Maria Stuart

Maria Stuart, first performed 1800; first published 1801The action of the play takes place in 1587. The play hinges on the contrast between the two queens, Maria (Stuart) and Elisabeth (Tudor) (note the German spellings). Maria is haunted by her complicity in the murder of her husband Darnley (he was murdered by her lover Bothwell in 1567); Elisabeth fears a Catholic insurrection in Maria’s name. The two queens are not only political rivals, they are also sexual rivals for Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Leicester is Elisabeth’s favourite; for the last ten years he has courted Elisabeth in the hope of marrying her. Now he schemes to have Maria freed so that he can marry her instead. Schiller also invented a character called Mortimer who is a secret convert to Catholicism: he exemplifies the English noblemen who were prepared to kill (and be killed) for the Catholic cause.

In Act 1, Maria talks with her maid Hanna Kennedy about her remorse for her husband’s death. Mortimer tells Maria of his conversion to Catholicism. Burleigh asks Maria’s jailor Paulet to assassinate her but Paulet refuses.

In Act 2, Elisabeth meets with French ambassadors hoping to negotiate a marriage between her and their master the Duke of Anjou, the French king’s brother. Elisabeth discusses Maria with her advisors, and then asks Mortimer to kill Maria in secret. Leicester persuades Elisabeth to meet Maria.

In Act 3, the two queens meet and exchange insults. Shortly afterwards there is a failed attempt on Elisabeth’s life, foiled by Shrewsbury.

In Act 4, Leicester exposes Mortimer to save himself and Mortimer commits suicide. Leicester talks his way out of things. Elisabeth signs Maria’s death warrant and gives it to Davison. Burleigh seizes it.

In Act 5, Maria accepts her fate as retribution for her previous crime. Melvil hears her confession and Leicester is forced to witness her execution. Elisabeth pretends to be shocked by the news.

Schiller’s Elisabeth wants Maria dead but wants to avoid responsibility for her death. She is a consummate politician who (in Act 4, Scene 10) knows that she needs to satisfy public opinion in order to safeguard her power:

Die Meinung muß ich ehren, um das Lob

Der Menge buhlen, einem Pöbel muß ich's

Recht machen, dem der Gaukler nur gefällt. (lines 3194-96)

I must honour public opinion in order to court

The crowd’s praise, I must satisfy the rabble

Whom only a charlatan can please.

Elisabeth chooses power rather than morality and love; Maria chooses morality and love rather than power.

Maria highlights this distinction in Act 5, Scene 6 when she says:

‘Ich bin viel / Gehasset worden, doch auch viel geliebt!’ (‘I have been hated much, but also much loved!’, lines 3571-72).

Lesley Sharpe argues that, when Maria says to Melvil that she is innocent towards Elisabeth, this shows that she has not grasped the nature of her own political involvement: by requesting the monarchs of Europe to free her, she has helped to give rise to the political violence of types such as Mortimer (see below, Lesley Sharpe (1982), pp. 116-17).

Even so, it is clear that Maria achieves more moral integrity than Elisabeth. Maria wins the moral victory and dies; Elisabeth wins the political victory and survives, thus showing the gap between politics and moral integrity.

Another major drama on Mary Stuart is by Maria von Ebner-Eschenbach, Maria Stuart in Schottland; Mary Stuart in Scotland (1860), which serves as a prequel to Schiller's play.

Further Reading

Steffan Davies, ‘“Du wagst es, meine Worte zu deuten?”: Unreliable Evidence on Schiller’s Stage’, Modern Language Review 106:3 (2011), 779-96

Robin Harrison, ‘Ideal Perfection and the Human Condition: Morality and Necessity in Schiller’s Maria Stuart’, Oxford German Studies 20-21 (1991-92), 46-68

Gail K. Hart, ‘The Stage and the State: The Excecution of Schiller’s Maria Stuart’, Seminar 35:2 (1999), 95-106

Todd Kontje, ‘Staging the Sublime: Schiller’s Maria Stuart as Ironic Tragedy’, Modern Language Studies 22:2 (1992), 88-101

Susanne Kord, ‘Performing Genders: Three Plays on the Power of Women’, Monatshefte 86:1 (1994), 95-115

Roland Krebs, ‘Histoire politique et éthique dans les drames de Schiller: L’exemple de Maria Stuart’, Études Germaniques 60:4 (2005), 665-79

Kari Lokke , ‘Schiller’s “Maria Stuart”: The Historical Sublime and the Aesthetics of Gender’, Monatshefte 82:2 (1990), 123-41

Dennis F. Mahoney, 'Maria Stuart Adaptations in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries: From "Classical" Parodies to Contemporary Politics', in Who Is This Schiller Now? Essays on His Reception and Significance, ed. by Jeffrey High, Nicholas Martin and Norbert Oellers (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011), pp. 403-24

Steven D. Martinson, ‘Maria Stuart: Physiology and Politics’, in A Companion to the Works of Friedrich Schiller, ed. by Steven D. Martinson (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005), pp. 213-26

Ritchie Robertson, 'From Martyr to Vampire: The Figure of Mary Stuart in Drama from Vondel to Swinburne', in Who Is This Schiller Now? Essays on His Reception and Significance, ed. by Jeffrey High, Nicholas Martin and Norbert Oellers (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011), pp. 321-39

Jeffrey L. Sammons, ‘Mortimer’s Conversion and Schiller’s Allegiances’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 72 (1973), 155-66

Kathy Saranpa, Schiller’s Wallenstein, Maria Stuart and Die Jungfrau von Orleans: The Critical Legacy (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002)

Lesley Sharpe, Schiller and the Historical Character: Presentation and Interpretation in the Historiographical Works and in the Historical Dramas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982)

Lesley Sharpe, Friedrich Schiller: Drama, Thought and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Rebecca Steele, ‘The Great Cover-Up: The Double Containment of Woman in Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart’, Seminar 49:4 (2013), 365-84

Erika Swales, Schiller: Maria Stuart (London: Grant & Cutler, 1988)

Further Reading in German

Chenxi Tang, ‘Theatralische Inszenierung der Weltordnung. Völkerrecht, Zeremonialwissenschaft und Schillers Maria Stuart’, Jahrbuch der deutschen Schiller-Gesellschaft 55 (2011), 142-68

Web Link

Maria Stuart in German; click on a word for the English translation