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Pushkin’s Shakespearean Lover

In England and Russia, Shakespeare and Pushkin are the two great writers, the national writers. There has never been any doubt about that; nor has any change in literary fashion or in cultural attitudes done anything to alter what has always been taken for granted. In one sense this is the equivalent in literature of the tradition of kingship or of tsardom in the national politics: the icon of the country’s special version of sovereignty. It may even be the case that where no such unifying tradition existed, as it did not exist in Germany and Italy, the national writer assumes an even greater cultural and spiritual importance, as do Goethe in Germany and Dante in Italy. And it may well be of significance also that in democratic America the requirement of such an absolute cultural figurehead has never been felt or recognized. America has its own great writers, whose status remains, as it were, permanently unchallenged, but they live together in the national pantheon on honorably equal terms.

Why this should be so could well be an interesting cultural question on which the personal qualities visible in Pushkin and Shakespeare, seen as human beings rather than as great poets, could possibly have some bearing. Both of them contradict any conventional image of kingship and authority. Unlike Dante or Goethe they have the status of ordinary people. Their works do not draw attention to themselves. They are democrats before their time. More important, they have the status of cultural universality, whereas Goethe could never be anything other than the great German writer, as is Dante the great Italian. In Goethe’s own lifetime German writers were speaking of unser Shakespeare—our Shakespeare—by which term they were not claiming Germanhood for Shakespeare, but recognizing that his influence was beginning to transcend all national boundaries. Shakespeare had become a universal human possession.

In his famous speech on the fiftieth anniversary of Pushkin’s birth, Dostoevsky claimed much the same sort of thing, alleging that Pushkin’s genius both understood other peoples and stood for everybody all over the world, not just Russia and for Russians. Equally famously, the poet Alexander Blok detached Pushkin outright from the repressive tradition of Russian history and from what Blok called its “somber roll call” of gloomy despots and executioners. Among these Pushkin was “the one bright name.”

Universality then: and by implication a universality joining the pair—Pushkin and Shakespeare—by reason of the inherently dramatic nature of their work. A poet-dramatist does not live in himself, as Byron claimed, rather unconvincingly in his own case, but becomes, in Byron’s words, a “portion of that around him.” He is timeless; he belongs to new worlds and old, becoming or revealing all places and all people.

It was Coleridge who made the most illuminating distinction between types of literary genius. One draws the world into itself: the other is a Proteus who himself assumes every shape that the outside world can offer. Both Shakespeare and Pushkin clearly belonged to this latter kind. They did not stand in the center of their world, dominating and controlling it. They moved out into the ordinary world and revealed its true extraordinariness without attempting to control it or to make it into a world of their own. Both, as if involuntarily, were absorbed not only by human nature but by what is most contrary, unexpected, and unlooked for in human nature, and it is this subtle but decisive point of resemblance on which I wish to concentrate.

Dramatists, the natural Proteans of Coleridge’s distinction, are, as Coleridge himself knew very well, rarely found in their true form in an age of Romanticism. Romantic poets and writers are too much concerned with themselves, and with their own spiritual or ideological identity, living in a world of their own. Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge himself, all wrote plays in emulation of Schiller’s and Goethe’s Shakespearean pieces, or aspired to write them. If foreigners could do it, surely they, the direct heirs of children of the Bard, could do it even better. Keats in a letter held that the true crown of his poetic achievement would be to produce, if he could, “a few fine plays.” But alas, the plays that these great English poets produced have little or nothing in common with Shakespeare. Their language as dramatists can live only in the shadow of his own. They imitate him, as if helplessly. There is nothing extraordinary about their plays or about the characters in them, as there is about Hamlet and Macbeth and Othello. The Romantic poets are entirely lacking in the dramatist’s art of surprising his audience by the penetration, and still more the unexpectedness, of his observation of men and women.

To this general truth there is, two decades before Pushkin’s time, a single and interesting exception. In at least one respect the stories and plays of the German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist have an unmistakable Shakespearean touch, the rare sign of that great dramatist’s authenticity. Kleist was fascinated by the sheer contradictoriness of the human personality and its psychology. With Germanic thoroughness and persistence he explores this one point, this authentically Shakespearean feature, again and again. The inconsequential, the perverse—these features in the hero or heroine are what he makes drama from in his story “The Marquise von O.” The scrupulously chivalrous Russian officer who seemed to have behaved so admirably to the marquise is found nonetheless to have raped her when she was unconscious. The Prince von Homburg, fearless in battle, breaks down in abasement and terror when a court-martial decrees his execution for disobeying orders. Kleist’s interest in these matters has a streak of the pathological about it, but his instinct for drama is nonetheless founded in the kind of understanding that was second nature to the genius of Shakespeare, and with him seems almost unconscious. Shakespeare understands the incongruities of human behavior effortlessly—on the wing as it were—while Kleist writes in the spirit of an almost pedantic inquiry, as one who wishes to establish a principle.

