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Welcome to Episode #104 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

After a long, and tense back and forth of letters, threats, offers of sisterhood, and ultimately betrayal, Elizabeth I ordered Mary Queen of Scots to be executed in 1587, when William Shakespeare was 24 years old, right in the middle of what is called Shakespeare’s Lost Years, because historical records leave a gap here in the timeline of the bard about exactly what he was doing in these years of his life, but looking at broader history, it turns out much of England was confused about what, precisely, was happening for anyone. 

Mary’s death was polarizing for England as it was a culmination of tensions between Catholics vs Protestants, and a strong statement about the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Mary Queen of Scots had a strong claim to the throne of England, and she exerted her might forcefully to try and achieve that role. Famously known for her swift and decisive action against any action, or person, who hinted at treason or a threat to her throne, Elizabeth I was not only surprisingly tolerant of Mary, inviting her to England on terms of peace, but Elizabeth would go on to appoint James I as her successor after Elizabeth died. As the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James I took the throne in 1603, was it ultimately a victory for Mary?

Our guest David Schajer is the author of a series of books on the intersection between Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, and James I, the lives of which contained so much real life drama that their impact spilled over onto the stage of William Shakespeare, where many moments in his plays like Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, and Merchant of Venice which seem to belie the the thoughts of the moment, like time capsules offering a glimpse into what it was like to live through this pivotal moment in history.

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David Schajer is a historian and author of Shakespeare Solved, a series of historical fiction novels that are based on the life of William Shakespeare. His series uses history as the wireframe to showcase David’s theory about what should fill the gaps for questions like why Elizabeth I would be kind to a huge threat to the throne like Mary Queen of Scots, and attempts to offer a historically plausible explanation for how these events might have impacted Shakespeare.

In this episode, I’ll be asking David Schajer about :

  • Who reported the plot to murder Elizabeth I in 1586?
  • Mary is the obvious target for plots against the Queen. Were they true? Was Mary actively trying to overthrow Elizabeth I?
  • Mary was, very quickly after her arrival in England, imprisoned under house arrest, but she did not stay in one castle. Why did she move around from castle to castle?
  • … and more!

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Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

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Such friends are thine enemies, knave.
Countess

Alls Well That Ends Well (I.3)

Elizabeth and Mary Image I compiled from public domain images of both monarchs. The image on the left is Elizabeth I's “Ermine Portrait” by an unknown artist, and the image on the right is of Mary Queen of Scots, suppsedly whilst in captivity. Find the original source for Elizabeth's Image here, and Mary's image here.

Friendship Impossible

Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I were related to each other as cousins. Despite the many reasons Elizabeth and Mary had to be enemies, it seems they both gave effort to try and arrange an agreeable relationship.

Queen Elizabeth 1562 invited Mary to come to England for a meeting, presumably to establish a friendly working relationship. From their letters, we can see that both women wanted to be friends and not enemies. In their writings, they use the word sister to describe one another.

Unfortunately, the meeting (to which Mary Queen of Scots had potentially agreed)and Elizabeth's invitation had to be cancelled due at least in part to the French Wars of Religion.

Mary's actions made it plain that she was a threat to Elizabeth, and as no fool herself, Elizabeth recognized Mary's position as being one of attack. Despite these threats, we know Elizabeth did not want to kill Mary, but she almost certainly knew that ultimately execution would be the only choice based on Mary's behavior and vocal opposition to Elizabeth's reign. At the time, that was the question everyone was asking “Will Elizabeth kill or be killed?”

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(For now I spy a danger)
Regan

King Lear (II.4)

Composite image of forged postscript to a letter by Mary Queen of Scots to Anthony Babington (SP 12/193/54) and alongside Babington's record of the cipher used. (SP 53/18/55)Walsingham's “Decypherer” forged this cipher postscript to Mary's letter to Babington. It asks Babington to use the—broken—cipher to tell her the names of the conspirators. his file is from the collections of The National Archives (United Kingdom), catalogued under document record SP12/193/54 | Source

The Babington Plot of 1586

Sir Francis Walsingham was Queen Elizabeth I's Secretary of State. He was known as her “spymaster” for his role of finding out anyone who was plotting against the Queen. Sinister and cruel, he was capable of doing anything to save the Queen.

Walsingham had Mary under surveillance and intercepted a letter involving a spanish invasion of England to put mary on the throne. The plot could have been a fake to entrap Mary, but even if the letters were forgeries in actuality, the threat they represented and fear of what Mary was going to do, were all too real. 

After the plot was revealed, there was a public trial of mary, but the process was considered a kangaroo court, or show trial. Despite a trial being officially held, Mary herself was not represented by any legal counsel, and was not allowed to defend herself. The process was lenghty but ultimately considered a rush judgement.  The Babington Letters were intercepted in July, the conspirators executed in September (8 weeks later), and Mary herself would be executed that October.

