Mary Queen of Scots: The Bloody Murder of Powerful Femininity

‘I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too’. These words, undoubtedly recited to you in numerous history lessons, famously come from Elizabeth I’s rousing speech at Tilbury prior to the country’s victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. Here, as we have all been told, Elizabeth presents herself not as a woman, but as a king and thus casts aside her implicit feminine weaknesses to position herself as a strong male ruler capable of leading the country to victory. While many, myself included, have always considered Elizabeth to be somewhat of a feminist icon due to her golden age of governance despite the constant pressure to marry and birth an heir to the throne, Josie Rourke’s film ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is less favourable to Elizabeth, in fact making us view the beloved monarch almost as a villain in contrast to the titular heroine of the film, Mary. In particular, the film repeatedly stresses the distinction between the explicit femininity of Mary and the masculinity of Elizabeth and suggests that, as stated by Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth, Mary’s feminine gifts will be her downfall.

From the offset and throughout the film, Rourke makes no attempt to downplay the blatant binary comparison of the two queens in their struggle for dominance, with often laboured metaphorical images being fed to the viewer with unrelenting frequency to really hammer home this divide. Elizabeth is presented as old, diseased and crippled by painful smallpox, chaste, barren and dismissive of male advances. Mary on the other hand is young, naturally beautiful and full of energetic vitality as she bounds across the Scottish wilderness rosy-cheeked and windswept. Most importantly, she is proudly fertile and sexually available – the inclusion of a scene in which the naked and Rubenesque Mary menstrually bleeds into the bathtub seems to serve only the purpose of reinforcing this point. However, despite Mary’s belief that her vivid femininity is her strength – she is frequently shown to mock the aging and unmarried Elizabeth and stress her own ability to produce an heir – the film devotes the majority of its running time to viscerally displaying the abuse of her distinctly feminine body by both the men she encounters and the patriarchy within court at large. The porous and leaky feminine body we see menstruating within this film is constantly under attack from the male sources of power we see competing with the young queen, with the previously dashingly portrayed Henry Darnley, who we see engaging in oral sex with Mary, quickly abusing this same body he was pleasuring with a disturbingly visceral bluntness completely at odds with his short-lived romantic portrayal. Mary is later raped by her next husband Lord Bothwell with a similar unfeeling savagery, with the open wound of her once celebrated fertile body being seized as a site of male domination rather than being shown to be the source of her heir-creating power.

If these violent abuses of Mary were not enough to convince the audience of the vulnerability of the female body, then the direct comparison of Mary’s bloody, sweaty, screaming birth to Elizabeth’s frantic deliberation over the threat her heavily pregnant cousin poses to her makes this weakness absolutely clear. In identically composed shots, the film alternates between the bloodied outspread legs of a pain-wrought Mary giving birth to her son James and Elizabeth’s similarly splayed legs seemingly birthing a collection of paper roses she had cathartically been making as she deliberated her cousin’s fate. Here, whilst Mary, exhausted and fully subject to the animalistic physicality of her maternal body produces James as the feeble infant culmination of her explicitly sexual female power, Elizabeth is shown to painlessly birth her country (through the metaphoric representation of the red, English roses) without compromising her body to the penetration of men seeking to control her. Rourke’s film then suggests that the female body that remains chaste and asexual retains its power whilst those that are sexual become spaces of a painful and debilitating male ownership and usurpation.

This crippling reinforcement of patriarchal authority onto porous feminine bodies through sexual abuse is shown within the film not just through female bodies but through the sexually ambiguous body of Mary’s cross-dressing, bisexual companion David Rizzio, who after a night of drunken revelry beds the queen’s new husband. Despite being forgiven by Mary herself for this betrayal, Rizzio’s downfall comes when his bedfellow and King, Darnley, has to renounce him as a sodomite to save his own reputation amid a period of monarchical instability. Rizzio is then gruesomely murdered in the presence of a shrieking and heavily pregnant Mary in a Caesar-style assassination in which he is encircled and repeatedly stabbed by the mob of scheming Scottish politicians. Once again, the penetrated feminine (or in this case queer) form is shown to be the most vulnerable body within a male-dominated political landscape, with the ceding of sexual power through intercourse being closely followed by the appropriation of the body to service scheming male political ambitions.

As the film prepares to roll to the closing credits, we see Mary being prepared for execution at the hands of Elizabeth. Taking off her ceremonial robe to reveal her final costuming before death, Mary is clothed in a jarringly vivid red gown amid the din of the execution hall. Here she stands, sumptuous in her lusty femininity and defiantly radiant in this final act of independence. The scene then shifts to Elizabeth, her face caked in heavy white makeup over her pitted smallpox weary skin and her aged body fashioned in elaborately patterned and structured dresses. Elizabeth, a ruler masquerading in a carefully constructed outward façade of femininity is shown to be completely at odds with the fresh, natural and unabashed femininity of Mary, yet it is Elizabeth who is the victor here as Mary is punished for these female qualities that made her so vulnerable to the men within the film. Through the final betrayal of Mary, not by the scheming men we have seen throughout the film but by her ‘sister’, Elizabeth is shown to be the man she claims to be in her Tilbury speech, as like the abusive men we’ve seen prior to this moment, she capitalises upon Mary’s fleshy feminine vulnerability that she does not possess herself for her own powerful advantage. Mary is ‘the woman Elizabeth is not’, but this is exactly the reason for her fall at the hands of men. Rourke’s film, rather than depicting the struggle between powerful women of the era, depicts at large the futile struggle of liberated women against men who will ultimately seize upon the open boundary of the female body for their own political gain. ‘How cruel men are’ says Elizabeth, knowingly understating the two-hour plot of Rourke’s heroic but tragic portrayal of a distinctly feminine, and therefore vulnerable, queen.