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Tale of Shemyaka’s Trial


One of the best-known seventeenth-century novellas is The Tale of Shemyaka’s Trial, the title of which has become a popular saying (“Shemyaka’s trial” means an unfair trial). Apart from the prose texts of the tale, there are also some verse renderings. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the tale was reproduced in wood-cut prints, transposed into drama, and reflected in oral stories about the rich and poor brothers.

The first part of The Tale of Shemyaka’s Trial describes a number of tragicomic misfortunes that befall a poor peasant. The hero is given a horse by his rich brother, but no collar, so he has to tie the sledge to its tail, and the horse’s tail is pulled off in a gateway. The hero spends the night on the sleeping-bench at the priest’s house, but is not called to have supper. Looking down from the bench at the table below covered with food, he topples over and crushes the priest’s infant son to death. The wretched peasant comes to town for the trial (he is to be tried for the horse and the baby), and decides to take his life. He jumps off a bridge over a moat. But under the bridge a townsman is taking his old father to the bath-house on a sledge; the hero “crushes the son’s father to death”, but himself remains uninjured.

These three episodes can be regarded as “simple forms”, as unfinished anecdotes or an exposition. In themselves they are amusing but not complete, for they lack a denouement. The denouement awaits the reader in the second part of the tale, where the unfair judge Shemyaka appears, a cunning and mercenary pettifogger. This part is more complex in composition. It is divided into the judge’s verdicts and the “framework”, which has an independent and complete plot of its own. The “framework” tells how the defendant, the poor peasant, shows Shemyaka a stone wrapped in a cloth, how the judge thinks it is a bribe, a bag of money, and decides the case in favour of the poor brother. When Shemyaka learns of his mistake he is not upset, but gives thanks to the Lord that he has “judged according to Him”, otherwise the defendant might have “smitten down” the judge, as he did the infant and the old man, only this time on purpose, not accidentally.

The verdicts for each of the three indictments form the denouement of the three episodes in part one, producing complete anecdotes. The comic effect of these anecdotes is enhanced by the fact that Shemyaka’s verdicts are a reflection, as it were, of the poor brother’s misadventures. The judge orders the rich brother to wait until the horse grows a new tail. He advises the priest: “Give him your wife for a while until he and she beget you a child. And then take back your wife from him and the child too.” A similar type of decision is made concerning the third matter also. “Go onto the bridge,” Shemyaka tells the plaintiff, “jump off it yourself, and kill him like he killed your father.” It is not surprising that the three plaintiffs prefer to settle the matter out of court: they pay the poor peasant not to make them carry out the judge’s verdicts.

Reading this tale Russian people of the seventeenth century naturally compared Shemyaka’s trial with the legal practice of their day. According to the legal code of 1649 punishment reflected the crime. For murder people were executed, for arson they were burnt, for minting forgery they had molten lead poured down their throat. So Shemyaka’s trial was a parody of Old Russian legal proceedings.

Thus, apart from the “framework” in The Tale of Shemyaka’s Trial there are three independent novellas: the conflict with the brother—the trial and buying off; the conflict with the priest— the trial and buying off; and the conflict with the townsman—the trial and buying off. Formally the anecdotal collisions are outside the “framework”, although in the classical type of story about a trial (for example, the trial of Solomon) they are included in the narrative about the pleading. In these classical stories, which were very popular in Old Russia, the events are narrated in the past tense. In The Tale of Shemyaka’s Trial the anecdotes are split up. This overcomes the static nature of the narrative and creates a dynamic novellistic plot abounding in unexpected twists and turns.

In dividing the seventeenth-century novellas into translated and original works, we must bear in mind that this division is a conventional one. The Tale of the Drunkard has been traced back to the European anecdote about the peasant and the miller who argue with the saints by the Gates of Heaven. Students of Shemyaka’s Trial have found parallels in Tibetan, Indian and Persian works. It has often been remarked that in Polish literature a similar subject was treated by the famous sixteenth-century writer Mikolaj Rej who is called the “father of Polish literature”. In this connection specialists have drawn attention to the fact that certain manuscripts of the Russian Tale of Shemyaka’s Trial say that the tale “was copied from Polish books”.

However none of these searches have revealed the direct sources of the Russian novellas. In all cases we can speak only of a general resemblance and of analogous plots, but not of direct textual dependence. In the history of the novella the origin of works is not of decisive importance. The “simple forms”, jokes, witticisms and anecdotes, out of which novellas developed, cannot be considered the property of any one people. They travelled from country to country or, since everyday happenings are often very similar, arose in different places at one and the same time. The poetic laws of the novella are universal, which is why it is difficult, and sometimes unfair, to distinguish between borrowed and original texts. It should be remembered that just as analogous plots do not necessarily indicate borrowing, so national features do not always make a novella totally original, as we shall see from The Tale of Karp Sutulov.29

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