Pushkin never read Kleist, but he most certainly absorbed Shakespeare, even though he could only accomplish this through the medium of a French translation by Letourneur. He seems to have grasped intuitively the simplicity and naturalness with which Shakespeare understood human behavior, never giving the impression of having a theory about it. When Pushkin embarked on his verse novel Evgeny Onegin, he had no idea how it would end. The conclusion surprised him, and yet he knew he had the right one. “My Tatiana has gone and got married!” he exclaimed in a letter to a friend. “I should never have thought it of her.” His characters reveal themselves by doing what their author does not know they will do, and it is thus that they become characters.

In his admirably forthright book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, the critic Harold Bloom put forward the claim that it was Shakespeare who actually invented what we now mean by “character.” Character means what our friends or enemies might be like if they were much more interesting and memorable than they are. Shakespeare’s Falstaff is all of us, but he is all of us on a much grander scale. According to Bloom, he is Shakespeare’s primary character, the great archetype who contains every kind of contradiction within himself. No wonder both Kleist and Dostoevsky, and more indirectly Pushkin himself, borrowed so heavily from him.

But Bloom, I am sure, would be the first to admit that his theory is only an approximation, for Shakespeare had precedents. Plutarch on his contrasting Greek and Roman couples, Suetonius on the Roman emperors—these show great interest in the motives and varieties of human behavior, to say nothing of so rich a source of speculation as the Medea of Euripides, or Chaucer’s gallery of pilgrims, each peculiar in his own mode of being.

Bloom is right nonetheless to suggest that Shakespeare is the first writer to display the vagaries, even the sheer pointlessness, of human beings in dramatic action. Other little matters are always cropping up. Yes, a battle must be won, a father must be avenged, the king who stands in the way of our ambition got rid of, but in an ordinary life, and for a thinking human being, there are so many other distractions and diversions to become concerned with.

Character turns out to consist in the usual human inability, as much in the world of Virginia Woolf as in that of Shakespeare, to concentrate on one thing at a time. One’s wife or husband, say, is sleeping badly, he, or she, is showing symptoms of infidelity, and perhaps there is a drinking problem as well. At a moment of doubt and horror for Hamlet the group of strolling players arrives at the castle, and what a relief it is for him to see them! For all his restless determination to make his fortune through his influence over Prince Hal, Falstaff has yearnings too for the quiet life. “I would ‘twere bedtime, Hal,” is what he thinks before the battle—“and all well.”

This is very different from the type of drama in which the distractions that attend on human personality, like wasps buzzing round a honeypot, are artificially excluded in the interests of pure choice, pure motivation. In the classic plays of Racine and Corneille character exists to decide between the demands of love and honor, of duty and desire. How much simpler is this neoclassic ideal, and from a straightforward dramatic viewpoint how much more satisfying! The English neoclassic critics John Dennis and Thomas Rymer berated Shakespeare for not showing clearly and simply the moral crisis of his play. The only lesson to be drawn from Othello, declared Rymer scornfully in 1692, is that young wives should take better care of their linen. Civil war, Shakespeare’s history plays emphasize for our edification, is a bad thing for the state; but in fact we go to the play to see Falstaff and his companions, and to participate in the colorful life they are leading.

Russian critics were to blame Pushkin for the sense of flatness and anticlimax they found in his play about Russia’s Time of Troubles, Boris Godunov. What lessons about politics and history was it supposed to show? But Pushkin seems to have had the instinct to withdraw from the problems of his subject into a species of Shakespearean neutrality. That’s the way things are; that’s the way things go. At the end of the play the crowd receives in horrified silence the news that Boris’s widow and young son are dead—dead no doubt by violent means—but when the boyars command them to hail the new tsar, the pretender Dimitri, they obediently do so. They know what is expected of them. The censor objected to this ending, and required of Pushkin that the people should remain silent when told to hail the new tsar, a silence—narod besmolstvuet—which ironically became a Russian proverb. Pushkin didn’t mind the change at all: he saw that where history was con-cerned both endings did much the same job.

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