ELIZABETH I (1533-1603) and MARY STUART (1542-1587)

Elizabeth Tudor’s sex so disappointed her father, Henry VIII, that it led to his shedding her mother, Anne Boleyn, his second wife, as part of his frantic effort to beget a male heir to the English throne. Ironically, despite being decreed a bastard by her father, Elizabeth did eventually succeed him, outliving her stepsisters and Henry’s sons and proving a remarkably resilient and long-lived ruler who lent her name to Shakespeare’s age. It seems probable that her refusal to marry was founded on her sage appreciation of the hazards and disabilities of married life even for sixteenth-century queens.

Elizabeth never met Mary Stuart, her equally well-educated rival for the English throne, but even from a distance her thrice-married cousin demonstrated these hazards. Mary’s first husband was the French dauphin, becoming Francis II before his untimely death; her second, Lord Henry Darnley, a nobleman with some claim to the English throne; her third, James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell, one of the murderers of Darnley. Not only Mary’s marriages were impolitic; her Roman Catholic practices provided a focus for Roman Catholic discontent with Elizabeth and antagonized her strongly Protestant Scots subjects, who eventually imprisoned her. Mary’s attempt, after she had escaped the Scots, to throw herself on the mercies of her cousin Elizabeth despite the grave threat she represented to Elizabeth as a possible Roman Catholic monarch, ended in her imprisonment in England for 19 years before her execution on her cousin’s orders.

The occasional poems by Elizabeth and Mary selected for this performance highlight some of the complicated life experiences of these sixteenth-century women rulers. “When I was Fair and Young, Then Favor Graced Me” is believed to have been composed by Elizabeth during one of the many courtships she diplomatically strung out and finally terminated. Mary’s “Sonnet to Elizabeth” and Elizabeth’s rejoinder, “The Doubt of Future Foes,” express Mary’s hope to meet and befriend her cousin and Elizabeth’s wariness of her mercurial rival for the throne of England. As shown in the “Poem Composed on the Morning of Her Execution,” Mary eventually chose to interpret her unhappy fate as a religious martyrdom. Elizabeth, in contrast, ended as a brilliant political success. Nonetheless, the inevitable result of her choice was that she died heirless. An apocryphal account has her wailing, “Alack, the Queen of Scots is lighter of a bonny son, and I am but of barren stock,” after the birth of Mary’s only son. Surely the final irony in the cousins’ history is the accession to the English throne, after Elizabeth’s death, of that son, James VI of Scotland and I of England.

The best-known poems of Mary Stuart, undoubtedly a poet of some talent, are the “Casket Sonnets,” the love poems she is alleged to have composed during the stormy courtship of Bothwell. The originals are lost, and Mary’s defenders claim that they were manufactured as evidence against the queen. They were not, however, evidence of the crimes of which she was accused. Whether they were in fact her creations or not, these poems are fascinating for their play on rank and remarkable in the period for a woman’s expression of passionate love.