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A history and analysis of the play by Friedrich Schiller


The following essay is reprinted from Mary Stuart: A Tragedy. Ed. Adolphus Bernays. London: John W. Parker & Son West Strand, 1855.

There is scarcely an event in history on which opinions have so much differed, as on the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. While some have extolled it as an act of perfect justice, and a master-stroke of a bold policy; others have painted it as a daring violation of all law, a solemn mockery of justice, prompted by bigotry and carried out by jealousy. It has been the same with the characters of the two queens, Mary and Elizabeth. Representatives of two antagonistic religious principles, each of which, in its time, still entertained the expectation of subduing and extirpating the other, it may be anticipated that each party did its utmost to hide the faults and extol the virtues of its favourite, and so to distort and falsify actions and facts that none but the lynx-eye of an adversary can pretend to penetrate their truth. Often, too, a false candour on the part of later Protestant writers, and a natural pity for beauty, grace and elegance, trodden down by barbarous violence, and brought to an ignominious death by scarcely any right but that of strength, have made admissions which, instead of throwing light on a confused and bewildering subject, have only added to its obscurity.

So much seems to be clear, that Mary, brought up a bigoted, incompromising papist, and sent to rule over a turbulent people equally bigoted and uncompromising in its protestantism, and that protestantism not settled and established, but still struggling for existence, would have been expelled from the Scottish throne, even if she had been an angel of light. But such she certainly was not. Her partiality for Rizzio, her share in the murder of Darnley, and her marrying the murderer exposed her to the just indignation of her people, and drove her an exile to the British soil.

Whether it was right to detain her there a prisoner, is a question too wide to be discussed here. Enough that she could never acknowledge such a right, and felt herself justified in striving by all means brought within her reach, to escape this captivity. Probably she was not very scrupulous in the choice of these means; and, if she did not instigate plots for the deposition or the assassination of Elizabeth, she was not over-anxious to discountenance or to denounce them when brought to her knowledge. On the other hand, it seemed impossible to release her without supplying the adverse party with a rallying point, from which they might hurl Elizabeth from her throne, and again overthrow the dearly-won protestant constitution. We need, therefore, not wonder that those who by their position were called upon to defend the latter, had at last recourse to the only remedy likely to secure the triumph of their principles, as well as their personal safety.

Still we feel shocked at the illegalities and violence of their proceedings, although they were not worse than those employed in all state-trials of the period; and still more by the hollowness and hypocrisy of Elizabeth herself who, while enjoying the fruits of these proceedings, was anxious to throw their odium and punishment upon those who had served her but too faithfully.

Schiller, naturally anxious to excite the strongest sympathy for his heroine, has laboured to render this view as prominent as possible. He fully admits the crimes of Mary's youth, but guards against our disgust of the perpetrator, by exhibiting her deep penitence and contrition in connection with her profound humiliation and intense sufferings which reach their climax in her execution. This he represents as entirely unmerited; and in so doing, he does not scruple to heighten the odium which this transaction has brought on the memory of Elizabeth.

For this end, he has taken the greatest liberty with history; he has altered and transposed facts, created new personages, changed characters, and attributed to individuals sentiments and actions unsupported by any record, too numerous to be here stated, and too palpable to be overlooked by the reader of history.

Many have accused him of leaning to Romanism in this play. But this seems to be hardly fair; as he could not well present Mary's character and situation without a full display of Romanist feelings as their prime mover. The laudations of Roman art and popish ceremonial which he puts into the mouth of the fictitious Mortimer, serve to explain the man and his deeds. He is a half-mad enthusiast who plunges into Romanism to escape the moral trammels of his protestant education; and who adopts nothing of his new creed, save that daring jesuitical licentiousness, which, by means of confession and absolution, is to free him from all the restraints for which religion is mainly designed.

Mary's confession and reception of the communion on the boards, intended partly for stage effect and partly to leave no moral doubt on the mind of the spectator of her innocence of the crime for which she was executed, is a contrivance as clumsy as it is offensive. Even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe condemned it; and, as far as I know, it is always omitted in the performance.

There are also several mistakes as to titles and localities which it would be needless to point out to an English reader.

