Historical Reality vs. Historical Fiction in Mary


Friedrich Schiller’s tragedy unpacks the volatile situation that unfolded over the three days preceding the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Given that his play is just that—a play—it should come as no surprise that Schiller took some liberties incorporating historical “fact” into his script. The play pivots on the moment when Mary meets, for the first and only time, her cousin and jailer, Queen Elizabeth I of England.

This explosive and fate-sealing meeting, in fact, never took place. Still, the real Mary led an extraordinarily controversial life. Among other scandals, she was implicated in the murder of her second husband; as her third husband, she married the suspected murderer of her second husband; she was forced to abdicate as Scotland’s queen in favor of her infant son; she was chased out of her own country and forced to take refuge in England; and she was accused of involvement in plots to assassinate Elizabeth I. An orthodox retelling of her life story would undoubtedly amount to a riveting tale. It becomes necessary, then, to ask, “When historical truth can make for good theater, why does Schiller place historical fiction at the heart of his play? And what does he, a professional historian, achieve by integrating falsehood into his historical tragedy?”

Schiller thought extensively about history—what it meant, how it was told, to what degree that narrative was accurate.  Wolfgang Riedel described  Schiller’s approach to history in this way: that he “recognized the teleological tableau of history for what it is: a construct of ‘philosophical understanding,’ in which . . . historical ‘facts,’ which are inevitably handed down in mere ‘fragments,’ [are] then forced by logic . . . to succumb to a rational causal sequence.”[1] Historians have at their disposal only a partial inventory of documents and artifacts from the past. And even these extant records are corrupted—sometimes by physical damage, by their makers’ biases, as well as, inevitably, by their readers’ prejudices and interpretations. The resulting picture of the past that historians formulate is exceedingly fragile—a puzzle comprised of fragments that human beings try to fit together. . Historical “reality,” is inherently partial and, to a greater or lesser extent, subjective.

More importantly, perhaps, in the case of Schiller’s Mary Stuart, historical reality is not always useful. Sometimes a fictionalized version can indeed present greater truths than can the real story. But to fully appreciate those truths, it is useful to recognize where Schiller substitutes fiction for fact.

The most glaring among Schiller’s disruptions of historical fact occurs in the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth in Act 3 of the play. In 1568 Mary fled to England after being forced to abdicate by powerful Scottish peers the year before. As a fellow monarch—and a female monarch at that—Elizabeth sympathized with Mary and granted her asylum. But since Mary was not only Catholic, but a Catholic with a claim to the English throne, Elizabeth’s show of solidarity had its limits.

Mary was tried for her alleged involvement in the murder of her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Elizabeth, once again, spared Mary by judging that there was not enough evidence for either a conviction or an acquittal. Instead, kept under house arrest, Mary lived in relative comfort. During her confinement, Mary asked repeatedly for an audience with her cousin. But Elizabeth never agreed. During the ten years of Mary’s internment, a number of Catholic plots against Elizabeth were conceived. In response, William Cecil, Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham wrote the Bond of Association, which allowed for the execution of anyone trying to usurp or assassinate Elizabeth. When it was discovered in 1586 that Mary was involved in the Babington Plot, her death became inevitable. Once more, Mary was tried; this time she was found guilty. Her execution was briefly postponed due to Elizabeth’s hesitation in signing Mary’s death warrant. She worried that sending Mary to her death would set a dangerous precedent for the execution of monarchs. Eventually, Elizabeth did sign the order, but she gave unclear instructions to the men who were charged with fulfilling the warrant. Elizabeth’s ambivalence may be viewed as no more than a political maneuver, allowing her to feign outrage when Mary met her endand to shirk responsibility for her cousin’s death. Never having met Elizabeth, in 1587 Mary was finally executed.

While this story is plenty dramatic, it is also a bit complicated. Moreover, the details of Mary’s trial and imprisonment, though important to a historical account, would only obscure the argument Schiller makes in his play. When the queens meet in Act 3, their characters become remarkably well defined. To be sure, Elizabeth is cunning, shrewd, hard, and stately. But her interaction with Mary shows her to be vulnerable in ways that would not be clear to Schiller’s audience had he stuck to the script of history. And as Mary’s show of deference turns into an outburst, foolishness and changeability become the defining traits of her character.

But neither woman is innocent—and neither is completely sympathetic. Despite all its efforts to be objective, history tends to take sides—sometimes it depicts Mary as the villain, sometimes Elizabeth. By allowing the queens to meet, Schiller’s play displays both women side-by-side—and flawed. The resulting conflicting image is powerful, and one should not be able to walk away from the scene feeling entirely comfortable.

