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 suspect that he may have engineered his own rise to power by evil means.
Karamazin also claims that the false Dmitri was an ambitious monk with determination and ability but no legitimate claim to power. This put Pushkin in a difficult spot, for in order to remain faithful to his source, he could not develop a dramatic opposition of good and evil in his characters. A Boris Godunov who is a vicarious assassin and a Dmitri who is a crass impostor did not provide effective theater. Pushkin could, of course, have altered the historical premise, but that would have conflicted with his motive in writing the play, which was to record a critical epoch in Russia’s past. Pushkin resolved his dilemma by finding the point in the story where history gives way to tragedy. He made his title character, Boris Godunov, a man who is capable and even in many ways honorable but in whose internal struggle between conscience and ambition, ambition has been the victor. Dmitri, on the other hand, is shown to possess few admirable traits so that in the conflict between the two ambitious men, Boris Godunov is the likeliest figure to be seen as a tragically flawed hero.
Another problem Pushkin had to surmount is the unexciting nature of Godunov’s death. He resolved this difficulty by concluding the play with the death of Boris Godunov’s children at the hands of Dmitri’s agents. Having shown that Godunov is responsible for the death of the true Dmitri, Pushkin implied a rough justice in showing Godunov’s children being destroyed by the agency of the false Dmitri.
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theater, history is more readily married to tragedy than to comedy. The dramatist must try to find in history patterns of human conduct that are somehow heroic, even if flawed. Shakespeare, Pushkin’s model, often chose historical figures sufficiently remote in time or clouded in circumstance so that he could revise the past to fit a tragic mold. Plays treating more recent history could be shaped to gratify contemporary political sentiments. Boris Godunov, in many ways an excellent subject for dramatic treatment, posed a certain problem for Pushkin because it was Godunov’s failure, as well as the failures of various pretenders (for eventually more than one man claimed to be Dmitri), that led to the emergence of the Romanov dynasty, which held power in Pushkin’s lifetime. Insofar as the poet needed to write a play that would secure the approval of rulers in his own era, there was an advantage to showing both Boris Godunov and the pretender to possess great flaws.
The title character nevertheless exhibits enough of the qualities of a tragic hero to allow the audience’s attention to center on Boris Godunov. The play is not exclusively a tragedy of ambition, but it is far more than a simple chronicle of history. Moreover, it proves a suitable record of a difficult moment in Russia’s past.