IT IS a great theatrical device. At the start of Robert Icke’s touring production of Mary Stuart, his two leading actors, Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, step forward as a coin is spun in a golden bowl and projected on to screens around the auditorium.
How it falls determines which of them will play Mary, Queen of Scots, and which Queen Elizabeth I. The last-minute uncertainty adds the edge of adrenalin to the lead performances. It is also, the critics say, a dramatic metaphor for how the two female monarchs are two sides of the same coin, each trapped by private passions and public expectations into their historical inevitability.
It makes for fine theatre, but I’m not sure it is quite what the great 18th-century German dramatist Friedrich Schiller would have wanted. I saw the play last week with my son, who is revising for his A-level history. While he fulminated afterwards about Schiller’s historical inaccuracies, I puzzled over how an author who was such a Protestant polemicist in his other writings could come up with a portrait so sympathetic to Catholicism.
The received view that most of us have inherited is of Good Queen Bess presiding over an English golden age whose settlement was, for a time, threatened by the sly machinations of a foreign Catholic interloper whose heart lay somewhere between France and Scotland. You might have expected Schiller to sign up to that. He did, after all, write of how Luther “smashed the heavy chains which oppressed all the peoples of the earth”, and detected in the fighting between Protestants and Catholics in the Thirty Years War the first stirrings of European freedom.
But Schiller was one of the early figures of the Romantic movement, which reacted against the mechanical rationalism of the Enlightenment. In the struggle to reconcile personal morality with political expediency, he was drawn to characters who followed their heart.
In the chaotic personal life of Mary Stuart he detected a greatness of soul which contrasted with Elizabeth’s insistence on setting the affairs of state above those of the heart. Both women can be seen as unscrupulous, but that emanated from a fiery boldness in Mary and an unattractive caution in Elizabeth.
Their respective religions are portrayed as a key factor by both Schiller and his modern adapter. Schiller offers a seductive account of how the conversion of a Protestant nobleman to Catholicism is triggered by the music, art, and embracing sense of universal community that he encounters as he crosses the Continent. In contrast, Elizabeth’s Protestant court is portrayed as a place of cold political calculation.
The play ends with a metaphorical confrontation between the two monarchs. Mary, in a plain shift, faces her death beatifically, shriven and solaced by a moving representation of Catholic ritual. In contrast, an isolated Elizabeth is fixed into her white ceremonial face-mask and straitjacketed court bodice, abandoned by her lover and imprisoned by a crown that she regards as “a prison cell with jewels”.
Life is determined by character, not chance, Schiller suggests. As he wrote elsewhere, “What seems to us merest accident springs from the deepest source of destiny.”