The name Friedrich Schiller rings a bell in almost everyone in the German-speaking part of Europe. For many, Schiller’s dramas and poetry were firm components of the German lessons at school, and countless students have suffered their way through works like “Die Räuber” and “Wallenstein”. Schiller is, however, also famous for his drama about Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart.
“Maria Stuart”, as it is called in the German original, is often discussed in university courses. I had the pleasure (and the duty) to work with it during my introductory course to German drama, and it is worth to look at the play from a literary and historical perspective.
The play begins three days before Mary Stuart’s execution.
After countless attempts of many men to free the strikingly beautiful Mary Stuart, a young courtier named Mortimer and nephew to Mary’s guard Paulet is determined to help the Scottish queen escape. He pretends to accept the order of assassinating her in order to get to her chamber. He tells Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, about it, who is the lover of Elizabeth I. and in love with Mary Stuart at the same time. To solve his personal dilemma, Dudley arranges a meeting between the two queens. He hopes that during this meeting, Elizabeth will decide to show mercy.
As the queens meet, nothing goes according to the plan. Elizabeth accuses Mary of hypocrisy and of killing all of her husbands. Mary, however, replies that Elizabeth is a hypocrite as well and that despite pretending to be virtuous and calling herself the Virgin Queen, she will never be able to hide the fact her mother was Anne Boleyn, a woman widely seen as a witch and whore. Elizabeth storms off, and Leicester’s plan has failed.
An attempt to assassinate Elizabeth fails, and Mortimer commits suicide as he realises that Leicester never truly planned to help him. Elizabeth is torn between her desire to have Mary out of the way and her wish to keep her hands clean. She then signs the death sentence but pretends that it was all the idea of her advisors.
Mary Stuart dies with a pure heart.
The portrayal of the queens
It is important to note that Schiller’s drama is in no way pretending to be an accurate description of reality. Many aspects of the play are entirely fictional, such as the many love affairs and intrigues surrounding Elizabeth and Mary. It is, however, important to point out that Friedrich Schiller did, in fact, do some research: The names of his characters as well as their titles are mostly accurate, and he took the religious and social issues of the time into account.
Schiller shows Elizabeth I as a monarch that finds herself in a difficult situation: She has no heir, her mother was executed, and she fights as a protestant against the resistance of the Catholic church. In the play, Elizabeth is portrayed as a woman that struggles between the role of a woman and the role of a queen. She laments that she is a slave to her own people and that she can never be herself. This points out the stark contrast between her sex and her position: as a woman, she is supposed to follow social codes and standards that she, as a queen, can never follow if she wants to maintain her power. Schiller uses this problem as Elizabeth’s greatest dilemma: she can never be both, never a true monarch (as she is no man) and never a true woman (as she is the queen).
Mary Stuart is a woman that is difficult to portray as the views of her differ greatly. Schiller portrays Mary as a sinner that regrets the murder of her husband, and only through that, she is able to face death with a pure soul. She struggles with her destiny at the beginning of the play and arranges various attempts in order to flee her prison of Fotheringhay Castle.
Whereas both queens seem to be portrayed as independent and strong human beings in a male-centered world, it is the meeting of the two queens that destroys this view completely. This “showdown” between them strongly reminded me of teenage girls, with the main argument being that one of them is prettier than the other, and that, in the end, the worth of a woman is determined by her beauty only. The sad thing is that both queens fully submit to this structure in the play and that their great argument is nothing more but a “But I am prettier than you.”
The question is: was this Schiller’s intention? Any literature student knows that this is a very dangerous question to ask. In fact, it is a question that can usually never be answered. One might argue that Schiller is demonstrating a very misogynist view of thinking. On the other hand, one might also argue that this way of reading the scene is exactly what he intended: a reminder that in the world of Elizabeth I, a woman’s greatest worth consists of her beauty as well as her virtue. Whilst Elizabeth is chaste, Mary is beautiful, and that allows them to compete on a very high moral level – according to Renaissance understandings of women’s worth. Whether this is meant as a critique of the treatment of women or not is open to debate.
It is, however, important to note that Schiller was not a man of the Renaissance. “Maria Stuart” was published in 1800, and Schiller’s works are part of the Sturm und Drang as well as the Klassik movement in German literature. He portrays what he and his contemporaries understood to be typical of the English Renaissance, nothing more.
“Maria Stuart” therefore remains a piece of literature, nothing more. It is not an accurate historical description of the relationship between these two remarkable women, and it does not pretend to be one. Instead, it is an interesting and also entertaining approach to a pair of women that have more in common than one might think at first.
An English version of the play can be found on Amazon.com.