Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358
Boris Godunov is a play by Russian playwright and novelist Alexander Pushkin. The play was written as a closet drama, which is a play script that is meant to be read in a small group and not meant to be performed on stage. The titular character was an actual historical figure, Boris Fyodorovich Godunov, who was a tsar during the 1500s. The end of his reign was followed by a period of political unrest in Russia called the Time of Troubles.
The play was Pushkin's attempt to create a Shakespearean drama in the form of a closet play and within the context of Russian history. Pushkin would later state in letters to his literary colleagues that he believed the Russian dynasties and tsardoms were just as intriguing and bloody as the political history of other countries. Pushkin also revealed that Karamzin—a Russian poet and historian—was also an influence on the writing of Boris Godunov. Like the playwrights and poets of the past who fictionalized historical dramas, Pushkin wanted to create a sweeping Russian epic. It also allowed Pushkin to criticize certain aspects of Russian politics and history.
The titular character was similar to Macbeth, the famous Scottish nobleman in Shakespeare's play who murders Duncan in order to claim the throne. Like Macbeth, the historical Boris is suspected to have murdered Dmitriy, the son of Ivan IV. It was not only Dmitriy's mother who accused Boris of killing Dmitriy, but Karamzin and other Russian historians believed that Boris was guilty. The narrative of the play suggests that Pushkin, too, believed that Boris had murdered Dmitriy and covered up the crime with an unlikely explanation of it being an accident due to seizure.
In a sense, the play is not only a character study of Boris but also of the Machiavellian nature of tsardom Russia. The play inadvertently predicts the political chaos of contemporary Russia in which many historical figures would end up behaving and ruling similarly to Boris (e.g. Stalin, Lenin, Putin, etc.). By inserting various historical facts, Pushkin reveals that the Shakespearean drama is not just fiction, but is the realistic condition of the world.