The rashness of the event, the supposed forgeries, and the ultimate meaninglessness of the plot in terms of deciding what actions were considered necessary as a response to Mary's threat to the throne were all enthralling events of this period, and deeply troubling to the citizens of England at this time. David suggests the impact of this event can be seen in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. David says, “Shakespeare knew something of the law, worked as a legal clerk in Stratford at the time of the trial, and this event would have been deeply troubling…” David suggests we can see a disapproval of the legal system in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. 

Editor's Note From Cassidy: With all respect to David, I will here caution you, dear reader, against the intentional fallacy. Remember that there is a fine line between seeing the influence of real historical events & cultural realities show up in Shakespeare's plays and going further to suggest that the opinions of the characters in his works concerning those events can be taken as opinions of the bard himself; which is a fallacy. Characters on stage are under no obligation to reflect or agree with the opinions of the person who wrote those characters into existence.


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for his best friends, if they
Should say ‘Be good to Rome,' they charged him even
As those should do that had deserved his hate,
And therein show'd like enemies.
Cominius

Coriolanus (IV.6)

Mary, Queen of Scots, and her second husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, parents of King James VI of Scotland, later King James I of England. Lord Darnley is on the left, Queen Mary on the right. 16th century painting. original at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, in the care of the National Trust. Source

Mary's Threat was Real

Whether or not the Babington Plot was forged to frame Mary, she was guilty of enciting the treason this plot accused. She married Lord Darnley,to try and establish a rightful path to the throne, along with raising a substantial army for the purpose of removing Elizabeth I. The accusations she was making, the threats she was posing, those things were true. Mary was activitely working against Elizabeth I relentlessly. However, David suggests that even if allowed to live, Mary would not neccessarily have been able to bring the threats to fruition. As an example of her limitations, Mary was trying to entice Spain to invade England, but Spain was not ready for invasion. The Spanish Armada would go on to invade England, but that happened after Mary was executed. She herself was not physically able to mount a horse, being crippled and unable to walk. Therefore, while she was capabale of inciting a rebellion, she was not physically able to rouse the necessary army on her own. She would need help. (Is it possible that Mary's death actually provided the impetus for the Spanish Invasion? Entirely arguable.) 

At the time of the Spanish Armade invasion, Spain was the only superpower. England was substantially weaker and poorer by comparison. Mary was a queen without a country, support, or throne. Her power was symbolic and imaginary— not real nor backed by substance. Therefore, David suggests that when Elizabeth did choose to execute Mary, she made that choice in response to what Mary was capable of doing, not her actual actions. Mary was killed out of fear. 

I would not be thy executioner…
Phoebe

As You Like It (III.5)

Drawing of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Great Chamber at Fotheringay Castle, co. Northants., 14-15 October 1586. Image taken from Papers and correspondance relating to Mary, Queen of Scots. Originally published/produced in England; 1586. Held and digitised by the British Library. Source

Gruesome end brings confusion

In her last hours, Mary mostly prayed, had her feet washed, priests prayed over her, and read to her about a saint. She wanted to hear about a saint that sinned more than she had. The tales of her final moments are both fascinating and tragic. The records show that she was truly pious and a devout catholic. Even at her execution, she made the sign of the cross, prayed aloud in Latin and kissed her crucifix. 

Mary's personal behavior was, some suggest, intentionally designed to be very theatrical and melodramatic. Mary wanted to be remembered regally. Her actual death turned out to be remembered for how gruesome it was in the moment. Whether it was a lack of sharpening of the equipment or something more sinister, it look three blows of an ax to remove her head. Records of the day indicate that even the people in attendance who hated Mary and were glad for her execution were shocked that a Queen would be executed in such a brutal and bloody manner.

Knowing that history would not look with kindness upon her for the execution of Mary, Elizabeth had likely tried to prevent killing Mary by having her moved from castle to castle during her confinement. With Mary's frail physical health the hope from Elizabeth was likely that the strain of relocating would wear out Mary's body and hasten her death such that Elizabeth would not have to choose to execute her. Apparently deciding she could not continue to wait on Mary's natural death, she did have her executed and then after Mary died, Elizabeth tried to passthe blame for the execution andmake it appear as if it was someone else's fault.

Execution terrified and confused the royal court, especially. Some believed Elizabeth was innocent, that Mary was murdered by councellors, but if the people believe Elizabeth was innocent of Mary's murder, then what is to be believed about the government? Does Elizabeth I not have control of her country, but instead it is run by her counsellors? It created a great moment of unrest.

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Books & Resources David Schajer recommends:

 

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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