Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Pushkin's drama is written in blank verse, like the plays of two of his great models, William Shakespeare and Friedrich Schiller. Unfortunately for those of us who aren't fluent in Russian, we are not able to experience the beauty of his works as poetry, which many Russian people consider unequaled in any language. The following quotes are drawn from the translation by Alfred Hayes that appears on Project Guttenberg's website. Hopefully this translation captures the meaning and spirit of the original.
Boris Godunov is a drama that deals largely with the issue of political power and its legitimacy, or rather, the lack of it. But it is also a play about guilt and conscience. Boris has had the young heir Dimitri to the Russian throne murdered. But before the start of his reign ,the courtiers predict that Boris, though the people now extol him and wish him to take power, will be just like the previous monarchs. Prince Shuisky says,
How will it end?
This is not hard to tell. A little more
The multitude will groan and wail, Boris
Pucker a while his forehead, like a toper
Eyeing a glass of wine, and in the end
Will humbly of his graciousness consent
To take the crown, and then
Will rule just as before.
Much of the play concerns the deep religious spirit of the Eastern Orthodox Russians. It is not entirely clear if Boris, in spite of his misdeeds, is genuinely religious or if he just makes a show of religion in order to impress the people (as a number of US presidents, among many other states-people throughout history, have done). Before the Kremlin in the presence of the boyars (Russian nobles) he declares:
Thou, father Patriarch, all ye boyars!
My soul lays bare before you.
Ye have seen with what humility and fear I took
This mighty power upon me!.....
O righteous Father, King of Kings, look down from heaven
Upon the tears of thy true servants.
Meanwhile, in a monastery, the young monk Grigori is planning an elaborate ruse to convince everyone that he is actually Dimitri, the legitimate heir. But he somehow invests his wording with a similar tone of holiness as he communes with his thoughts:
Boris, Boris, before thee all tremble. . . .
Thou wilt not escape the judgment even of this world,
As thou wilt not escape the doom of God.
Boris Godunov is, of course, tortured by guilt. His soliloquies are like those of Macbeth as he contemplates his own criminality:
I have attained the highest power,
Already I have reigned in peace, but joy
Dwells not within my soul....
Gladly would I flee, but nowhere
Can I find refuge--horrible!
Pitiful he whose conscience is unclean.
On his deathbed, Boris again invokes religion, but finally, one senses this is a genuine piety coming from the depths of his heart:
The hour has struck.
The Tsar becomes a monk,
And the dark sepulchre will be my cell.
Pushkin appears to make the point that Boris is greater and better, despite his crimes, than the forces bringing him down. This is the essence of tragedy: that although a man has committed misdeeds, there is nevertheless something heroic about him that transcends his faults.
A central point of the play is Russian nationalism,and the implication that Boris represents this force in opposition to the False Dimitri, who opportunistically goes outside of Russia to Poland in order to become empowered. The Russian people, however, are dissatisfied with Boris and are thus duped into accepting the rule of the Pretender. Their behavior is easily manipulated, and it is an open question as to whether the "mob" are as corruptible as the leaders have been shown to be.