Equus Themes Summary


Equus Themes Summary


The place and value of passion in life is the most important issue raised by Shaffer’s play. The play portrays a world—and you could certainly argue that the world of the play accurately resembles our own—in which people’s deepest human desires are being squeezed out of their lives and replaced by banal and mass-produced pleasures. Alan Strang feels this pressure powerfully: his job at the appliance store emphasizes the profusion of new consumer goods that interfere with and distract from real human activity. An obsession with name brands, convenience, and machines overshadow individual needs and visceral feelings. Instead of doing what he loves, Alan “spend[s] every minute with electrical things.”

Alan finds an expression for his primal passions, however, through his creation of Equus, a god that takes the form of a horse. Though the people around him characterize his activities as perverse, and his religion eventually leads to the horrific blinding of six horses, Alan is able to feel a passion that no other person in the play has felt before. Psychiatrist Martin Dysart, in treating Alan, actually comes to feel jealous of the boy’s obsession. He recognizes the bizarre nature of Alan’s behavior, but when he compares Alan’s all-consuming passion to his own banal, passionless life, he cannot help but wonder which type of life is more worth living.

At the end of the play, Dysart agrees to cure Alan of his “madness,” but also understands that the treatment will come at an enormous cost to Alan. By taking away the boy’s passion, Dysart realizes that he will likely turn Alan into a kind of “ghost,” a mediocre man living within the strict bounds of societal norms. As he contemplates the treatment and its impact on Alan, Dysart comes to doubt whether his occupation actually helps people. He is at once restoring Alan to normalcy, but also taking away the thing that Alan lives for—the pain and ecstasy that make Alan’s life his own. Through Alan’s religion and Dysart’s questioning, Shaffer’s play weighs the benefits of living a healthy, normal life against the possibility of living an extraordinary life of passion, however painful. Dysart’s bewilderment and ambivalence in the final scene indicate that this conflict between societal pressure and individual expression may be impossible to resolve.

Religion and Worship

The concepts of passion and worship are intimately related in Equus, and over the course of the play, Shaffer complicates our idea of what religion is and should be. The main characters in Equusdisplay a wide range of relationships to religion. By exploring these relationships, Shaffer shows us that we all “worship” something in life, whether or not we belong to an “actual” religion. Frank Strang, for instance, is an atheist, but his “worship” takes the form of constant work. Martin Dysart calls him “[r]elentlessly self-improving,” and Frank’s wife, Dora Strang, calls his beliefs and actions “very extreme.” In contrast, Frank does not approve of Dora’s devout Christianity. He


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