Mary, Queen of Scots is one of the most iconographic figures in Scottish culture. Only recently, however, has Mary's poetry been seriously considered on a literary basis rather than as historical documents. At the heart of Mary's poetry lie the 11 sonnets and sestet, originally composed in French, Mary's first language, and printed in the so-called Casket Letters, allegedly addressed to James Hepburn, the earl of Bothwell. Critics have been divided over the sonnets' authenticity. In 1571, they were printed in a work of anti-Marian propaganda (Detectioun of the duings [doings] of Marie Quene of Scotts), where they are presented as evidence of Mary's involvement in the murder of her second husband, Henry Darnley. Her critics claimed she penned the letters and sonnets before being imprisoned. The sonnets' discovery sealed her downfall, leading to 19 years' imprisonment and her execution in 1587.
Critics are also divided over the question of whether the sonnets should be read as separate items, as a sonnet sequence, or as one continuous poem. The choice is rendered more difficult as the original Casket Letters do not survive; therefore, the resulting arrangement may be the work of Mary's persecutors. Despite this, the majority of scholars tend towards reading them as a sequence.
Mary's sonnets, like any other contrived poetic sequence, constitute a "fiction," though just what kind is also debatable. If the Casket Letters are the work of her detractors, then by the manipulation of the queen's voice, a level of ironic fictitiousness is introduced. If they are Mary's private reflections, does she consciously adopt a literary persona, or are the sonnets personal, and never intended to be read by the public?
In the sonnets, Mary asserts herself as a constant lover, who is ardent, truthful, and passionate. An important consideration is Mary's continual adaptation and reversal of conventional gender roles as found in Italian (Petrarchan) sonnets. In this light, critics have fruitfully explored the tensions between Mary's poetry and her role as queen of Scotland. Every poem is also political; as the publication of the Casket Letters clearly showed, the queen could not afford the luxury of private self-referential speech.
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