Alexander Pushkin’s dramas represent an interesting point of development in his career as a writer, for they were written during a period of flux after some of his finest lyrics and longer poems and before his later prose works. They contain many of the elements, such as the development of characters and their interaction, that are central to prose writing. They were conceived and written, however, in verse, not prose, and the characters must be coordinated and portrayed within this formal scheme. Pushkin’s dramatic works, and particularly the Little Tragedies, combine successfully the formal strictures of poetry with the in-depth character analysis that proved to be so influential in later Russian literature.
Although not one of Pushkin’s greatest works, Boris Godunov is an interesting and important play. Pushkin conceived of it primarily as an example to later writers, demonstrating greater concern with the literary form itself than with the subject matter. The play was based on a Shakespearean model. Like his illustrious predecessor, Pushkin was casual about observing the three unities of time, place, and action. He wrote his play, like William Shakespeare’s dramas, in blank verse, occasionally introduced prose dialogues, and had frequent scene changes.
Boris Godunov is a chronicle play that centers on the reign of Czar Boris Godunov, prime minister and power behind the throne during the reign of his brother-in-law, Fyodor. Boris was chosen for the throne after the death of Fyodor in an election that his enemies decried as false. He was also assumed to have had Fyodor’s younger brother Dimitry, the only surviving member of the Ryurik Dynasty, murdered in 1591. Although this charge has since been repudiated, it was accepted at the time when Nikolai Karamzin published his great history of Russia, Istoriya gosudarstya rossiyskogo, Pushkin’s source, in 1816-1829. Although the reign of Boris began on a good note, he eventually ran into problems accentuated by the great famine of 1601-1603. Once his popularity had waned, he was easy prey for pretenders to the throne. It is on this note that the play begins.
Boris Godunov opens with a conspiratorial conversation between two boyars, followed by a scene in the Kremlin in which the boyars reaffirm Boris’s right to rule. The action shifts almost immediately to the Chudov Monastery and the monk Grigori Otrepev, the future False Dimitry and Pretender to the throne. Hearing of the murder of the child Dimitry, who would have been his contemporary, Grigori decides on a scheme to escape the deadening routine of the monastery. He will claim that Dimitry has survived after all and is none other than himself. Donning secular attire, he flees from the monastery. He is intercepted at the Lithuanian border but escapes into Lithuania (at that time united with Poland). With the assistance of the Poles and the aid of disgruntled boyars who are indifferent to his true identity (including Pushkin’s forebear, Afanasy Pushkin), he eventually ascends the Russian throne.
In Cracow, Grigori meets and falls in love with the beautiful Marina Mniszek, the only person to whom he reveals his true identity. Marina’s partiality for him is linked to her own political ambition, not to affection. Her scornful rebuff of his attentions prompts him to be proud in turn with her, a move that earns her respect and opens her eyes to the possibility that he will indeed be able to attain his goal. Anxious to subdue a potentially threatening neighbor, the kingdom of Poland-Lithuania lends military support to the claims of the Pretender and invades Russia. Boris assumes that he will not need foreign help to overcome this threat and makes the fatal mistake of rejecting the aid of the Swedish king.
The Pretender harnesses the discontent of local military forces, and Ukraine rises in revolt. With the death of Boris (from a heart attack), the boyars are free to act; Prince V. V. Golitsyn has Boris’s wife and son murdered. The triumphant Pretender enters Moscow, and the play concludes with the boyar Mosal’skij exhorting the populace to hail the Czar Dimitry Ivanovich, a command that is met with silence. Pushkin had in fact intended for the people to respond; this is one instance in which the censor’s meddling produced a more desirable ending.
Because Pushkin believed that Boris was responsible for the murder of Dimitry, the play depicts the rise of the Pretender as retribution for Boris’s crime. One of Pushkin’s great strokes of characterization is to have Boris die with a clear conscience, having accepted the punishment due to him. Nevertheless, his guilt is visited on his own son, who is killed at the end of the play.
Pushkin’s dialogic style is stiffer and his metrical structure less adequate in Boris Godunov than in the four plays collected in English as Little Tragedies. His major characters are less interesting and complex. Boris Godunov attained greater stature as Petrovich Mussorgsky’s opera than it enjoyed as a play. Although not Pushkin’s greatest drama, it prepared the way for the later tragedies.
According to the critic D. S. Mirsky, Pushkin’s Little Tragedies are “dramatic investigations” of character and situation, a designation that Pushkin himself had applied to them. Written in blank verse, they can be considered closet dramas rather than stage plays. Their brevity enabled Pushkin to focus on a single climactic situation illuminating the major characters.
The Covetous Knight
The Covetous Knight is purported to be a scene from a play of the same name by the Englishman Chenstone. Perhaps Pushkin confused his name with that of the writer William Shenstone, author of The Schoolmistress (1742) but not of this play. Like the other Little Tragedies, The Covetous Knight has a fairly simple plot. The poor knight, Albert, is unable to pay for a new helmet and is embarrassed to appear in a shirt of mail when the other knights are wearing satin and velvet. His problems would be alleviated if his avaricious father, the baron, a miserly knight with large quantities of gold, would bestow some on his son. Albert’s servant Ivan has attempted to borrow money from the Jewish moneylender Solomon but has not succeeded. Solomon suddenly appears, reluctant to lend money but with a plan to help Albert obtain a large sum. Acquainted with an apothecary, Solomon confides to Albert that a few tasteless, colorless drops of poison in the baron’s wine will make the son a rich man. Albert is disgusted and chases Solomon away.
As the second scene opens, the baron is in his vault ready to drop yet a few more gold coins into the sixth of his treasure chests. He contemplates the power that his money represents. Not only can he control the arts and “free genius,” but virtue itself would submit to him and “bloody villainy” would obey him. He gloats over the suffering he has caused, the crimes he has forced others to commit. When the moment comes to unlock the chest, he is seized with fear. As he inserts the key into the lock, a strange...
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