A Scene: Queen Christina and Descartes, on Love

Michel Marc Bouchard’s latest play, Christina, The Girl King (currently running at the 2014 Stratford Festival), tells the story of Queen Christina of Sweden, who wreaked havoc throughout northern Europe in the middle of the seventeenth century. An enigmatic monarch, a flamboyant and unpredictable intellectual, a woman eager for knowledge, and a feminist before her time, Christina reigned over an empire she hoped to make the most sophisticated in all of Europe.

In 1649, Christina summoned René Descartes to her court in Uppsala to share with her the radical new ideas emerging from science and philosophy at the time – ideas that contradicted long-held, faith-based views about the world. Descartes’s ideas about free will and reason appealed to Christina, who was struggling to reconcile tensions between her rational, thinking self and emotions she dared not name – including her love for a woman.

In the below scene, taken from the first act of the play, Queen Christina has a frank discussion with Descartes during their first meeting. This discussion catalyzes the dilemma Christina is to face, later in the play.

CHRISTINA. I’ll be brief. I brought you to Sweden for two reasons. The first: I want you to explain what love is.

DESCARTES. And the second?

CHRISTINA. How to get rid of it! (Beat.) Not long ago, I think I experienced this feeling for the first time. I still don’t understand what draws us to one person rather than another, even before we know that person’s worth. Where does this insidious attraction originate? In the body or in the mind?

DESCARTES. Love is an emotion that incites the soul to connect with objects that appear suitable.


DESCARTES. There are two distinct kinds of love. One is called compassionate love, a love that incites us to wish the best for what we love.

CHRISTINA. And the other?

DESCARTES. Concupiscent love.


DESCARTES. It incites the soul to desire what we love.

CHRISTINA. And how can we distinguish between the two?

DESCARTES. Every passion transforms us physically, and each has its own symptoms. We can recognize them by changes in pulse and in breathing or by variations in the colour of our skin.

CHRISTINA. If I tremble like a leaf, if I become red as a Dane, does that betray my feelings?

DESCARTES. To anyone who can read the signs, yes.

CHRISTINA. What about the expressions on my face?

DESCARTES. The face is deceitful. It is hard to distinguish its motives, since we can wilfully change its expressions. To hide one passion, we can imagine another, its exact opposite.

CHRISTINA. Tell me more about the love you call concupiscent.

DESCARTES. Under its spell, we feel a pleasant warmth in the chest. Our complexion becomes flushed because of the rush of blood. Our heartbeats are longer and louder than usual, and our stomach can more readily digest meat. As a result, this passion is considered beneficial for our health.

CHRISTINA. How can we be sure not to confuse the two kinds of love?

DESCARTES. (observing Christina closely) Short, rapid breath. Decidedly flushed skin. I believe, madame, that you know how to distinguish the two.

CHRISTINA. Recently, a passion has been disturbing me and diverting me from my
destiny. I thought that given my rank, only God had power over me. And here I am,
under the yoke of someone my inferior. This disturbance is distracting me from
matters of state. I understand Pascal’s hydrostatic experiments and Kepler’s theory
on the elliptical trajectory of the planets, but I can’t explain this new agitation. For a
moment of stolen pleasure, my mind wanders and I forget the important points of the
decree at hand. I become as foolish as a page who dreams of nothing but grazing an
elbow or a knee. The sensation that my chest is on fire is bothersome. And I’m afraid
I must contradict you. I have no appetite for a leg of mutton or a stew. Tell me how I can escape this tyranny.

DESCARTES. My philosophy does not deny the usefulness of passions. On the
contrary, I believe that happiness and life’s finest pleasures can reside in them.

CHRISTINA. Your knowledge of emotions is said to be unsurpassed, and you have no solution?

DESCARTES. Instead of submitting to them, we have to understand them and tame them. I believe that we are free to determine our lives. To act and think on our own. To distinguish good from evil, and all of this, in a dialogue with God.

CHRISTINA. Your views are disturbing, Monsieur Descartes.