“Will no one rid me of this turbulent queen?” is something that Elizabeth I of England does not ever quite say in Schiller’s five-act verse drama, Maria Stuart, but the sentiment lurks behind practically everything that she does say. The play begins with Mary, Queen of Scots, under house arrest in Fotheringhay, the place that will eventually become the location of her execution. In the early scenes, Mary swings among the modes that Schiller depict her in throughout the course of the tragedy: prayerful, her thoughts fixed on God and eternity; hopeful of release through the mercy of her cousin Elizabeth; proud, disdainful that any court of mere lords and earls should try to judge her, a sovereign queen; crafty, using any means at her disposal to convince people to plot to win her freedom and return to power, and heedless of how easily that could cost their lives; remorseful about the choices that she has made that have led her to this pass.
Elizabeth first appears in the second act, facing choices more complex than those that consume Mary’s attention. Elizabeth is considering a French marriage to make an ally out of England’s traditional enemy, and she discourses long about a sovereign’s lack of freedom, about owing everything and every action to her country and her people. She is at once not particularly happy to be queen but certainly has no intention of giving it up.
The action of the play touches on various efforts to free Mary, on Elizabeth’s unwillingness to directly order Mary’s execution, and Mary’s keen desire to meet Elizabeth face-to-face, convinced that such a meeting will lead to mercy, perhaps even to freedom. I found that Maria Stuart had less drama than Schiller’s other historical plays — The Maid of Orleans or The Death of Wallenstein — and far less than the semi-historical William Tell. In the latter, everyone knows about the scene with the bow and apple, but the way that Schiller executes it makes the event surprising, and powerful. Even The Death of Wallenstein, an ending telegraphed by the title, has better suspense around how the events transpire and what they have to say about ability and ambition (a theme also explored in Maria Stuart).
There is also some dramatic tension around the various lords in service to Elizabeth, particularly Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Dudley was long Elizabeth’s favorite, and he hoped to become her husband. In Schiller’s telling, he also had a youthful interest in Mary. Over the course of the play, he appears to support both at various times. When he receives a letter from Mary detailing plans to free her, is he her savior in the heart of her enemy’s court? When his role is uncovered, is he the true servant of the Crown, luring its enemies into a trap to expose their treachery? Does he even know which side he serves?
I was less convinced by Elizabeth’s temporizing. Some of that may simply be the temporal distance from the play, which premiered in 1800. Crowned heads still ruled, rather than merely reigned, across much of Europe. At the time Schiller was writing, the idea of executing a king or queen possessed a special horror because of the revolutionary terror that had followed the beheading of France’s Louis XVI seven years before the play’s first performance. Elizabeth’s characterizations of the crowd — asking for one thing one day, demanding its opposite the next — owe as much to the later century’s events in France as to anything that took place in her England. Some of her advisers say the same, adding that no sooner will she have had Mary executed at the crowd’s behest than it will criticize her for having done just that. Eventually, Elizabeth seems to say, “Well, what can ya do?” and signs an order for Mary’s execution. She does not directly say it should be delivered, however, and the speed of the order’s delivery and implementation appear to owe as much to courtier ambition as to royal intent. When it is too late, Elizabeth tries to disclaim her desire to be rid of Mary. I was more annoyed than moved.
Mary’s final hours, however, provide some of the play’s best scenes, with the execution itself as effective as the high points of Schiller’s other historical dramas. The ending, which leaves Elizabeth bereft of advisers to face the consequences of Mary’s execution, has no historical basis, but it fits the play.
Maria Stuart has been translated into English several times, and continues to be performed, including a West End production in 2005 that traveled to Broadway in 2009. It joins a vast number of plays, operas, novels, television, and movie treatments of her life.