Emily Hay

Reception Revisited: Re-reading Mary Queen of Scots’ Casket Sonnets

The Casket Sonnets, allegedly written by Mary Queen of Scots, were used by Marian detractors to justify her deposition and imprisonment on the grounds of her adultery and purported murder of her second husband, Lord Darnley. The association of the sonnets with the former queen’s immorality was only heightened by their print publication in the 1571 edition of Ane Detectioun…of Marie Quene of Scottes, in which their paratextual inclusion alongside tracts defaming Mary sealed their reception as expressions of an adulterous, inordinate female passion. Though scholars no longer believe Mary’s authorship of the sonnets to necessitate her role in Darnley’s murder, the amatory reading of the sequence remains unchallenged in contemporary criticism, as Sarah Dunnigan notes in Eros and Poetry (2002): ‘possibilities of interpretations other than the one in which contemporaries encased them is rarely explored.’

Given the absence of their alleged author in their controversial print presentation, this paper takes the stance that when removed from their unauthorised printing, many of the Casket Sonnets can be read as exhibiting distinctly devotional themes which were ignored in their initial reception. Drawing upon Simon Ditchfield and Helen Wilson’s work on the early modern conversion narrative, which states that ‘sexual “deviancy” was tied to ideas of erring or heretical religion’ the paper argues that as texts written by a Catholic Queen yet printed and circulated by her Protestant detractors with the explicit aim of damaging her reputation, they exhibit a forced conversion, from Catholic manuscript texts, to Protestantised printed ones. This alternative reading allows the sonnets to inhabit a new cultural role in Reformation Scotland, as politicised texts by a queen who had both that political power, and textual control, forcefully wrested from her.

Emily Hay, University of Glasgow, Scotland