From Passion to Cynicism in Peter Shaffer's Equus

Peter Shaffer’s play, Equus, tells a young man’s story of faith and struggle. Through Alan, Shaffer explores man’s relationship with God and himself, the concept of pain and passion, and eventually, shame. Indeed, Alan blinded the horses because he was shamed, not merely of his inability to perform, but more so because Equus, through the horses’ eyes, witnessed how he gave in to temptation and betrayed his god. Alan is like any man who is brought up to his parents’ beliefs.

In his case, his mother was a devout Christian who read to him verses from the Bible, where he learned of God and Jesus.

His father, on the other hand, was an atheist, and seeing Alan’s growing interest in religion tore the picture of the crucifix Alan had and replaced it with a picture of a horse. This is a powerful act of symbolism. The young Alan was confused because of his parents’ differing religious beliefs.

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He could sense that his father did not approve of the kind of fervent religion his mother is practicing, and but Alan has already been raised to love God. He could have just become a nominal Christian; instead he turned his intense beliefs towards a substitute god, a god that his father does not hate.

Hence, Equus is born – his conception of a deity embodied in every horse. Yet, essentially, his faith remains traditional orthodox Christian. Like God, Equus sees everything, like Jesus, Equus suffers for the sins of the world.

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Alan’s devout love in Equus culminates to his riding the horse Nugget naked and barebacked, flagellating, riding to the point of sexual/mystical/religious climax, when he screams of his love and his desire to be one with the horse. This image illustrates Alan’s intense religious beliefs that he wants to share the pain, the passion or the suffering of Equus, and be one with him, akin to the intense devotion of saints.

In the next part of the play, Alan goes with Jill to a pornography theater where they accidentally run into his father. This leaves an impression to Alan that sexual desire is common to all men. It can be said that since he found his father there, he made the logical conclusion that it was something that his father does not disapprove of. So when Jill suggests they have sex in the stables, he acquiesces. But the presence of the horses makes him nervous, and he is unable to get an erection. He becomes frustrated, and he threatens away Jill. He is more than just ashamed because he was not able to perform.

He was ashamed because he could feel Equus’ eyes on him, and he knows that he has sinned. Alan felt guilty about his act, about his giving in to temptation, his attempt to do it with Jill, because he perceived it as an act of betrayal to his god. He declared his devotion and desire to be one with Equus, and yet he found himself a sinner, one of those who cause Equus’s/Jesus’s pain and suffering that he professed to want to share intensely. Whereas before he devoted himself body and soul to Equus, now he has succumbed to his body’s desire and suddenly he is aware of his nakedness.

His nakedness is metaphorical with his nakedness on stage and the nakedness of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Literally he becomes aware of his nakedness, when previously he rode the horse naked anyway. This awareness brings forth shame, and since his depiction of god is within reach in the form of the horses, he lashed out at them. Consumed by shame, he vents out his anger and puts out the horses’ eyes, so that he they, and Equus, through them, could no longer see him naked, nor would they be able to see his sins.

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From Passion to Cynicism in Peter Shaffer's Equus. (2017, Feb 19). Retrieved from

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