How Pushkin Discovered Shakespeare

From the lecture series: Classics of Russian Literature

By Irwin Weil, PhD, 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.

Monument to great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin
Monument to great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. St. Petersburg, Imperial village, a garden of Tsarskoselsky lycee. (Image: By SPb photo maker/Shutterstock)

While Pushkin was living in Mikhailovskoe—the estate of his mother—things were happening in Russia in general. Napoleon’s army has come across Russia and 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 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 returned to Russia they brought back some ideas that the tsarist system saw as subversive and dangerous.

Secret Meetings About a Dangerous Ideology

Portrait of Colonel Pavel Ivanovich Pestel
New, would-be revolutionaries were formed under a society by Pavel Ivanovich Pestel. (Image: By Unknown/Public Domain)

It was not long after 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 at current events, and one of the things he saw was the American Revolution that had taken place roughly two generations before. George Washington was regarded as a great hero in Russian revolutionary societies. He was particularly heroic in the eyes of people like Pestel because he had been offered a kingship and turned it down.

This is a transcript from the video series Classics of Russian Literature. Watch it now, Wondrium.

portrait of George Washington, the American President by Gilbert Stuart (1732-1799)
The greatest hero of the revolutionary societies that were formed at that time in Russia was George Washington. (Image: By Gilbert Stuart/Public Domain)

These societies desired to emulate this attitude in Russia. There were many meetings—some of them semisecret because this ideology was seen as dangerous. The tsar was not at all happy about this activity. 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: The school that Tsar Alexander had set up to produce good and educated bureaucrats turned out to produce 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 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, despite all his efforts to get close to them, they kept him at arm’s length.

The Decembrists Rise Up

Portrait of Tsar Alexander I
The abdication of Alexander I triggered the Decembrist Revolt. (Image By George Dawe/Public Domain)

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, the revolutionaries decided they would move. In truth, the decision was made in a very naïve way: They had no widespread support throughout Russia, they had only their small group, and the connections with the Russian people were tenuous and probably nonexistent.

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

The revolutionary groups gathered 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 incensed the troops 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.

Painting of Decembrists at Peter's Square by Karl Kolman
The Decembrist revolt in 1825 in front of the large equestrian statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Image: By Karl Kolman (1786-1846)/Public Domain)

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 reveals some sense of Pushkin’s psychology and mentality.

Learn more about how Russian literature has its origins around the ancient city of Kiev

Pushkin Meets the New Tsar

portrait of Nicholas I, the Russian Emperor
Nikolai I, the Russian Emperor (Image: By Franz Krüger – Hermitage Museum/Public Domain)

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. A long distance, 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 arrived dusty and dirty, and wasn’t 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. Some are based on gossip while some are based on Pushkin’s comments. We do know that the tsar was said to be a magnificent actor. He knew how to play a role. He is 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 responded—a famous line 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 looked 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, but he also realized how dangerous Pushkin could be.

In the end, seven of the revolutionaries were hanged. This left a deep impression in Pushkin’s mind. The memory of the Decembrists was something that he carried with him for the rest of his days. 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, 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 traveled through the decades with enormous force.

Learn more about Pushkin’s upbringing and the influences that molded his character and literary style

Pushkin Discovers Western Literature’s Greatest Poet

portrait of William Shakespeare, the English playwright and poet
William Shakespeare, the English playwright and poet. (Image: By John Taylor/Public Domain)

After he met with the tsar, Pushkin went back to his estate. While there, he made the experience, in reading, with the greatest poet in English literature—he encountered 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, 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.

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 based on 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 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 triggered something in his imagination.

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. This has been since proven false. 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.

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Pushkin’s Great Tragedy

Pushkin’s play is fascinating and came at a ticklish time for Nikolai I. After the uprising of the Decembrists, it wasn’t easy for the tsar 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 does want the crown, but he can’t seem 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.”

Boris Godunov and his son in a painting of the play Boris Godunov written bu Pushkin.
Boris Godunov and his son in a painting by N.Nekrasov, featuring a scene from the play.
(Image: By N.Nekrasov/Public Domain)

Eventually, Boris takes the crown, and the audience sees a tremendously noisy coronation scene. The crowd is enormously happy, and in the end, they go to an enormous 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 we are taken to a quiet cell, in total contrast, where the monk Pimen sits quietly, writing the long chronicle that would tell the truth about what happened. Grigorii, a monk who later will take on the name of the youngster who supposedly was murdered—he renames 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 unhappy 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 arrives at the head of an army that will invade Russia.

The Tsar’s Heavy Crown

Meanwhile, Boris is 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 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 fall asleep. 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.

Learn more about how Pushkin was fatally wounded in a duel provoked by a man flirting with his wife

Boris Godunov’s Falstaff

There is another element to this play that seems, at least, very reminiscent of Shakespeare, although in a very different way. There is an 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 repeating, “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.” It’s improper to say this in front of the tsar, so 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 powerful statement in the play.

It appears that the iurodivyi in this play is 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 society around him, does something 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 a legitimate and 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 to be 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.”

We 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.

Learn more about how after reading Shakespeare in French translation, Pushkin wrote the historical tragedy Boris Godunov

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. Hypocrisy is present 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 powerful artistic presence.

Common Questions About Alexsandr Pushkin

Q: Why is Alexsandr Pushkin so famous?

Alexsandr Pushkin was a Russian author with a very unique style of writing as well as an extremely broad range of writing types.

Q: Who is considered the father of Russian literature?

Alexsandr Pushkin is often referred to as the Shakespeare of Russian literature for his prolific and iconic output.

Q: Was Alexsandr Pushkin from Africa?

Alexsandr Pushkin was of African descent. His great grandfather, General Abraham Petrovitch Gannibal, was African.

Q: How did Alexsandr Pushkin get killed?

Alexsandr Pushkin entered a duel with a man who wounded him in the stomach. He later died of peritonitis due to the wound.

This article was updated on December 28, 2020

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