The British Myth of Russia

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The images of the Tsardom of Muscovy from the travellers’ notes penetrate the English literature a bit later, by the 17th century.

There are a few references to the Russian world in Milton’s poem Paradise Lost (first published in 1667). Brief references are made in Books II, III, X and XI. On all four occasions these are allusions to geographical locations: the text referred to the Caspian Sea (Book II), Moscow – “where the Russian Ksar [sat]” (Book XI), plains of Astrakhan (Book X); there is a reference to the northern lands of Muscovy – the land where the English arrived by the Northern Sea Route (Book III). At the same time, new notions which are generally characterised by a motif of passionate hostility are added on the top of this geographical “foundation”. The Caspian Sea is depicted as dangerous and nasty, with clouds hovering above – “the heaven’s artillery fraught” ready to join the “encounter”. The Russian North is unwelcoming and hostile with “ever-threatening storms <…> blustering round”. In the “snowy” Astrakhan plains the Tatar is persistently pursued by his Russian foe.[1]

Worthy of particular attention is the primary penetration of the myth about Russia in the works of English drama, both in comedies and tragedies. It also takes place in the first half of the 17th century, in the wake of English travellers’ notes and in the atmosphere of trading and diplomatic convergence between two countries. The most important trait of this process is that Russian images are heavily influenced by the Baroque aesthetics: they help to create the effect of exceptional tension and are meant to provoke astonishment at the terrifying phenomena of the universe.

Indeed, incidental images of “big” or “great” bears in Hans Beer Pot, his Invisible Comedy of See me and See me not (circa 1618) by Daubridgecourt and “wild” Russian bears in the comedy The Roaring Girl (1607–1610) by Middleton and Dekker are apparently meant to impress one’s imagination. In a similar way, Davenant’s tragedy The Cruel Brother (circa 1627) quotes amazing facts about people in Russia who “freeze till they spit snow”.

Shakespeare also used Russian images more than once. His early comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost already has a scene with characters putting on Russian costumes: dressed “like Muscovites or Russians” Ferdinand, the King of Navarre, and his lords come to the Princess of France to win her affection. In the play Russia is characterized through remarks on its remoteness from Europe (“we have measured many miles”), a mention of “savages” – its people – and a reference to its cold climate (“my frozen Muscovites”). In the work Measure for Measure the infinitely long winter nights in Russia are mentioned both in a comical way and in accordance with the aesthetic principle of the Baroque to depict something amazing and terrifying. Angelo tries to get to the bottom of the dispute between two citizens (Act II, Scene 1), but explanations make so little sense that it is impossible to understand anything and the bored Deputy says: “This will last out a night in Russia / When nights are longest there”. Used in an unusual comparison of the dispute with the night, this exotic fact about a distant country is valuable for its peculiarity and is chosen for its intrinsic characteristic – the duration.

The image of a Russian bear is outlined in two works by Shakespeare – the history Henry V and the tragedy Macbeth. In both plays the bear embodies a terrifying and dangerous force; it has a similar part in the plot, too.

[1] As when the Tartar from his Russian foe / By Astracan over the snowy plains/ Retires <…>. См.: Milton J. Paradise Lost. Book X // Milton J. Poetical Works: in two books. New York: Solomon King, 1831. Vol. 1. P. 221.

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