Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, 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...

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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.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 232

*Moscow

*Moscow. Russia’s capital city in the period during which this play is set. Pushkin wrote the play during the period when he was exiled from the royal court at St. Petersburg, which Czar Peter the Great had made Russia’s capital in 1712. (In 1918 the Bolsheviks would return the government to Moscow.)

*Kremlin

*Kremlin. Enclosed fortress at the heart of Moscow and the seat of the historical czar Boris Godunov’s government. The word kremlin is an anglicization of Russian’s kreml’ for “fortress.” Many old Russian cities were centered upon similar fortresses, but the Kremlin of Moscow became the seat of the Russian government. Because of great architectural changes in the Kremlin since 1598, it is almost impossible to correlate the palace of Godunov’s time with any modern Kremlin palace. Pushkin’s minimalist stage directions depend upon the director’s and players’ familiarity with Russian history to recreate the scene on stage.

*Red Square

*Red Square. Open area in front of the Kremlin. In Russian, the same word means both “red” and “beautiful”; what was originally understood as the “beautiful square” acquired its modern name. In Pushkin’s play, the square is the site of several key interactions among the leaders and the common people.

*Kraków

*Kraków. Polish city that is the location of the house of Wisniowiecki, supporter of the False Dmitri, pretender to the Russian throne.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 223

Bayley, John. Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1971. One of the best English-language studies of Pushkin. A long chapter on drama treats Boris Godunov in relation to Shakespeare, the German poet Friedrich Schiller, and others.

Briggs, A. D. P. Alexander Pushkin. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983. In the chapter on drama, Briggs argues that Pushkin’s success as a dramatist was limited, but that his plays are more interesting than is sometimes allowed. Discusses such aspects of Boris Godunov as the work’s historical background, Shakespearean influence, structure, characters, language, and poetry.

Magarshack, David. Pushkin. New York: Grove Press, 1969. This biography of Pushkin places Boris Godunov in the context of the poet’s life and literary career. A good starting place for the general reader.

Sandler, Stephanie. Distant Pleasures: Alexander Pushkin and the Writing of Exile. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1989. Scholarly and subtle, this book is better suited to the serious student of Pushkin than to the general reader. Boris Godunov is discussed at considerable length.

Vickery, Walter N. Alexander Pushkin Revisited. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1992. A brief but clear account of the historical circumstances leading to Boris Godunov’s rule is useful to those not familiar with the background for Pushkin’s play. Many of the established topics in the study of Boris Godunov are included.

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