Alexander Pushkin began to work in earnest on Boris Godunov in November, 1824, and finished the play one year later. He was at the time turning away from Lord Byron as a literary model and toward William Shakespeare. The complexity and variety he found in Shakespeare’s characters had a strong appeal for him, as did the English playwright’s willingness to treat both history and tragedy with more freedom than had been allowed by the formal constraints of the French neoclassicism that had until then been the dominant influence on the Russian theater.
Boris Godunov consists of twenty-three loosely connected scenes. Of the dramatic unities (time, place, and action), Pushkin observes only the unity of action, and he casts the poetry in iambic pentameter, which is closer to natural speech than the hexameters of neoclassic drama, and intermixes poetry with prose. A large number of speaking characters are further augmented by crowd scenes. Though the play is a historical tragedy, Pushkin includes snatches of comedy. In short, Pushkin exhibits in Boris Godunov the romantic sensibility of his day in creating a poetic drama that places the arresting confusions of history above the theoretic requirements of art. Russian history in the early seventeenth century was somewhat confused, but Pushkin chose to set up several definite determinants. He took as the source for his play Nikolay Karamzin’s History of the Russian State (1816-1829), which maintains that Boris Godunov was culpable in the death in 1591 of Dmitri, the half brother of the ruling czar, Feodor. There is in fact no clear evidence for this. Boris Godunov was first called to be czar after Feodor died in 1598, and initially he seems to have been a popular ruler. When the situation changed, however, people began to remember that Godunov had not been part of any ruling dynasty and that he had achieved power because, as Feodor’s brother-in-law, he was strategically placed at a moment when Russia needed a ruler. This led many to...
(The entire section is 828 words.)