History & Film: The Rehabilitation of Mary Stuart

A conundrum: for 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots, how does one avoid a History & Film that won’t be perceived as one long torrent of abuse? Perhaps begin with historical perspective, as a sort of disclaimer.

From diversity to LGBTQ+ to #metoo/Time’s Up to Trump and more, the film ticks every currently trending box with a lack of subtlety that’s a wonder to behold, and problematic for a film ostensibly set in the 16th century. Discussion of historical perspective, however, risks what film critics love to dismiss as pedantry – as if a film supposedly based on historical persons and events cannot be evaluated on historicity. This is entertainment. Some critics labeled the film refreshing as “history porn for the Instagram generation”1 and “enjoyably anachronistic.”2 The opposing view: that the film’s “bizarre, ahistorical reads married with the intermittent stabs at a boardroom’s idea of millennial values…render Mary a kind of nothing of a film.”3

Yet I would posit that it merits examination as the present endpoint on a chronological continuum charting Hollywood’s rehabilitation of the historical Mary Stuart. Celluloid fascination with her dates back to 1895, when Thomas Edison made an 18-second film showing her beheading. Edison’s offering may be the only one that doesn’t devote significant screen time to Elizabeth I. Comparison between the two women is inevitable: both queens in their own right, less than a decade apart in age, who together ruled two kingdoms on a single island. Their familial bond guaranteed rivalry – sharing a bloodline equals a claim to the same throne. Historians and, at this point, filmmakers have examined Elizabeth from every possible angle, and she certainly has her detractors. Yet even her staunchest critics admit that, considered as a whole, her reign was a success. Despite the desire to now portray Mary as a heroine, not even Hollywood has been brave enough to make that claim for the Queen of Scots.

Depicting Mary Stuart heroically is a relatively recent and revisionist phenomenon. If Mary has historically been defined by comparison with Elizabeth, then she has been found wanting as the rival of a woman with great intellect, strength of will, and proficiency as a ruler. Mary has traditionally been viewed as the opposite: weak, incapable, and driven by selfish passions, which ultimately destroyed her. Altering this view of her on film began in 1936 with Mary of Scotland, starring Katharine Hepburn.

Mary of Scotland is a visual lovesong to Hepburn; she and its director, John Ford, were rumored to be romantically involved. The cinematography highlights Hepburn’s face with a beatific radiance as she looks heavenward and her eyes shine with tears. The Catholic Ford, in a manner the historical Mary would doubtless have relished, renders the Scottish queen as a kind of beautiful martyr. His Mary is a godly woman, and one beset on all sides. Mary prays for God to “counsel my heart, guide my steps…that I may rule with piety and wisdom.” She has no desire for the effeminate Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (“I shall marry no one!” she fervently exclaims). This is a far cry from the historical woman who, infatuated, disdained papal dispensation and barreled into the matrimonial state with Darnley; her third marriage would be even more precipitous. As heroine, this Mary cannot evince such questionable judgment. The widowed queen marries Darnley only when forced, and thereafter patiently endures his insulting behavior. She is not involved in his eventual murder, nor is the Earl of Bothwell, her protector. Mary and Bothwell share a pure love, so neither must be implicated in wrongdoing. This extends even to the plotting against Elizabeth that results in Mary’s execution. Mary is entirely innocent. She defers to the strongest man, is moral, domestic, and maternal. “It is not in my nature to play politics,” she haughtily declares. Politics is a man’s game, and a duplicitous one, so Mary will have none of it. Elizabeth (Florence Eldridge) is adept at this game, garnering Mary’s contempt; Mary compares her with Pontius Pilate, placing herself in the role of the persecuted Christ. Elizabeth says to Mary at their face-to-face meeting (a lapse of historicity none of these films resists): “I see now why men love you.” Mary’s response? “You’re not even a woman.” Femininity and its corollary, worthiness to be loved, is paramount. Strength and capability are unattractive. By the film’s end, a highly romanticized Mary has been canonized, “winning” the rivalry somehow (“Still, still I win!” she crows to Elizabeth). Though she has lost her kingdom and is about to do the same with her head, her son will sit on Elizabeth’s throne, and she is a “real” woman, worthy of a man’s love…unlike the political and masculine Elizabeth.

