Lord Darnley, the husband of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, was murdered, and a few months later the queen married the man many thought his murderer. Fleeing her outraged subjects, Mary sought refuge in England but was put into prison by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Mary had a claim to the throne of England, and Elizabeth was taking no chances.
In his 1801 play, Mary Stuart, now playing at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) takes the side of Mary against her cousin. It is not that he argues the claim of the Stuarts against the Tudors, but instead he portrays Mary as the better person. Regardless of whether this was true in real life, Mary Stuart is a thought-provoking play about personality and political power and, secondarily, personality and religion. (Mary was Catholic, and Elizabeth was a Protestant.)
The first part of the play deals with the person and situation of Mary (Kate Eastwood Norris), imprisoned and facing possible execution. The second part shows that of Elizabeth (Holly Twyford), endangered by Stuart loyalists at home and the Pope and Catholic kings abroad. Then the two queens are brought together to meet (which in real life never took place). The fourth and final section deals with the ramifications of the meeting.
Elizabeth must decide whether or not to carry out the death sentence passed upon Mary by a court, whose legitimacy Mary denies because she was not allowed to be present at the trial and the jury was not of her royal peers. For Elizabeth, according to the play, the questions are mostly pragmatic: which way of dealing with Mary will make Elizabeth’s throne most secure: execution, imprisonment for life, or clemency. For Schiller, Mary, facing death, becomes morally elevated, whereas Elizabeth, facing the need to make a the decision, becomes debased.
Schiller’s preference for Mary is clear though by no means simpleminded. He shows understanding of Elizabeth’s predicament As Mary finally confronts the imminence of her death, she finds not simply solace but moral elevation in her Catholic religion. In this she is a contrast to her would-be rescuer, the Catholic convert Mortimer (Paul-Emile Cendron), nephew of her jailer. a man of great integrity, Sir Amias Paulet (Louis Butelli). Mortimer’s piety is fanatical and mixed up with lust. Thus two different personalities make quite different uses of their common religion.
The staging is relatively stark, which only highlights the excellent performances of the actresses portraying the two queens. We see both queens in various moods. In addition, Cody Nickell gives a highly creditable performance as the Earl of Leicester, a man who has wooed and won the hearts of both queens and faces decisions of his own.
It would not be at all difficult to be ironical about the play’s “deathbed” moral elevation of Mary so soon after her prideful outburst when she met Elizabeth. Would she continue to be so humble and detached from earthly desires were there a last-minute rescue? But this production echoes the high regard of Schiller for Mary Stuart, and it questions neither the sincerity nor the depth of her newfound virtue. Miss Twyford handles the more difficult and telling final scenes of Elizabeth brilliantly.
Mary Stuart is performed at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., through March 8, 2015.