Even before the queens’ encounter unsettles the audience, Schiller twice deviates from historical orthodoxy. First, he introduces Mortimer, a character for whom there is no historical evidence for his existence. A construct of the playwright’s imagination, Mortimer’s role in the play is decisive. Throughout Mary Stuart, Schiller is critical of religion. And his criticism specifically of Catholicism manifests itself in the character of Mortimer. (Schiller makes sure to reproach Protestantism too, but by other means.) Schiller grew up during the Enlightenment, a period that viewed religion with increasing skepticism. Mortimer is a religious fanatic who resorts to terrorism as a means to an end. As a Catholic convert, his overzealousness—displayed over and over in various ways—discredits the religion by association. In Mortimer, Schiller demonstrates how religion can be used, and abused—and no doubt hoped to lead his audience to question and fear the connection between religion and politics.

Mortimer’s character is also useful to Schiller in moving the plot forward. The young Catholic ignites another match in an already-incendiary situation. Indeed, despite the lack of historical basis for the character, the name “Mortimer” is likely an allusion to the Mortimer family, descendants of Edward III (see Anne Mortimer in Genealogy). The Mortimers were co-founders of York line, which competed for the English crown throughout the Wars of the Roses. Furthermore, Schiller’s Mortimer serves to widen the scope of the play’s conflict by bringing the whole of Europe into Mary and Elizabeth’s feud, and by dragging other players into the chaos with him.

Just as Mortimer is a fictional construct, so too are his interactions with other characters in the play. In Act 2, he delivers a letter from Mary to Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Only in Mortimer’s presence does Leicester reveal his secret love for Mary—an indication that the plot has diverged into the realm of historical fiction. It is true that Leicester was once considered as a match for Mary, Queen of Scots, but their relationship was never much more than a consideration. And while Leicester’s association with Mary was scant, his long and intensely close relationship with Elizabeth was not. They were childhood friends and even shared the same tutor. Having known one another for much of their lives, Elizabeth appointed Leicester Master of the Horse upon her ascension to the throne—a position that required him to attend his sovereign closely. This revealed an intimacy between them that led contemporaries to believe that Elizabeth would have taken Leicester as her husband were he not already married. Some, including Mary, thought that Elizabeth and Leicester truly were lovers.

Schiller upends this relationship. The Leicester of Mary Stuart is fickle, dishonest, and disdainful of the English queen. Lacking any measure of substance, Schiller’s Leicester is all about appearances. He professes his love for Mary but does nothing to defend her when she is sentenced to death; he plots with Mortimer and then betrays him to the authorities. This inversion of Leicester’s character highlights the gross corruption that festers in the English court. Mary might be a murderer and traitor, but Elizabeth and her courtiers are no innocents. And that Elizabeth dotes on Leicester shows her to be a poor judge of character. His actions reflect poorly on all those with whom he is allied—as well as on his Protestant faith.

Here, Schiller’s departure from history serves to further prevent the audience’s unambivalent sympathy for one side. These selfish individuals, Elizabeth among them, wreak havoc. History has declared Elizabeth one of the victors. She was indeed a great monarch; she was also imperfect. Schiller, however, circumscribes and rewrites that ending. Instead, Leicester, feeling ashamed of his treachery towards Mary, leaves England quickly and quietly. He and all other courtiers desert their sovereign, leaving Elizabeth completely alone at the play’s end. Though Leicester’s disloyalty is utter fiction (he, in truth, remained devoted to his queen), the complete abandonment of Elizabeth hits the audience with full force.

Schiller is neither the first, nor the last, writer to bend history to fit his art. Shakespeare was, indeed, a master of rewriting history—and then there is an entire genre dedicated to historical fiction! But Schiller actually provides his audience with an explanation for his use of the genre, quoted by Riedel: “Should one approach history with great expectations of illumination and knowledge—how very disappointed one is!”[2] History cannot always impart necessary wisdom, and it often struggles to moralize. Schiller uses historical fiction as a loophole to bypass this conundrum. His alterations to British history allow him to turn an apprehensive and inquisitive eye upon both the losers and victors of history, as he encourages his audience to do the same. By transforming 1587 England into a toxic environment of political subterfuge and religious terrorism, a platform for critical discussion emerges—and historical fiction (art) supplants historical fact (data) as a tool for teaching, as a means for uncovering hidden truths.

—Brooke Sutter, a graduate of Loyola University, researched and wrote teaching resources for Mary Stuart as an intern with CST’s Education Department.




Works Cited

Riedel, Wolfgang, “Religion and Violence in Schiller’s Late Tragedies.” In Who Is This Schiller Now?: Essays on His Reception and Significance, edited by Jeffrey L. High, Nicholas Martin and Norbert Oellers, 247-270. Rochester: Camden House, 2011.


[1] Wolfgang Riedel, “Religion and Violence in Schiller’s Late Tragedies,” in Who Is This Schiller Now?: Essays on His Reception and Significance, ed. Jeffrey L. High et al. (Rochester: Camden House, 2011), 248.

[2] Ibid., 248. 



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