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Susan Rowe

Ms. Siegert

AP English 12

14 October 2010

Analysis of Equus by Peter Shaffer

One dominant trait people share is hiding their true identity. A person can leave college,

but still be intelligent enough to become a billionaire. A man could be married to a woman for

twenty years and repress feelings of homosexuality for his entire life. In the play Equus by Peter

Shaffer, the main character, Alan Strang invented a sexually based religion surrounding horses,

but was forced to hide it because his religious beliefs would be too unusual for society to handle.

One important aspect of Equus is the relationship Alan has with his psychiatrist, Martin Dysart.

By taking Alan’s case, Dysart discovers his own repressed identity and begins to question

the morality of reshaping his patient’s passion in order to fit in with society.

As a doctor, Dysart is bound by the Hippocratic Oath to help Alan to the best of his

ability, by “curing” him of his fixation with horses. However, Dysart’s treatment of Alan wasn’t

exactly forced; Alan wanted to finally be able to open up to someone about Equus. Alan had

been fascinated by horses throughout his childhood, but had been forced to keep his “religion”

secret from his parents, Jill, and the rest of society. When he begins his treatment with Dysart, he

is “ready to abreact” (Shaffer 71) because he “[wanted] a way to speak” (Shaffer 71) about his

fixation. Yet Dysart has a fixation of his own; he was obsessed with Ancient Greece. Throughout

the play, Dysart made references to traveling to Greece and dreams about ancient Greek

sacrifices. The Hippocratic Oath itself is Greek in origin (“Encyclopædia Britannica”). Dysart’s
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passion for Ancient Greece and Alan’s passion for horses creates a subconscious camaraderie

between doctor and patient. As a result of this newly formed relationship, Alan began to trust

Dysart with his religion surrounding Equus because he somehow knew that Dysart would

understand. In turn, Dysart could see how Alan was not just another patient, but someone with a

different idea of how to worship a religion, a particularly more expressive one than society is

used to.

The companionship between Alan and Dysart can be compared to the ancient Greek

tradition of pederasty (Kyle), without the homosexuality (“PC 1362254”). Alan, as a seventeen-

year-old, took the role of the student whereas Dysart, the knowledgeable psychiatrist, was Alan’s

educator. This relationship came from many similarities in their lives. Alan can not copulate with

Jill because he had no interest in humans, but instead devotes his life and sexual focus to horses.

On the other hand, Dysart is married, but his marriage was loveless and childless. He and his

wife, Margaret, were “brisk” (Shaffer 52) in their courtship, wedding, and “disappointment” with

each other (Shaffer 52). Unlike Alan, Dysart had no other sexual focus in his life, which alludes

to homosexuality. He was a homosexual, but he chose to deny his sexual identity rather than

expressing it in healthy ways such as divorcing his wife and experimenting in relationships with

men. However, Dysart was unaware of his own sexuality, and bonding with Alan in this

pederastic-like relationship helped him to discover his own identity as a homosexual. Ultimately,

this discovery did not lead Dysart onto a path of embracing his identity, but rather made Dysart

firmly believe that acting as a heterosexual man was the only way for him to fit into society

because to live a homosexual lifestyle would be to completely change everything he’s ever

known. To accept such a revelation would be to disrupt his marriage, ruin his reputation as a

psychiatrist, and invite prosecution against him for his sexual orientation. These possible
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outcomes make Dysart want to keep “living a lie” or continue to pretend to be a heterosexual

man.

After discovering his repressed homosexuality, Dysart began to question the integrity of

taking Alan’s passion away from him to make him “normal” (Shaffer 54); to take away Alan’s

identity as a worshipper of Equus would be to deny his own sexuality. Also, Dysart would stand

to lose his great reputation as a psychiatrist in the medical community (Shaffer 10) if he came

out as a homosexual. At the end of the play, Dysart chose to cure Alan of his passion for horses

in order to adapt to a “normal” life so Alan could one day be attracted to the “Approved Flesh”

(Shaffer 99). Dysart knew that Alan was young enough to learn from this experience and lose his

passion for Equus, but Dysart himself regretted his life as a closet homosexual. Dysart chooses to

treat Alan because Alan was in pain and he genuinely wanted to help his “student”. By helping

Alan, Dysart made the choice to further repress his sexuality and hide his true identity. He knew

that he would be a hypocrite if he helped Alan and didn’t do his own job to fit into society.

The play is not clear on whether Dysart succeeds in reshaping Alan into a functioning

citizen of society, but Dysart is very obviously disgusted with the role he has to play by being a

children’s psychiatrist. Since Alan is his “student”/patient in their relationship, he is motivated to

reshape Alan and to continue repressing his own identity as a homosexual to protect them from

becoming social outcasts. He recognized that in order to be accepted into society, one must hide

one’s true identity to avoid discrimination, but he knew he could not do anything to chance

society’s perception of the unusual. Dysart used his abilities as a psychiatrist to cure Alan so they

could both go back to society and live “normal” lives.

Shaffer’s ending and subliminal references to Dysart’s sexuality are what make Equus so

unique. By having characters that choose to conform to society rather than stand out, Shaffer
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makes the statement that sometimes people are forced to hide who they really are instead of

being their true selves. If Dysart had come out with his homosexuality, he would have been

ostracized and discriminated against. If Alan had continued his worship of Equus, he would have

ended up in an asylum or prison. Shaffer’s unique play on conformity leaves a lasting impression

on the reader that makes them question their own identity and the role they play in their lives.
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Sources:

Encyclopædia Britannica. “Hippocratic Oath”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia


Britannica, n.d. Web. 2 Oct. 2010.

Kyle. “Education and Pederasty in Ancient Greece”. Truth Tree. Truth Tree, 10 May 2010.
Web. 2 Oct. 2010.

MedicineNet, Inc. “Hippocratic Oath definition”. MedicineNet, Inc. MedicineNet, Inc., n.d. Web.
3 Oct. 2010.

PC 1362254. “Equus: Member Reviews”. Netflix. Netflix, n.d. Web. 2 Oct. 2010.

Shaffer, Peter. Equus. New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1973. Print.

Time. “Homosexuality: Coming to Terms”. Time. Time, 24 Oct. 1969. Web. 3 Oct. 2010