How Pushkin Discovered Shakespeare

Transcript from a lecture series by Professor Irwin Weil, Northwestern University

In 1825, a group of aristocrats attempted an uprising on a St. Petersburg square. Naïvely, given that they had no widespread support, they thought they could overthrow the tsarist regime and replace it with a republic. Among these would-be revolutionaries were many friends of Alexsandr Pushkin.

The Decembrist Uprising in St. Petersburg, Russia—1825
image of Alexandr Pushkin, the Russian writer
Alexandr Pushkin, the Russian writer

While Pushkin was living in Mikhailovskoe—the estate of his mother—things were happening in Russia in general. Napoleon’s army has come all the way across Russia and all the way back, and the Russian army had gone into France. That had been followed by the Russian officers going to Paris. They understood exactly what was going on in Paris and they were amazed by the political changes they saw happening. This was, after all, after the French Revolution. There were all kinds of entirely new ideas going on about democracy, freedom, equality, and fraternity: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” They were tremendously excited and when they came back to Russia they brought back some ideas that the tsarist system saw as very subversive and dangerous.

Secret Meetings about a Dangerous Ideology

portrait of George Washington, the American President
George Washington was the most popular revolutionary in Russia in 1825

It was not long after that that new, would-be revolutionaries were formed under a society by a man named Pestel. Pestel gave a great deal of thought to what was going on in Russia. He looked around the world to see what was happening, and one of the things he saw was the American Revolution that had taken place roughly two generations before. You might be interested to know that the greatest hero of the revolutionary societies that were formed at that time in Russia was George Washington. Washington was a particularly great hero in the eyes of people like Pestel because he had been offered a kingship and he turned it down.

That was what these societies wanted to do in Russia. There were many meetings—some of them semisecret because this kind of ideology was very dangerous. The tsar was not at all happy about this sort of thing. Some of the people who got involved in this society were friends of Pushkin, whom he had once known at the Lycée. Of course, there is a rather delicious irony here, that the school that Tsar Alexander had set up to produce good and educated bureaucrats turned out to produce quite a few revolutionaries whose main goal in life was to overthrow the very system in which they were supposed to be educated to serve as educated bureaucrats.

Pushkin was much intrigued by what was going on in these secret meetings and he tried to get in, but they didn’t trust him. They thought he might talk and give them away. The other possibility is they wanted to protect him from possible danger; they realized the worth of his genius. Whatever the reason, in spite of all his efforts to get close to them, they kept him at arm’s length.

The Decembrists Rise Up

The abdication of Alexander I triggered the Decembrist Revolt.

Then the great event happened in December of 1825, the so-called “Decembrist Uprising” in St. Petersburg. Tsar Alexander I had abdicated and his brother, who eventually became Nikolai I, was about to take over the country. In that interregnum, they decided they would move. To tell you the truth, the decision was taken in a very naïve way. They had no widespread support throughout Russia. They really had only their own small group; the connections with the Russian people were tenuous and probably nonexistent.

lithograph of the Decembrist Revolt
The Decembrist revolt in 1825 in front of the large equestrian statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Rather coolly and coldheartedly, they took out pistols and shot Miloradovich dead on the spot.

The revolutionary groups got together in the square in front of the famous equestrian statue in Petersburg and declared that they wanted to overthrow the tsar and have a republic. Such language wasn’t taken very seriously. After all, this was a small group of aristocrats. The police chief, Miloradovich, who was in many ways a friend, says, “Come on boys, disperse, go home. Why are you making trouble for yourselves and for us? What’s the big deal here? Go home.” Rather coolly and coldheartedly, they took out pistols and shot Miloradovich dead on the spot. This obviously incensed the troops who had them surrounded and the artillery fire opened up, which dispersed them very, very quickly. The Decembrists simply tried to flee to their houses; of course, they were caught and arrested and eventually they were sent to the famous salt mines of Siberia.

When Pushkin got the news a few days later, he understood that something had happened in Petersburg and that some of his friends were involved. He decided that he would go posthaste to Petersburg. But while he was leaving the estate, a black cat crossed his path, and he decided it was bad luck and he went back. This gives you some idea of Pushkin’s psychology and mentality.

Pushkin Meets the New Tsar

portrait of Nicholas I, the Russian Emperor
Nikolai I, the Russian Emperor

When Nikolai I’s officers and police investigated what happened under the Decembrists, naturally, the name of Pushkin came up. Pushkin was well known for his poetry, was a rather famous man by that time, and they realized he had real connections with these people. A courier was sent from Moscow to Pushkin’s estate. That is quite a long distance, and in those days it might have been a week’s carriage ride. The courier came to Pushkin and said, “The new tsar, Nikolai I, demands your immediate presence in Moscow. You must immediately join me in this carriage, dressed in what you are. We’ll go as fast as we can into the city of Moscow.”

Pushkin and Nikolai I had an intense conversation in the wake of the Decembrist Uprising.

