top of page
  • Writer's pictureMackenzie Elisa

Mary Stuart

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

by Friedrich Schiller

So I just finished reading this play and no, it's not Shakespeare, but I still think it's important to talk about. Mary Stuart is a five act play in verse, following the same narrative format as Shakespeare's plays. It was originally written in German and published in 1800, so it is a bit after Shakespeare's time. However, is it similar to Shakespeare in that Schiller is writing about events approximately the same amount of time retrospectively as Shakespeare did.

Shakespeare was generally careful to set most of his plays in a historic milieu that was not quite so immediate to Elizabethan England (Henry VIII being the exception) as to avoid \accidentally offending the current monarch and being accused of treason. Obviously his Roman histories were quite in the distant past, but his final history (again not including Henry VIII which was a direct catering to Elizabeth I) Richard III, was written 112 years after Richard's death. It's safe to say that Shakespeare would have felt comfortable talking about R3 by then, it is also important to note that R3 was categorized as an evil and deformed figure victimized by Tudor propaganda (debatably all true though? AND Elizabeth was a Tudor) after the end of the War of the Roses. Ok part one of the history lecture = done!

Moving on to Elizabeth and Mary (my faves!!!)

Mary Stuart follows the events leading up to Mary Queen of Scots' execution (with some dramatic narrative liberties being taken because why not?!). Mary is being held prisoner in England throughout the entire action of the play because she has been accused of plotting against Elizabeth. Both women share a grandfather (Henry VII) so they both had great claims to the English throne. Depending on who you asked in Tudor England, Elizabeth was considered illegitimate because of her father, Henry VIII's, marriage to Anne Boleyn (wife #2 who was beheaded) because H8 broke away from the Catholic Church to marry Anne. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had failed to give him a male heir, so he needed another *try* (we all know how the rest of the story goes). After this split from the Catholic Church, we see the birth of The Church of England (which religiously was suspiciously similar to Catholicism, but would later develop into Protestantism/Anglicanism). H8's reformation was more political than it was religious... anyways... Elizabeth was Protestant and England was just coming off of the bloody rule of Mary Tudor (a very devout Catholic). Mary Stuart was also a devout Catholic and was the Queen of Scotland, and former Queen of France (RIP Francis).

Mary was forced to abdicate the throne of Scotland for her infant son, James VI, after she was implicated in the murder of her second husband, Lord Darnley. Shortly after Darnley's mysterious and violent death, Mary married for a third time, this time to Bothwell (this marriage was #sus and was probably not consensual). The Scottish nobles HATED Mary because John Knox was rapidly spreading Presbyterian ideas throughout Scotland. Mary sought refuge with her cousin, Elizabeth, in England and ended up being treated more like a prisoner than a guest. Throughout her time in England, many English Catholics advocated for her right to the English Throne and claimed that she was the true heir. This did not bode well with Elizabeth. Elizabeth never married out of fear of losing her agency and power, and thus she had no heir. Eventually an agreement would be made that James VI of Scotland, Mary's son, would succeed Elizabeth and become James I and VI.

Back to Mary- so Mary is implicated in a Catholic plot to assassinate Elizabeth in a plot called the Casket Letters. It is now believed that these letters were forged and Mary was indeed innocent in the plot. Unfortunately, Mary would be executed in 1587 because she simply posed too great of a threat to Elizabeth.

Here's where things get interesting- this play, and many scholars, argue that Elizabeth was "tricked" into signing Mary's death warrant. There's a lot of manipulation and plots going on, and unfortunately Mary is the primary victim, but Elizabeth is also sadly used as a pawn as well. Schiller does an excellent job of making this apparent through the way the men in the play manipulate both of the Queens. Schiller sympathizes with Mary, there's no denying it. He builds on the arguments of many other Marian supporters, especially over the issue of whether Mary was involved in the plot to kill her second husband, Lord Darnley. Schiller seems to believe that Mary was not directly involved in the plot, but was aware of it at the bare minimum. Other Marian supporters believed she was entirely innocent to the whole plot AND THEN they go on to argue that even if she had been privy to the knowledge of the plot, that Darnley would have deserved to die because of his involvement in the death of Mary's friend and advisor, David Rizzio. It is all very convoluted and sketchy. We will probably never know the truth of what happened to Lord Darnley, that secret lies with Mary. While the two queens never actually met in person, this play gives us a fiery scene between the two of them.

While this play cannot be considered inherently feminist, because it was written by a white man in the 1800s, it is womanist. It provides insight into the roles that these women played in Elizabethan politics and it humanizes both of these women, especially Mary. Elizabeth has recieved a great deal of sympathy and glory throughout history, but Mary has generally been discarded as merely a weak and evil Catholic woman. Not many pieces of dramatic literature like this one exist today, and that's why I think it's important for us to look at these plays. It is also important to note that the different ways that these women were percieved were probably a product of misogynistic ideas. This is a whole seperate issue that I could rant about for hours, but I won't bore you with that right now...


I highly highly highly recommend this play if you like Shakespeare or history! It is an excellent read!!!

35 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page