Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was famously held hostage by the English Queen Elisabeth I for almost 20 years. After her husband was fatally attacked, the Scottish queen was forced to flee to her relatives in England. However, fearing that Mary might stake her claim to the British throne, Elisabeth I swiftly had her confined to Fotheringhay Castle. Elisabeth I, the Virgin Queen, was under pressure: her people not only urged her to marry, they demanded Mary Stuart be executed. Elisabeth’s advisors were also pushing her to act after years of reticence: Lord Burleigh advised her to marry without delay for the good of the state; old Talbot demanded Mary be pardoned; and Count Leicester speculated on marrying Elisabeth I himself, while insisting on a meeting between the two queens. Meanwhile, with Elisabeth under fire from all sides, young Mortimer planned the violent liberation of Mary Stuart from Fotheringhay, driving the story to its inevitably bloody denouement.
In his play about the two great queens, Friedrich Schiller dramatized the conflict of the individual torn between religious morality, sensuality and national interest. Mary and Elisabeth were less driven by their hatred of one another than they were made rivals by external influences. The image that emerges is of a society in which women are pitted against one another, one that promotes the fatal notion that there can only be one leader.