Fast-forward to 1971 for the next film version of Mary’s life: Mary, Queen of Scots, with Vanessa Redgrave. One might think the rise of feminism would spawn a Mary who is more than just a tragic, romantic figure. Perhaps now she will play the political game, giving viewers a shrewd and powerful woman, one who “loses” only when overwhelmed by insurmountable odds. But no, this Mary is composed entirely of rushing sensibility – she is ecstatically in love, desperately despairing, murderously angry. Like Hepburn’s Mary before her, she constantly looks to the men around her – her Guise uncles, her half-brother the Earl of Moray, her secretary David Riccio, Bothwell. Her only “policy” is marriage (“I will marry quickly!”), and others note how her “blood is hot.” This hormone-addled Mary constantly makes the impulsive, emotional decision over the rational one, and the result is always disaster. She is incredibly silly.

Elizabeth (the formidable Glenda Jackson) can accurately predict Mary’s every move, calculating the opposite of what it would be wise to do in any given situation to divine the path that Mary will take. When they meet in person (yes, again), and Mary behaves like a petulant child, Elizabeth admonishes, “You have my pity, madam…knowing you to be without wisdom, discretion, or any of the attributes of a queen. I see you have learned nothing.”

Yet, there are the stirrings of agency here, and the sexual freedom touted by women’s liberation. When Darnley threatens to rape Mary, Mary handles the situation – she dismisses Bothwell and drugs Darnley’s wine, then has sex with Bothwell as Darnley lies insensate in the next room. She is a more than willing participant in adultery, conspiracy, and murder. When Moray imprisons her lover, Mary hysterically attacks him with a knife. She attempts to strike Elizabeth with her riding crop. The outlets for her self-expression are far from laudable (think ill-behaved toddler), but at least this Mary is not passive. She’s a master of self-delusion, rationalizing it’s a mercy to murder her “degenerate,” venereal disease-ridden husband. Mary has catapulted to the other end of the spectrum: no longer a romanticized saint, she has been completely humanized. Hollywood thought 1970s audiences didn’t want a morally perfect heroine; Mary’s massive flaws are meant to make her more relatable. Yet it is difficult to sympathize with a Mary who is essentially a spoiled and none-too-bright child, with all wounds self-inflicted. Enter Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart for 2018’s version of a “relatable” queen.

For all Mary Queen of Scots’ myriad defects, it is the first film to eschew portraying Mary as helplessly flailing in a court full of raptors. Yes, her court (and Elizabeth’s) is full of deceitful, power-hungry men – a point ceaselessly beleaguered in the film. Finally, there’s a Mary with the poise and strength of character to face-off with them. This role is usually reserved for Elizabeth, but this Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) is hamstrung by mental instability brought on by the successes of her younger, fairer cousin.

Mary is a composed ruler who plays the English ambassador for a fool. Boundlessly open-minded, it is compassion that contributes to her downfall. Riccio, gay and gender non-conforming, dons Mary’s dresses and jewelry, and she welcomes him as a “sister,” encouraging him to simply be himself. Mary is ripe for marriage and motherhood; the viewer is treated to close-ups of her menstrual blood. Darnley’s silver tongue wins Mary’s hand (literally, her attraction to him seems based entirely on one instance of cunnilingus). It is Riccio, however, whom Darnley beds on his wedding night. When Mary discovers them, she assures Riccio he needs no forgiveness, for “you have not betrayed your nature.” She is again a saint – by the Instagram generation’s standards rather than the Roman Catholic Church – and this extends to her treacherous half-brother, the Earl of Moray. She reminisces about their childhood closeness, temporally implausible perhaps (he was eleven years her senior and she left Scotland at five), but showcasing yet again her depth of feeling. When Moray rebels, the staging of his defeat is an exemplar of the ways Mary is elevated. Moray’s historical rebellion earned the appellation “chaseabout raid” since the forces moved across Scotland without decisive engagement. The film instead has Moray’s army trapped so Mary can roundly thrash him. Mary looks down from the high ground, meets Moray’s eyes, and spares him. As the superior tactician, she has outmaneuvered him and she inspires devotion in her army, but she chooses to show mercy. Moray will use it against her.

