Cousins and Queens: “Mary, Queen of Scots”

Happy Friday, Persephoneers! I have another classic movie pick for you, but this time, it’s not a screwball comedy. Instead, we’re going with a more serious choice. This is a historical drama, and maybe more of a biopic. Nonetheless, it’s really good. And what is the selection, you ask? Why, it is no other than “Mary, Queen of Scots,” made in 1971 and starring the very talented Vanessa Redgrave as the ill-fated Scottish queen and Glenda Jackson as her cousin (and one of my favorite badass British queens), Elizabeth I.

Mary, Queen of Scots

The movie opens with the death of Mary’s first husband, the Dauphin Francois, and news of the death of her mother, Marie de Guise. It is at this point that Mary decides to take her rightful place as Queen of Scotland. Her uncles from the de Guise side of the family set her up with a confessor and several advisers – one of whom is an Italian named David Rizzio (Ian Holm) – so that she can rule effectively. James Hepburn, Lord Bothwell (Nigel Davenport) has also inserted himself into the new queen’s good graces by assisting her during her journey to Scotland.

Mary’s half-brother, James Stewart, Earl of Moray (Patrick McGoohan), who has been acting as regent following the death of Marie de Guise, apprises Elizabeth and William Cecil (Trevor Howard) of Mary’s impending arrival in Scotland. Elizabeth sees the threat in this: not only does this bring the Catholic church to Scotland, “England’s back door,” but it also means that Mary might try to claim the English throne as its true Catholic heir. The cousins engage in a sort of diplomatic dance: both try to earn the other’s trust, yet at the same time, they are both trying to see what kind of threat the other might be. When Mary seeks Elizabeth’s advice in the selection of a husband, Elizabeth uses this as a chance to see what kind of queen her cousin is. To do this – and to hush up the scandal involved in the death of his wife – she sends her sometime lover, Robert Dudley, Earl of Essex, to Mary’s court. She also sends Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (Timothy Dalton) as a prospective suitor for Mary. Of course, we all know which suitor Mary chooses, and the rest is history.

The movie is very careful to show the differences between the two cousins. Mary has been queen of Scotland ever since she was a baby, and she has been raised as such. Because she follows the Catholic religion, she regards herself not only as the rightful heir to the Scottish throne, but also as the rightful heir to the English throne. Such circumstances have made her a pawn; she has always done as her de Guise uncles, her French in-laws, and her half-brother and other advisors have told her. Once she makes it clear that she is the queen, and that all of the decisions she makes are final, she begins to make a lot of mistakes, and a lot of these are from decisions made in haste. She marries Darnley for what she believes is love, and then she finds herself in a union with an ambitious, abusive husband who only married her so that he could be a king. She finds herself in love with Bothwell, but then they have to get rid of Darnley, not only because he is in the way of their union, but because he is mad and has only put his wife in a very precarious position. Mary thinks and acts with her heart first, and she regrets it later.

Mary and Darnley

Elizabeth, on the other hand, seems to have a better grasp of what it means to rule a country, but perhaps this is because her life was very different from Mary’s. For the longest time, she was considered to be a bastard and ineligible for the throne. During her sister’s reign, her life was constantly in danger, and she had to rely on her wits just to survive. The way in which her father treated his wives perhaps made her a little hesitant to marry, but she became determined never to marry after she saw how much it affected her sister, Mary Tudor. Elizabeth also understood that as a queen with no heirs, she had to be very careful about whom she married – if she chose to marry – because it could not only affect her, but the future of her country. And unlike Mary, Elizabeth also had advisers like William Cecil, who was honestly committed to doing what was in the best interests of queen and country. While Elizabeth is shown as being cautious, shrewd, and calculating, we also see the consequences of the way she has chosen to live. When she learns of the birth of Mary’s son, James, she is not happy but is quite upset. Elizabeth is jealous of Mary to a certain extent, because Mary was willing to take the risks that Elizabeth wasn’t.

While Mary very easily makes choices that are in her best interests, Elizabeth is bound by what she believes are England’s best interests. The movie begs one question: Who really lived her life to its fullest? Was it Mary, who embraced her power as queen and as a woman, yet lived as she wished, even if it compromised her position and her country and led to her imprisonment and execution? Or was it Elizabeth, who believed that it was her duty as queen to do what was best for her country and to give up certain things that she might want, even though she ruled England until her natural death? What are your opinions on this? And are these dilemmas that women in power still face today?


3 replies on “Cousins and Queens: “Mary, Queen of Scots””

Ooo Redgraves. Interesting.  Mary’s story is just endlessly fascinating, and her effect on the lives of those around her even when she was under house arrest in England is amazing. Also, if anyone gets a chance to visit Edinburgh, you can go into the chamber in Holyrood House where Rizzio was murdered. It’s very easy to imagine the panic in there.

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