I wanted to read a Schiller play for Schiller Week which is part of this year’s German Literature Month. I had read Schiller’s masterpiece ‘The Robbers’ last year. When I asked Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, who is hosting Schiller Week, on which other Schiller play she would recommend, she suggested ‘Mary Stuart’. I finished reading it in a couple of sittings. Here is what I think.
Before I get into what I think about ‘Mary Stuart’, here are a couple of links. Lizzy wrote a wonderful introduction to Schiller and his work. She also wrote a wonderful review of his play ‘The Robbers’. (My own review of ‘The Robbers’ is here.) You can also find Lizzy’s post on Nonfiction resources on Schiller here.
‘Mary Stuart’ is about Mary, Queen of Scots. I have always had a soft corner for Queen Mary and for Bonnie Prince Charlie and so was excited to read this play. Schiller’s play covers the final days of Mary, after she is imprisoned in the castle of Fotheringay by Queen Elizabeth. The case against her has been heard by the court, she is not allowed a lawyer but is asked to defend herself and the verdict is awaited. The Queen’s people come daily into her apartments, conduct searches and take away any valuables she might have, as they suspect that Mary might use that for paying her trusted friends who are engaged in further plotting to overthrow Queen Elizabeth. Mary is alone and depressed and feels that the world has forsaken her. She is accompanied by her loyal nurse Hannah Kennedy. The story unfolds from here. The court gives its verdict. Mary is pronounced guilty of acting against Queen Elizabeth. Only the sentence is awaited. It could be either life imprisonment or death. Mary and Elizabeth, eventhough they are related, have never met. Mary wants to meet the Queen. She writes a letter and gives it to her caretaker, Sir Amias Paulet, asking him to give it to the Queen. Meanwhile the Queen’s advisor, Lord Burleigh, presses the Queen to finalize the sentence against Mary. He says that as long as Queen Mary is alive, Elizabeth can never feel safe. And Mary’s friends will continue plotting to put her in the throne of England. As he puts it – “Her life is death to thee, her death thy life.” Other advisors of Queen Elizabeth feel differently though. They feel that the Queen should show her big heart and pardon Mary. While this stuff is going on, we discover that Mary has friends in unexpected quarters. Lord Burleigh’s suspicions soon turn out to be true – even Elizabeth’s inner circle is not trustworthy.
So what happens next? Does Mary get the chance to meet Elizabeth? If she does, how does the conversation go? What does Elizabeth decide? And what do Mary’s friends do? Are they able to save her and dethrone Elizabeth? Well, we know what happened in history – Mary died and Elizabeth turned out to be one of the great queens of England. Schiller’s play shows his version of what happened.
I liked ‘Mary Stuart’ very much. It helps if one knows the history of the time – one can appreciate Schiller’s play better – but even if your knowledge of history is sketchy like mine, this play is still wonderful to read. I loved the depiction of the two queens, Mary and Elizabeth and how they struggle with the two opposing parts of their personalities, one part which urges them to hate each other while the other urges them to be nice to each other. There are a few surprises in the story – we don’t know who can be trusted and who can’t – Mary finds friends in unexpected places while Elizabeth finds traitors in her inner circle and there is one Janus-faced character, who is good and bad in equal measure.
I don’t know whether it was Schiller’s original prose in German or whether it was Joseph Mellish’s translation, but the prose felt almost Shakespearean. It was a pleasure to read. For example, these lines :
This made me think of that line from ‘King Lear’ – ‘Sorrow doesn’t come single, but in battalions’.
Oh, no, my gracious queen;—they stop not there:
Oppression will not be content to do
Its work by halves:
And this one made me think – ‘What sinister form her sister’s love can take.’
I never lift the goblet to my lips
Without an inward shuddering, lest the draught
May have been mingled by my sister’s love.
This one made me think.
But can appearances
Disturb your conscience where the cause is just?
You are unpractised in the world, sir knight;
What we appear, is subject to the judgment
Of all mankind, and what we are, of no man.
And this one made me smile.
I see you, sir, exhibit at this court
Two different aspects; one of them must be
A borrowed one; but which of them is real?
I have read two of Schiller’s plays now and liked both of them. I can’t wait to read a third one soon.
Have you read Schiller’s ‘Mary Stuart’? What do you think about it?