Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 June 2019
AT THE OPENING of Schiller's Maria Stuart (1800; Mary Stuart), the captive Queen of Scots has already been sentenced to death by the English House of Lords. The only question remaining is whether Queen Elizabeth, Mary's cousin and rival, will sign the death warrant. Mary lives as long as Elizabeth does not sign, and unless she is somehow freed, Mary's only hope is the mercy of the English queen. Meanwhile Elizabeth must choose between two unattractive alternatives: order the execution of not only a family member but a fellow monarch, thus exposing herself to the threat of regicide while giving discontented English Catholics a martyr in Mary; or let Mary live and continue to challenge the legitimacy of Elizabeth's reign, presenting herself as the rightful sovereign. Mary's refusal to sign the Treaty of Edinburgh and renounce her claim to the English throne make her an existential threat to Elizabeth's government—such, at least, is the argument for execution, a move that nonetheless carries unpredictable political and moral consequences. George Steiner calls Maria Stuart a “perfect” tragedy because neither queen escapes the desolation wrought by their shared circumstance: Mary dies a prisoner, a death determined by political necessity, while Elizabeth's decision leaves her politically secure but alone, abandoned by her allies, “charred and cold” when the final curtain falls.
Literature on the play has overwhelmingly focused on Mary, relegating Elizabeth to the fallen political world her rival seems to transcend. But the institutional and discursive conflicts driving Maria Stuart are most pronounced in Elizabeth's situation, not Mary's. While the heroine may suffer in a more obvious or philosophically enticing way, Elizabeth plays the crucial role of deciding the nature and circumstances of Mary's fate. This position puts her, rather than Mary, in line with Franco Moretti's criterion of tragic literature: “everything has its origin in the decision of the king … In the world of tragedy the monarch is truly absolute.” Maria Stuart both confirms and challenges this formula: the play revolves around a sovereign decision, but its monarch is not a king, and the conditions under which Elizabeth must decide are inseparable from the way she and her leadership are gendered.