The new movie “Mary Queen of Scots” — which I am reluctant to see for reasons that will become clear — belongs to what I like to call the Sylvia Plath school of storytelling. That is, if you’re telling the story of the suicidal poet, the husband will always be the villain. (That he had two wives who killed themselves in exactly the same way doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in him as a spouse. You know what they say. Once is a tragedy. Twice is an unsettling coincidence.)
Of course, if, as Shakespeare said, everyone has a story, then that of said husband, Ted Hughes, offers a picture of a needy, unstable Plath that her fans would reject.
And so it is with “Mary Queen of Scots,” whose title has been used at least twice before with Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave in the title role. What that title tells you is that for Elizabeth I fans, such as myself, the story is going to be rough sledding indeed. I mean we’re not talking “Elizabeth R,” with the superb Glenda Jackson, who would also play Elizabeth to Redgrave’s Mary in the 1971 film. That the new film is definitely still Mary’s story becomes clear from the trailer, clips and interviews with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie — who play Mary and Elizabeth respectively. It appears to be yet another romantic take on how the older, spinsterish, pockmarked Elizabeth was jealous of Mary’s youth, beauty, fecundity and vitality. Like the favorite movie conceit that they faced off in person — they never met — nothing could be further from the truth.
Which is not to say that they weren’t real rivals — a favorite subject of this blog. They were cast as such early on — two queens in a world where only one could rule. Elizabeth, the elder by about nine years, and Mary were first cousins once removed, Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, and Mary’s grandmother, Margaret, queen of Scotland, being brother and sister.
They, however, shared little beyond blood. As Jane Dunn’s highly entertaining “Elizabeth & Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) discusses, Elizabeth was from an early age thrown back on her own devices, thanks to the cruel caprice of her pig of a father, who destroyed wife after wife. That she would become queen at all — much less England’s greatest ruler to date — was by no means certain.
Mary, on the other hand, was born to be a queen consort, which is very different. She was raised in France alongside her future husband, the brotherly Francis II. (It always makes me laugh that filmmakers invariably give Mary a Scottish or English accent. She was more French than anything else. As we’ll see, while Scotland belonged to her, she didn’t belong to it — not for a long time and then only briefly.)
So Mary married Francis and there things might’ve taken a very different turn had he not died and Mary become a pawn in French dynastic ambitions. Widows are an inconvenience. Back she went to the Scotland she barely knew, where to the chagrin of her cousin queen to the south, who was trying to prevent Mary from becoming the Roman Catholic usurper of her Protestant throne, she married her violent, drunken cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who was probably killed by James Hepburn, the fourth Earl of Bothwell, who in turn reportedly kidnapped, raped and married Mary — a succession of events that shocked the usually unflappable Elizabeth.
Ultimately, Mary was forced to abdicate and flee Scotland, leaving James, her baby son by Lord Darnley, behind, as she sought asylum in England. There she became a thorn in Elizabeth’s side that would eventually have to be removed. Apparently, Elizabeth did so reluctantly. That Mary would’ve been as reluctant had the situation been reversed is not as apparent.
There’s no question that the vain, self-possessed Elizabeth saw Mary as both a personal as well as a professional rival, always measuring herself literally as it turned out against Mary’s lofty height, her musicianship, etc. whenever some hapless ambassador who knew them both came to the English court. But it is merely a romantic conceit that Elizabeth would’ve changed places sexually with her imprudent cousin. Elizabeth had her fancies — the dashing Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her intimate master of the horse, and Francois, Duke of Alencon, who in the way of these things was a younger brother of Francis II. (The two women might’ve been sisters-in-law.) Might’ve been.
But Elizabeth also said, “Better beggar woman and single than married and queen.”) She wasn’t about to share the English throne with anyone. Not only did she have the horrifying example of mother after stepmother being divorced, beheaded or lost to complications in childbirth but she also had a front-row seat to the humiliation of her own sister Mary at the hands of her less than loving hubby, Philip II of Spain, a man so greedy to add England to the Spanish Empire’s portfolio that he came to court the kid sister as soon as the wife was cold. (That Elizabeth would best Philip on the high seas as her fleet English fleet outmaneuvered the Spanish Armada must’ve been rich indeed.)
We cannot read history backward, however. Elizabeth was no feminist striking a blow for #MeToo. She might’ve married. She liked men. She loved Robert. But it wasn’t in the cards. And even though she could write at the end of her sonnet on the loss of Alençon, “On Monsieur’s Departure,” “Or let me live with some more sweet content, or die, and so forget what love e'er meant,” I don’t think she was unhappy. We, however, like to think she was, because we’re still stuck in a mindset in which a woman isn’t complete without a man.
But what of the much married Mary? She supposedly got her revenge on Elizabeth, because her son succeeded her English rival as James I. Yet her motto, I think, speaks for itself: “In my end is my beginning,” meaning that death is not the end but another chapter. Of course, there is a double meaning here. The choices you make early in life seal your fate. Mary’s tragedy was her talent for the wrong men.
Whereas Elizabeth for all her liveliness, would’ve never chosen her heart over her head.
Which is why she was able to keep both.