As for Mary and Elizabeth, they are destined from the beginning to be close friends, sisters even, the realities of 16th-century politics be damned. It is simply that all their good intentions are subverted by misogyny, the evil machinations of wealthy white (and black, given the film’s commitment to diversity) men. “Men are so cruel,” Elizabeth sighs. One particular standout is the always-repugnant John Knox, whose sole purpose seems to be leading pounding chants about Mary from his pulpit meant to reference Trump rally cries of “lock her up.” Bothwell brutally forces himself on Mary; Darnley’s only marital relations with her occur in similar vein. These are the types of males Mary is pitted against. As a woman and fellow queen, surely Elizabeth sympathizes? All she needs do is acknowledge Mary as her superior and her heir, and both will live happily ever after as the true sisters they have always been.

For all this supposed solidarity, it’s as if the film has a split personality where feminism is concerned. The historical Elizabeth is easily transformed into a highly effective feminist bannerwoman; the historical Mary is problematic in such a role, which causes difficulties for this film. To favor Mary as heroine, her characterization must be far removed from the historical woman, but also, Elizabeth must be significantly depreciated. How to accomplish this? Much is made of Elizabeth’s lack of sexual activity and especially her aging and disfiguration by smallpox; she’s also given a frenetic baby mania. Mary, by contrast, is perpetually young and beautiful, and this is the main point of contention – not that she openly decries Elizabeth as an inferior or presses a claim to her throne that endangers Elizabeth’s life. Elizabeth and Mary are ranged against each other not in the realm of intellect or strength of character or even the power struggle for a kingdom, but rather the age-old conflict of who’s the prettiest, and who gets to be glowing mother to a darling moppet. Not much, it seems, has changed since 1936.

Much concerning the historical Mary remains unclear, as historians reexamine and reinterpret primary documents. What part, if any, did she play in Darnley’s assassination? What was the nature of her relationship with Bothwell? Was she a tireless if inept plotter…or a helpless victim guilty only of bad judgment? Historians are hard-pressed to agree on the “real” Mary; it would be nonsensical to expect as much of Hollywood. So far on the spectrum, there is Mary the Saint, Mary the Sinner, and Mary the Pop Culture Yaassss Queen. Though there isn’t word count enough to examine them here, there are other shades on this spectrum found in Elizabeth films – Mary often appears prominently. So if you consider all these interpretations of Mary, Queen of Scots to be inadequate: “Take her as you find her, and rest assured that it won’t be long before Hollywood decides to serve up another new version for mass consumption.”4


  1. Shane Watson. “History Porn for the Instagram Generation.” The Telegraph. 14 December 2018. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/life/history-porn-instagram-generation/
  2. A.O. Scott. “Mary Queen of Scots Review: Sexy, Spirited, and Almost Convincing.” The New York Times. 6 December 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/06/movies/mary-queen-of-scots-review.html
  3. Emily Yoshida. “Mary Queen of Scots Turns Its Queen into a Generic Underdog Figure.” Vulture. 6 December 2018. https://www.vulture.com/2018/12/mary-queen-of-scots-review.html
  4. Steven Reid. “Yes, the New Mary Queen of Scots Film is Inaccurate – But Don’t Worry, Historians Can’t Agree on Her Anyway.” The Independent. 21 January 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/mary-queen-scots-film-history-saoirse-ronan-real-true-story-elizabeth-oscars-a8738301.html

About the contributor: Bethany Latham is a professor, librarian, and HNR’s Managing Editor. She once watched every extant film version of Elizabeth I’s life and wrote a book about it, entitled (imaginatively) Elizabeth I in Film and Televsion (McFarland, 2011).

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 90 (November 2019)

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