Cover Image: courtesy of IMDB, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2328900/.
With the winter break behind us, some of us might be hesitant to let that holiday spirit go. With that in mind, this month’s first blog post eases back into the historical world by examining the 2018 film, ‘Mary Queen of Scots’.
Based on John Guy’s 2004 biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke, and starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I, respectively, the film opens at Mary’s return to Scotland after the death of her first husband François II of France and ends with her execution in 1587. The film delves into the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary – simultaneously cordial and fraught with tension. While both women are portrayed as the strong-willed and powerful women and queens they were, their unique personalities – or at least their personalities as far as historians can ascertain from the primary sources these queens left to us – are also on full display in the film. Of particular interest to this reviewer was the way in which the production team chose to represent each queen’s gendered role.
Ronan’s Mary is portrayed throughout the film as being a submissive woman, largely caught in Darnley’s charm and the carefree nature of the Scottish court. A scene which embodies this depicts Mary seated with her ladies while Darnley arrives and is challenged with identifying which seated woman is the queen. While Mary and her ladies are very much the submissive observed, Darnley is the male observer, circling the seated women in a visible display of male dominance, despite Mary’s elevated rank as queen.
Mary’s relatively inferior role in the film is further highlighted by the way the men who surround her challenge her monarchical decisions. While there were contemporary concerns in Scotland about queenship in general and Mary’s rule in particular, the film’s representation of Mary shows her decisions being challenged publicly and confrontationally by significant male characters in the film, including characters such as reformer John Knox and Mary’s brother the Earl of Moray. As a result, Mary is portrayed through the male gaze as being largely inept at her role, not having the ‘necessary’ traits for rulership since she was a woman.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, is portrayed as quite calculating – never making decisions purely based on emotion. Whereas Mary is shown to be too ‘weak’ as a woman to rule, Elizabeth is depicted as being too ‘masculine’ in her rulership to be a ‘proper’ early modern woman. Elizabeth’s decisions are largely unchallenged by the film’s male characters and any relationships she has with the men of her court do not outwardly affect her role as queen. This idea that Elizabeth is too masculine to truly be a queen is further highlighted in the film’s depiction of her childlessness.
When Mary’s pregnancy is announced and the film shows Mary cradling her growing abdomen, Elizabeth is portrayed holding a piece of clothing to her stomach, mimicking how her body would look if she, too, were pregnant. After Mary gives birth, a scene shows her in her bed holding her newborn son, the future James VI of Scotland and I of England. The parallel scene with Elizabeth shows her in a similar position but instead of being surrounded by afterbirth she is shown with the flower mosaic on which she has been so painstakingly working. While Mary is perceived to have fulfilled her gendered role of bearing children, Elizabeth has not. The ‘ideal’ woman represented in Mary, Queen of Scots, is contrasted to the film’s ‘aberration’ of early modern womanhood in Elizabeth I; the one a fruitful heir-bearing queen, the other a queen who lacks an obvious heir and invites dynastic instability to her realm.
Though this reviewer has some quibbles with the ways in which both Mary and Elizabeth’s queenship is portrayed, the film overall gives a good sense of their role and the political and religious nuances which both encountered and confronted during their rules. ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ provides an accessible examination of what it means to be a woman and to be a queen in early modern Western Europe, complete with the personal and political toll it took on both Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I.
For those interested in learning more about the political, religious, and personal relationship between Mary and Elizabeth, it is well worth a visit to the British Library’s ‘Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens’, which will be the subject of a blog post later this month.
Susan Doran (editor), Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens [exhibition book] (London: British Library Publishing, 2021).
Susan Doran, Queen Elizabeth I (New York: New York University Press, 2003).
Jane Dunn, Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2003).
John Guy, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004).
Kate Williams, Rival Queens: The Betrayal of Mary Queen of Scots (London: Arrow, 2019).