Moral Resistance to Suffering

Program notes by Ted McGee


Friedrich Schiller wrote no plays between 1787 and 1798, but those years were crucial for his development as a playwright. The French Revolution and its aftermath changed his thinking about the possible social value of the arts, theatre in particular. The populist uprising sparked by the storming of the Bastille in 1789 stirred his hope for societal transformation. The aftermath, however, the summary executions, political purges and brutality of the Jacobin reign of terror, destroyed that hope. At the same time, the momentous events in France gave Schiller issues –issues centred on the interplay of morality, politics, art and religion – that he returned to again and again, in poems, in books on the early modern European wars of religion, in still-influential treatises on tragedy, the sublime and aesthetic education, and finally, in the historical dramas, including Mary Stuart, of his last years.

Mary Stuart opened to great acclaim at the Weimar Court Theatre on June 14, 1800. Having re-read Sophocles, translated Euripides and studied Aristotle’s Poetics in the late 1790s, Schiller wanted to create plays with the clarity, unity and inevitability of classical drama. So in Mary Stuart, he distilled forty years of history into the action of a few decisive days, from the report of Mary’s guilty verdict to her execution. “The action is concentrated,” Schiller wrote to Goethe, the artistic director of the Weimar theatre, “in a dynamic moment and, balanced between hope and fear, must rush to its conclusion.” While sharply focused in this way, Mary Stuart has a rich texture of accurate historical detail and allusion that reach as far back as Mary’s happy upbringing at the French court and Elizabeth’s “harsh lessons in the Tower of London.” The play reveals the care of Schiller the professional historian, but for Schiller the playwright, artistic purposes trumped historical accuracy.

The most famous instance of this is the centrepiece of Mary Stuart: the fictional encounter of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth, Queen of England. Their meeting is the crux of the play’s structure. Act III, the only time the action moves outdoors, is framed by two acts set at Elizabeth’s court at Westminster. Here French ambassadors woo Elizabeth on behalf of the Duke of Anjou, and English courtiers debate the political implications of Mary’s situation, especially for Queen Elizabeth. Weaving together secretive conversations and public formalities, Schiller establishes the male world of politics in which Elizabeth and Mary must operate, a world of private ambition and desire, competing religious agendas and intrigue. Acts II and IV are in turn framed by scenes set within the confines of Fotheringhay Castle, Mary’s final prison. In Act I there is still hope for Mary, given the possibility of a pardon and the schemes of Leicester and Mortimer (for whom there is also no precise historical precedent). Her hopes dashed by what occurs when the two queens meet, in the finale Mary is resolute for death, which she embraces in away that gives her a moral victory and, for Schiller, the status of a tragic heroine.

The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth throws into relief the personal, sexual dimension of their rivalry. English and foreign ambassadors celebrated the “alluring grace,” “searching wit” and courtly accomplishments of the beautiful Queen of Scots. Mary could also play the woman’s part, sometimes bringing her needlework to Council meetings and working away on it even as she ruled the men around her. Most important, Mary did what Elizabeth never would: she loved openly, married and begot an heir. Elizabeth chose duty over desire, both in history and in Schiller’s play, where she affirms that she wishes she could die as “the Virgin Queen” but concedes that she must be subject to her subjects. During their meeting, Elizabeth attacks Mary on personal grounds for her faded beauty and reputed licentiousness:

Is this the beauty, Leicester,

Dangerous for a man to glimpse, disaster

For any woman to be near? Why is it

So talked about? I think I see the reason:

To be the darling of the world is easy

If you are in the arms of everybody!

Leicester’s presence intensifies the drama of the moment, for he was Elizabeth’s favourite and, in the play, Mary’s best hope and the object of her desire.

When Mary later lashes out at Elizabeth, Mary foregrounds the political aspect of their rivalry. Both of them had strong claims to the throne of England, Elizabeth being a granddaughter of King Henry VII, Mary a great-granddaughter. To the alarm of Elizabeth’s Council, French heralds proclaimed Mary’s claim to the English crown on the occasion of her marriage in 1558 to François, the Dauphin of France. A year later, the Treaty of Edinburgh required the suspension of Mary’s right, but Mary never ratified the treaty and Elizabeth never forgave her for not doing so. For European Catholics, Mary’s claim was the only valid one because no divorce marred her line of descent. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who were not lawfully married in the eyes of Rome. This political issue informs Mary’s counter-attack:

The throne of England

Is desecrated by a bastard,

… If right was honoured

You would be sprawling in the dust before me,

Because I am your Queen.

This moment is a turning point: Elizabeth exits immediately, but returns to this affront when she takes up the pen to sign the warrant for Mary’s execution: “Bastard, you say? … That is true only while you are alive.”

In the final act of Mary Stuart, Schiller disrupts the classical symmetry of his design. To balance his opening scenes, he takes the action back to Fotheringhay and Mary on the morning of her execution, but then he moves to Westminster and Elizabeth. By doing so, he creates a final contrast between the two queens that sharpens the play’s tragic impact. When Schiller revised his thinking about tragedy in the 1790s, he reduced a complex theory to two rules. Tragedy required, he argued, first, the portrayal of “suffering nature” and second, “the presentation of moral resistance to suffering.” For Schiller, that, “moral resistance” was crucial for tragedy to produce the “admiration” it should.

Mary Stuart’s ultimate triumph is an admirable moral one, not over Elizabeth and the suffering she inflicted but over the “crimes” and “sins” of her own past. These include her “envious hatred” of Elizabeth and “lust for vengeance” and, more important, her complicity in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley, and her hasty marriage to his murderer. Schiller adjusted the chronology of events to reinforce the link between Mary’s confession and that murder; in history she did not live to see the anniversary of Darnley’s death, but the play begins on that day, again a day of “fasting and repenting” for Mary. Schiller’s Mary takes responsibility for her past and looks forward to her death. For a crimes he did not commit, she will expiate one that she did.

Elizabeth’s ultimate defeat is also moral. Shifting responsibility to others throughout the play, she characterizes herself as a pawn of her people, tries to seduce Mortimer to murder Mary and signs the warrant for her rival’s execution while refusing to tell Davison plainly what she “wants to happen to this bloody order.” Whereas Mary in her last hours has the tenderness of her nurse and the loyalty of her old ambassador, Schiller’s Elizabeth ends in isolation, with secretary Davison doomed to die, Burleigh banished, Leicester en route to France, and Shrewsbury offering his resignation because, as he says, “I lack the necessary flexibility.”

Ted McGee is a professor of English at the University of Waterloo.




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