Pushkin arrived dusty and dirty and wasn’t even allowed to change clothes. He was put immediately in the presence of the tsar. We don’t know exactly what happened, but there have been many statements about what happened, partly, no doubt, based on gossip, partly, no doubt, based on what Pushkin said. We do know that the tsar was said to be a magnificent actor. He knew how to play a role. He was supposed to have asked him, “Tell me, Pushkin, man to man, if you had been in Petersburg in the time of the uprising, which side of the barricade would you have been on?” Pushkin replied, “I would have been on the side of my friends against the government.”

Later on—and this we do know—Nikolai said, “I have just talked with the most intelligent man in Russia.”

The tsar said, “That’s what I like, a brave, strong man who tells me the truth. Tell me, do you think you could possibly change your thinking?” Pushkin said, “Well, yes, if I think it over, perhaps I could move in a different direction.” Then they began to talk about his poetry and his plans and so on. Eventually, the tsar said—and this has become very famous in Russia—“I’ll tell you what, Pushkin, you will be my good subject and I will be your personal censor.” Can you imagine what it meant to have a narrow-minded tsar like Nikolai as your personal censor, who would look at everything you wrote and decide whether it could be published?

Later on—and this we do know—Nikolai said, “I have just talked with the most intelligent man in Russia.” Nikolai recognized intelligence and sensitivity when it was in front of him. He recognized the enormous talent of Pushkin. He also realized how dangerous Pushkin could be.

In the end, seven of the revolutionaries were hanged. Obviously, this left a very deep impression in Pushkin’s mind. The memory of the Decembrists was something that he carried with him for the rest of his days. In fact, the memory of the Decembrists in Russian history became an extremely important focal point for revolutionary times that were to come. It was the first time, at least in modern times—that is, in the 19th century—that there was an attempt to make a revolution. As naïve and as easily put down as it was, these ideas went through the decades with enormous force.

Pushkin Discovers Western Literature’s Greatest Poet

After meeting with the Tsar, Pushkin returned to his estate where he would discover the works of Shakespeare.

After his meeting with the tsar, Pushkin went back to his estate. While there, he made the acquaintance, in reading, with the greatest poet in English literature. He encountered Shakespeare. He read Shakespeare in French translation.

He read The Rape of Lucrece and asked himself the question: What would have happened if the lady who had committed suicide because of the rape, which was forced upon her by Tarquin, suppose, instead of killing herself, she would have slapped his face? Pushkin answered, “If she had done that, the whole history of the world would have been changed.” In other words, the whole history of Rome depended on what a lady did at a time when a man tried to rape her.

portrait of William Shakespeare, the English playwright and poet
William Shakespeare, the English playwright and poet

He then read Measure for Measure, one of the more puzzling plays of Shakespeare, somewhat more of a tragedy than a comedy. Pushkin wrote a satirical poem on the basis of The Rape of Lucrece and then attempted a translation of Measure for Measure. Pushkin’s play turns out to be a little over half the length of Shakespeare’s play. That was the economy and simplicity of Pushkin’s writing, which contrasted with the verbosity and the accumulation of images in Shakespeare.

Then Pushkin came to the Shakespeare’s Henry cycle, the plays concerning the man Bolingbroke, who later on became Henry IV by carrying out the murder of Richard II. This really triggered something in his imagination.

Portrait of Boris Godunov, the Russian Regent
Boris Godunov, the Russian Regent

He had been reading the books of the famous historian Karamzin, which talk about Boris Godunov, who supposedly had been responsible for the death of the son of Ivan the Terrible, Ivan IV. We know now, by the way, this wasn’t true. It was a rumor spread by the enemies of Boris. But in those days it was believed and Pushkin decided that he would take this guilt-ridden monarch, this Boris Godunov, who had on his conscience the murder of the young boy, and he, Pushkin, would write a play that in some ways paralleled the Henry cycle. The result was the tragedy, Boris Godunov.

Pushkin’s Great Tragedy

The play by Pushkin is an extremely interesting play and came at a very ticklish time for Nikolai I. After the uprising of the Decembrists, it wasn’t very easy for him to accept a play about sons of kings being murdered. The play opens up with a reluctant Boris, whom the crowd is trying to convince to take on the crown. Of course, there is a good deal of play acting here. Boris really does want the crown, but he can’t seem to be too eager. So he acts as if they have to convince him to take the crown, and there is a great scene where they cry out, “Please, Boris, take pity on your people; take the crown.”

Illustration from a performance of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov

Eventually Boris takes the crown, and you get a tremendously noisy coronation scene. The crowd is enormously happy, and in the end they go to a tremendous banquet. Boris says, “Everyone is welcome to come to the banquet, from the merest blind beggar to the highest aristocrat. Come and make yourself at home and have yourself a good banquet,” then bursts out the most famous scene from Boris Godunov.

