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Equus | Study Guide

Peter Shaffer

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Equus | Symbols



For Alan Strang horses represent a complex jumble of ideas including erotic and religious elements. Alan first encounters a horse on the beach at age six and, invited to ride, immediately feels a sense of power he later describes as "sexy." A series of later childhood incidents lead Alan to conflate horses with Christ and to develop a private set of rituals based on his symbolic identification with these creatures. He comes up with a quasi-Biblical genealogy for the god Equus (Latin for "horse") and invents his own acts of worship. These include wearing a string bridle and self-flagellation with an improvised riding crop. After he gets a job at Dalton's stable, Alan's horse worship takes the form of naked midnight rides in which he seeks a kind of ecstatic union with Equus. His blinding of the horses—the crime that lands him in Dysart's clinic—stems from the oppressive feeling that Equus is watching him.

Alan's parents have nearly opposite feelings about horses, a tension that feeds Alan's obsession. Frank, Alan's father, thinks of equestrianism as something both pretentious and dangerous, not at all in keeping with his egalitarian ideals. Dora, Alan's mother, has fond memories of her grandfather riding about in a bowler hat; to her, horses are a symbol of class and grace. She directly encourages Alan's fascination with horses through the stories and Bible passages she reads to him. Over the course of the play, Dysart, too, is drawn into the symbolic terrain of the horse. By the end he feels himself to be no closer to understanding the mystery of Equus that has so captivated Alan. He does, however, come to identify with horses on some level—as evidenced by the "sharp chain" that figuratively prevents him from speaking the full truth.

Shaffer uses many devices to underscore the symbolic stature of horses in Equus. In describing the costuming and gestures of the actors who play the horses, Shaffer is careful to stipulate that they should not imitate horses in any way that might be construed as comical or silly. There is no prancing or neighing, for instance. The horse costumes themselves are stylized, consisting of velvet tracksuits, hoofed shoes, and wire masks that sit above the actors' heads. Throughout the stage directions, Shaffer aims to capture the primal, mysterious quality that makes horses such an object of reverence and attraction to Alan.


Television, along with electronics in general, plays a pivotal role in Equus. If horses represent Alan's connection to the primal and the powerful, television is a force that threatens to sap him of his vitality and simplify his worldview. Sneaking off to go on naked, ritualistic horseback rides is, after all, not what "normal" people of Alan's day and age do. They stay home and get a much milder thrill from watching TV. The world presented on television is bright and simple, unlike the dark and complicated emotions stirred up in Alan by his experiences with horses. Ultimately, television—like cars and highways—is a symbol of what Dysart calls "the good Normal world," where nobody feels pain because nobody feels much of anything.

Alan's father forbids the family to own a television set. To him television is a "swiz"—a swindle or a disappointment—that robs a person of time and initiative and gives them nothing of value in return. Alan, unsurprisingly, comes to see television as a kind of treat and sneaks off to a neighbor's house to watch westerns, with Dora's tacit approval. She believes her husband to be too "extreme" in banning TV outright. These forbidden TV binges are also, apparently, where Alan picks up the commercial jingles he defiantly sings instead of answering Dysart's questions. The jingles themselves represent Alan's (and society's) means of self-defense. He builds up a wall of cheerful nonsense rather than engaging with what is painful, vital, and essential in life.

Martin Dysart allows Alan to watch television at the hospital, but this does not mean he has a favorable opinion of its effects on children. As a point of comparison, he also lets Alan smoke. Late in the play, Dysart describes TV as not just a symptom but also a cause of the emotional numbness experienced by many people. He says people are "tethered beside" animals, "blinking our nights away in a non-stop drench of cathode-ray over our shriveling heads!" This may be an even more "extreme" view than Frank Strang's. After all, Frank's objection seems to come from the vapidity of specific TV content rather than the medium itself. Still, it is hard to argue with Dysart's premise that too much passively consumed entertainment changes people, making them more passive themselves. Dysart's position is problematic not in its simple claim that TV is a normal pastime, but in its deeper assertion that TV epitomizes the normal.

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