Yet with all these drawbacks, and with all the neglect of the historical background which might have so greatly heightened the interest and instruction of the play, it is the creation of genius, and will ever rank among the masterpieces of German literature, as a painting of an eminently tragic situation, and of a sublime triumph of mind over matter, of the human will over brute force and violence.


The following essay is reprinted from Maria Stuart. Ed. C. Sheldon. London: Macmillan and Co., 1883.

In the year 1799, Schiller completed his great trilogy of Wallenstein, and at once turned his thoughts to the question, what should be his next work. We learn from a letter written by him in March, 1799, to Goethe, that he was wearied of historical subjects, and intended to turn to the regions of invention; and it was his brother poet, who, on a visit to him in April, persuaded him to continue in the line where he had already won such fame. Accordingly Schiller again considered the history of Mary Stuart on which subject he had previously, in 1783, written one act of a play; however, he now determined to commence afresh, and to treat his material differently. On the 24th of April he borrowed from the Weimar Library, Cambden's Annales rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum regnante Elizabetha; this work he took with him the next day to Jena, and on the 26th he began to quote his calendar, "to study the history of Mary Stuart." In Cambden, who wrote under James, Schiller would find a strong partisan of Mary. The same day he wrote to Goethe expressing his belief that Mary Stuart would prove a very suitable subject for a tragedy, and his intention to leave the trial entirely out and to commence with the sentence. In this letter he informs Goethe that he is working at eine Regierungsgeschichte der Königin Elisabeth, and this Düntzer conjectures to have been probably, not Cambden, but a sketch by Archenholz, Geschichte der Königin Elisabeth von England, which had appeared in the Historischer Kalender für Damen für das Jahr 1790. It was from Archenholz that Schiller adopted the character of Elizabeth as we find it in the play; her jealousy and her hypocrisy are both portrayed in the pages of the historian, and there, too, we find the origin of the poet's representation of the injustice shown in Mary's imprisonment, of the mockery of her trial, of the pretended plots, of Elizabeth's anxiety for the execution, and equal anxiety to conceal her own share in it, and of the appearance of martyrdom that Mary succeeded in casting over her end.

Though Archenholz was his chief authority, the poet used other works to obtain side lights on his subject, for he borrowed from the Weimar library the second part of Hume's History of England, in a German translation, Buchanan's Rerum Scoticarum historia (very unfair to Mary), and Duchesne's Histoire d'Ecosse avec l'historie d'Angleterre; he also wrote to Goethe to get him Vieweg's Taschenbuch für 1799, in which there is an essay by Geisz on Mary. An English friend sent him all the papers of the London Society of Antiquaries that referred to the Scottish queen, and also Brantôme's Vies des Dames illustres.

The first act gave the poet much trouble, and he made slow progress, for it was not finished till the 24th of July. Meanwhile he had begun to read the Histoire d'Angleterre by Mons. de Rapin Thoyras (vol. vi.), and we find many traces of his study of this author in the first four acts. He himself expressed his indebtedness to this writer for local colouring. On the 26th of August the second act was completed, but owing to the pressure of other work, the play was laid aside for some weeks, the third act not being finished till December 23rd; the death of Mortimer was reached on the last day of the year. Again the course of the play was stayed by other work and also by illness, but on the 5th of May, 1800, the fourth act was finished, and on the 11th he read what he had written to the actors of the Weimar theatre. About this time he borrowed from the Weimar library a work containing D'Aubespine's De veteribus ecclesiæ ritibus, which he studied in preparation for the writing of the last act. On the 9th of June, 1800, he finished the fifth act, and on the 11th the Duke heard that the Communion was to be given on the stage, and expressed his dislike so strongly that the whole scene was altered.

The first representation was on June 14th, 1800, before a full house, and its popularity was at once manifest. It was acted within a few weeks in Berlin and Leipzig.

Goethe considered Mary Stuart as one of the best, if not the best of Schiller's works; Tieck regarded Mary as the poet's most successful female character; A.W. Schlegal praised the profoundness of the plot and the skill of its execution; Körner considered that in this play the poet approached the manner of the ancients in portraying a "transaction" rather than a "hero," and wrote to Schiller, "how thoroughly you have succeeded in representing that high emotion which is peculiar to genuine tragedy!" Schiller himself wrote after this success: "Ich fange endlich an, mich des dramatischen Organs zu bemächtigen." ("I begin finally to seize hold of my dramatic organ.")

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