After all the noise of the banquet, suddenly you are taken to a very quiet cell, in total contrast, where the monk Pimen is quietly in his cell, writing away the long chronicle that would tell the truth about what happened. Grigorii, a monk who later on is going to take on the name of the youngster who supposedly was murdered—he is going to call himself Dimitri—hears about the murder of the young son of Ivan the Terrible and realizes that the son was the same age as he is. He is not very happy in the monastery. He gets the brilliant idea that if he gets out of this monastery and out of Russia, he could claim to be the resurrected son of Ivan the Terrible, a false Dimitri. He not only manages to do that but gets to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where he gets at the head of an army that will invade Russia

The Tsar’s Heavy Crown

Meanwhile, Boris is terribly tortured by the memory of this young boy he has killed. He tries to go to sleep, but he can’t. No matter what happens, he can’t get peace. This reminds us of a very famous scene in Shakespeare, where Henry IV is desperately, but hopelessly, trying to go to sleep. He too, has a murder on his conscience—the murder of Richard II. He has music, a soft bed, everything that a king has, but he can’t go to sleep. All of a sudden he thinks about a boy caught up in the mast of a ship, the ship swaying; he is trying desperately to stay awake—meanwhile, he is being shaken back and forth, which lulls him to sleep—if he falls asleep, he’ll fall into the sea.

“How is it,” says the king, “that the lowest of my subjects—here he is, up on the top of the mast—doesn’t even have to fight going to sleep and I, a king, with all the appurtenances of a king, can’t get to sleep?” He says these very famous lines:

Then happy low lie down,
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

We all know that phrase. Pushkin picks up that phrase exactly in Russian. Boris looks at the wall and suddenly sees the image of the boy he has killed. He says, “I mustn’t have fear.”

Togda ne budet strakha,
[Blow on the vision,] then there will be no fear,

Akh, tiazhela ty, shapka Monomakha.
Oh how heavy you are, the cap of Monomakh.

Shapka Monomakha, the hat of Monomakh, was the famous hat of the early Kievan days that each tsar wore at the coronation. The happy low lie down, and the crown, shapka Monomakha—the borrowing is instantly apparent. Pushkin took many phrases from Shakespeare and transformed them into Russian in a very powerful way.

Boris Godunov’s Falstaff

There is another element to this play that seems to me, at least, very reminiscent of Shakespeare, although in a very different way. There is a iurodivyi—a fool in Christ—who makes a commentary on what is happening in Russia. It’s the beginning of the Time of Troubles, when the false Dimitri is at the head of a Polish army. In one scene, when Boris is coming out of his palace, some boys are teasing the iurodivyi. The iurodivyi is very proud that he has a kopek, a new small coin. The boy asks, “Hey, iurodivyi, show us your kopek.” They immediately grab it and toss it among themselves and tease him. He tries to get it back, but as soon as he goes to one, he tosses it to the other.

The police immediately go to grab him, and the tsar says, “No, no. Don’t touch him. He’s a holy man. I don’t need another crime on my conscience.”

The tsar comes out and sees them. He knows that the iurodivyi is a holy man. The iurodivyi is going, “Oh, oh, oh.” He says, “What’s the matter? Why are you crying, holy man?” The iurodivyi answers, “The boys have stolen my kopek. Cut off their heads like you cut off the head of tsarevich.” Now, you’re not supposed to say this in front of the tsar. The police immediately go to grab him, and the tsar says, “No, no. Don’t touch him. He’s a holy man. I don’t need another crime on my conscience.” He asks the iurodivyi, “Iurodivyi, please pray for me; pray for my Russia.” The iurodivyi says, “No, we cannot pray to the Madonna for the soul of the sinner. No, Boris, I can’t pray for your soul.” This is a very powerful statement in the play.

It seems to me the iurodivyi in this play is very parallel to the most intelligent character that Shakespeare ever created, the character of Falstaff, the fat knight in Henry IV, Part I and Part II, who is always reducing with humor what everyone else has to say. Falstaff, in rejecting the whole code of honor in a society around him, is doing something very parallel to what the iurodivyi is doing when he defies Boris to his face.

A Realm of Deep Hypocrisy

Shakespeare’s Richard II illustrates a big difference between Boris Godunov and the character of Henry IV, who was ordered to murder Richard II, a legitimate king. Richard may not have been a very good king, but he was legitimate and a very poetic character. Henry has ordered Exton to murder the man and promised him a reward if he does. Exton brings in the corpse of Richard II and says, “Here is the man you wanted murdered. Where is my reward?” Henry replies, “Your reward is you are going to leave England and never come back.” “They love not poison that do poison need, nor do I thee; though I did wish him dead, I hate the murderer, love him murdered.” You get a sense of the deep hypocrisy of a man like Henry and perhaps a deep hypocrisy of anyone who has to have a political office of the tsar with the power of the head of state. There is something cold and repulsive about this and we see exactly the opposite in Boris, who sees the young man on the wall and says, “Chur, ditia,” “Get away, get away from me, boy.” Even all the people are watching him all around.

Furthermore, there is another point of truth in this play when the young man who had been a monk escapes, adopts the name of Dimitri, the murdered tsarevich, and goes to the Poles. You see hypocrisy in all directions; you see how this works out not only with Henry but with Boris and with the people around Boris. Of course, the conjunction of these two plays makes a very, very powerful artistic presence.

From the lecture series Classics of Russian Literature
Taught by Professor Irwin Weil, Northwestern University