and reigned for five bloody years, poor Jane among her casualties. Protestant Elizabeth became queen at Mary’s death in 1558, the same year Mary Stuart married the Dauphin of France. Simultaneously Queen of Scotland, “legitimate” Queen of England, and, at seventeen, Queen of France, Mary Stuart steadfastly refused to rescind her claim to the English throne. Even so, she sought asylum in England in 1568 after being twice widowed, forced from the Scottish throne, deprived of her infant son (James VI), and imprisoned. The events of Schiller’s play represent the last few days before her execution in 1587.
As the play opens, Mary Stuart, now age forty-four, is in her twentieth year of confinement in England, still refusing to acknowledge Elizabeth’s sovereignty. Schiller introduces her through the loyal eyes of Hanna Kennedy as guards ransack Mary’s quarters looking for evidence of “incitement to civil war.” Then, “Enter MARY, veiled, a Crucifix in her hand,” leaving no doubt about her religion, especially as she has asked “to be allowed the freedom to practice [her] religion but . . . still denied the sacraments” and demanding “a priest of [her] own church.” “Can I imagine,” she queries, “that she who has my crown and freedom, threatens my life, wants even to deny me heaven?” (emphasis mine).
Schiller generates considerable sympathy for Mary in act 1, as she calms Hanna and explains to Paulet (a knight entrusted with her care from 1585 until her death) the import of her just-discovered letters to Elizabeth. She attributes this most recent assault to the ghost of her murdered husband, for which she claims ongoing penance. Puzzlement supplants sympathy as Hanna excuses, without denying, Mary’s horrible crimes as acts of youth, possession, passion, and her third husband, Bothwell’s, seduction. Mortimer’s abrupt re-entry with fantasies of rescue, reinforced by Mary’s link with Leicester, Elizabeth’s favorite, further sobers our compassion.
Mortimer (Paulet’s nephew), who presents himself publically as cold and aloof, reveals a deeply passionate spirit who “left the frozen sermons of the Puritans and travelled to the land of Italy” where he “never imagined [he] could feel so much.” “The church I was brought up in,” he tells Mary, “hates the senses, bans the image, worships nothing but the abstract word.” Then follows his ecstatic account of first seeing Mary’s likeness at the residence of her French uncle, a cardinal. “You are a Tudor,” Mortimer avers, “and the throne of England belongs to you, not to this specious queen conceived by Henry in adultery, declared a bastard by her father.” Mortimer describes his conversion to Catholicism as an aesthetic discovery and swears himself to Mary’s service—and liberation. Mary Stuart suggests others he might recruit to the purpose.
Our compassion for Elizabeth is likewise ambiguous. In act 2, after Burleigh proposes the execution of Mary to prevent more uprisings, Elizabeth seeks council from gentle Talbot, who contrasts the queens’ respective childhoods in terms that also contrast Protestant austerity, reason and duty against Catholic luxuriance, passion and desire: “No throne in sight for you,” Talbot comforts her; “only your grave. God taught you harsh lessons in the Tower of London . . . You learned early how to focus yourself, and hold true to what’s worth holding onto! No such luck for the other poor royal girl. Shipped off to France as a child, to the gay life! Nobody around her ever sober for long enough to teach her left from right. Addled by vice, swept downstream to destruction!” “I am not like the Stuart,” Elizabeth confides later to Leicester, “who gave herself exactly what she wanted, denied herself no pleasures, drunk a river of bliss! . . . [S]he declined the yoke I bowed to . . . I chose the harder road of royal duty.”
Yet Elizabeth hesitates to act on Burleigh’s proposal to execute Mary Stuart, not willing to “tarnish” her reputation—openly, at least. She signs Mary’s death warrant in the presence of her newest and weakest official, Davison, but remains stubbornly vague about how he should handle it. After Mary’s death, Elizabeth self-righteously condemns Davison to execution and Burleigh to exile, though she was never explicit in her intent. Duplicitous Leicester slinks away to France.
The near-futile search for a persuasively straightforward human being in Schiller’s powerful drama intensifies its emotional engagement. The honorable characters, as Schiller sees them, Paulet and Talbot, have opportunities to violate their trust—through Burleigh and Elizabeth, respectively—and both men, thankfully, refuse.
At the end of act 1, Burleigh challenges Paulet’s lack of attention to Elizabeth’s wishes: ”Is there no one . . . she seems to be saying [emphasis mine], who can save me from this monstrous dilemma: either to reign in fear forever, or to send a queen, my own cousin, to the block.” With sharper ears, Burleigh continues, “capable of hearing unspoken orders,” Paulet could arrange for Mary to succumb to some mysterious illness. But to his credit and the great relief of the audience, Paulet takes a moral stand to “let no killer in here! While my household gods protect her, her life is sacred to me—as sacred as the life of the Queen of England.” He is the last Englishman to show compassion to Mary Stuart as she goes to the block.
Gentle Talbot voices sympathy and caution throughout. His sixteen-year tenure as Mary’s guard is truncated, Burleigh suggests, by his compassion: “The lady was transferred from Shrewsbury into the keeping of Sir Anias Paulet, in the hopes that—[unspoken hint to Paulet]” (act 1). Talbot pleads for peace with both Mary and Elizabeth prior to their meeting in act 3. He cautions Elizabeth against signing the death order. He goes to the tower to visit Mary’s secretaries, who admit to giving false testimony against her. But too late: Burleigh has already set the execution in motion.
When the news of Mary’s death arrives, Talbot asks Elizabeth’s permission to retire. She pleads with him to stay; he responds, “I lack the necessary flexibility . . . Live long, reign happily! Your rival is dead. Nothing to fear now. Or respect” [emphasis mine].
Schiller portrays two powerful women, cousins, both flawed, both queens, both with understandable claims to the crown of England, who struggle at the heart of a no-win plot of weakness, manipulation, madness, cowardice, infidelity, avoidance, treachery, suspicion, attempted murder, and religious conflict. At the end Elizabeth is sad and alone, childless, the sole surviving Tudor. The sins of her father weigh mightily upon her head.