Mary Stuart

February 21

April 15, 2018

CST's Courtyard Theater

in a new version by Peter Oswald
directed by Jenn Thompson

A Scholar’s Perspective

We Two
by Stuart Sherman

Near the end of Hamlet, Shakespeare subtly discloses a secret of his own craft. The Prince, explaining to Horatio why Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, observes that it is dangerous for ordinary mortals to get caught up in the conflict between “mighty opposites” (here, Hamlet and his usurping uncle).

Dangerous, yes. But also, at least at the playhouse, hugely entertaining. Mighty opposites are the stuff of drama, and getting caught up in their combat is a privilege we ordinary playgoing mortals are happy to pay for.

In Mary Stuart Friedrich Schiller, who worshipped Shakespeare, draws us adroitly into an impassioned clash of mighty opposites: Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England. And Peter Oswald, in his fresh English adaptation of the text (quoted here), has focused, accelerated and intensified the conflict.

When the play begins, the conflict has been raging for nineteen years, with each queen asserting her monarchal rights across perhaps the most seismic split in English history: the moment, five decades earlier, when Henry VIII, intent on discarding his first wife and marrying Anne Boleyn, renounced the Roman Catholic Church and declared himself Supreme Head of the (now Protestant) Church of England.

Elizabeth, daughter of Henry and Anne, embodies her nation’s precarious Protestant present, and hopes to sustain it, by way of her own charismatic power, into the perpetual future. Mary, ardent Catholic granddaughter of Henry’s sister, has functioned throughout her checkered life as a lightning rod for rebels intent on reclaiming England’s throne, and with it the entire island, for the Church of Rome. With Mary in prison and Elizabeth in power, the Queen of England must decide whether the Queen of Scots is to live or die.

In Mary Stuart, politico-theological conflict plays out as a tug of war between two radically different monarchic temperaments: Mary’s sensual, impulsive, open-hearted; Elizabeth’s cool, calculating, and self-contained. Mary has been wed (and widowed) three times, and even now has many suitors, one of whom describes her as having “the gift of life” so fully “in her possession,” that “to be with her is ecstasy forever.”  Elizabeth has suitors too, but plays them off each other for political gain, and already aspires, as dexterous politician and Virgin Queen, never to wed at all. Again and again she reminds herself and others that “I am not like the Stuart.”

In important ways, though, she’s partly wrong. Schiller, like Shakespeare, knows that opposition achieves its fullest dramatic torque not in difference but in kinship. The clash resounds most forcefully only when—and because—the mighty opposites turn out to have much in common.

So it is with Mary and Elizabeth. They share a common bloodline, a fierce intelligence, and even, at various points in the play, the seductive attentions of the same man. And they share too, with one another but with few other women in history, a barely precedented experience of power: as queens by succession and not by marriage, each has known what it is to rule in her own right. For both of them, the play makes clear, this predicament is at once profoundly solitary and, in a world still overflowing with masculine prerogative, overcrowded.

And this turns out to be the common ground to which Schiller devotes his most sustained attention. He surrounds each queen with many, varied men—Machievellian, humane, amorous, ambitious, baffled, subservient—and tracks the complicated consequences.

At its first appearance, in 1800, Mary Stuart flourished (and still does) as a high verse tragedy mingling the grandeur of the Greeks with Shakespeare’s gorgeous incandescence. In 2018, amid the mighty maelstrom of #MeToo, the play works also as an audacious thought experiment: what if women were to hold the highest power possible, but with all the presumptuousness of male manipulation still forcibly in play?

The results, while galvanic, are also unsettling. Though Elizabeth aspires to rule her kingdom “like a man,” she gradually embraces a craven tactic, offloading all responsibility for her fateful, equivocal decisions onto her factious, opportunistic male adherents. We’re used to imagining this queen as virtually the patron saint of Shakespeare (think Judi Dench, in Shakespeare in Love) and hence of our own humanity. It’s striking to watch Schiller (and Oswald in his new version) call hers so stringently into question.

Mary’s humanity is never in doubt. She too is beset by men who assert their allegiance to her, but who nurture their own needs even more. Generous, discerning, and endangered, she earns her primacy, as the tragedy’s titular character, by virtue of larger soul.  Her humanity deepens scene by scene. It is she, far more than Elizabeth, who recognizes the “we” in their shared predicament. Having been tried, as she points out, by “a court of men, and none of them my peer,” she now implores her handlers to set up a meeting with Elizabeth, because

with the Queen I share

My sex, my blood, my rank, To her alone,

Sister, queen, woman, can I speak in freedom.

In the fulfillment of her request lies Schiller’s sharpest departure from actual history. In real life, the two queens never met. In the play they do, precisely because Mary alone understands the ways in which their commonalities might lead to redemption, or to ruin, for both of them.

The poet Alexander Pope once declared, in praise of playgoing, that at the theater we get to “be what we behold”; we become, while our absorption lasts, the characters we watch. In Mary Stuart, by this logic, we become for the time being both Elizabeth and Mary, recognizing in them our own conflicting impulses toward tactical self-interest and toward freer, truer, and imprudent passions. Absorbed in the clash on stage, we end up adjudicating our own inner lives, weighing, however subliminally, where to place ourselves along the spectrum between these mighty opposites.

Neither Schiller nor Shakespeare ever asks of us anything less. Early in the play, in a throwaway line spoken by a minor character, Schiller sets forth what might serve as all great playwrights’ First Commandment to their nightly audiences: “You are the Judges. So judge!”

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