by Friedrich Schiller
Maria Stuart, the deposed queen of Scotland, seeks asylum in England but soon finds herself imprisoned in a fortress as her aunt, the English queen Elisabeth Tudor, begins to investigate her. When she was seventeen, Maria was allegedly involved in the murder of her husband – that is the official charge, but there are also rumours of a plot to seize the crown right now.
Schiller portrays neither of his female protagonists in a particularly flattering light: Maria is an impulsive seductress, Elisabeth is a jealous and indecisive monarch. He wrote to Goethe in 1799 about his «poetic battle with this historical material», before he succeeded in «creating some freedom for the imagination over the story». And one example of this freedom was turning the popular «Virgin Queen» – who during her reign settled the years of quarrelling with France, balanced the household budget, laid the foundations of the nation’s sea power and commonwealth and created a golden age of the arts and sciences – into a procrastinator, who would rather die than make a decision about her conflict with Maria. Here the time in which Schiller was writing also enters the play: just a few years earlier Marie-Antoinette, one of the women most conspicuously associated with absolutism, ended her life on the scaffold: «This land, my lady, has in these latter days, / Seen many royal women descend the throne / To mount the scaffold». Because lurking in the background of this political thriller revolving around the succession and state religion is the constant threat of a popular uprising, which could cost both queens their heads.
Schiller has not only the court but also his majesties themselves doubt whether a single person is capable of making decisions on behalf of an entire people and catalogues every shade of this «fear, the terrible companion of tyranny». As a result, he writes a play that is not only about the hesitations of a head of state, but also about the necessity of democracy. It is perhaps no coincidence that, as in the ancient «Oresteia», this debate starts with the murder of a spouse and ends with the error of individual decision-making.
«A play about NOT acting. About the radical loneliness and inescapable impotence that a human ruler ends up with. I am interested in the fascination this woman has with the other, her recognition of herself in the other. And the way that in the end she acts NEVERTHELESS, driven by a system that is wrong in itself, in which there can only ever be one decision.» Nora Schlocker