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Themes and Colors
Passion Theme Icon
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Modern Society and Normality Theme Icon
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Equus, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Passion Theme Icon

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.

Passion ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Passion appears in each act of Equus. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
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Passion Quotes in Equus

Below you will find the important quotes in Equus related to the theme of Passion.
Act 1 Quotes

You sit in front of that thing long enough, you’ll become stupid for life—like most of the population. The thing is, it’s a swiz. It seems to be offering you something, but actually it’s taking something away.

Related Characters: Frank Strang (speaker), Alan Strang
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

As Dysart begins his treatment of Alan, Alan begins to reveal tensions between himself and his father. Here, Alan recalls his father Frank's removal of the television from their home. Frank removes it because he believes that television is taking away individuality and making people stupid. He wants his son to be exceptional, not like "most of the population" who just sit in front of the television. This interaction takes on deep irony as the play delves deeper into Alan's story. Frank seems to want his son to be unlike others in only very specific ways, but not in the ways that Alan already is unlike others. Alan's passions, for instance, are unique, but Frank insists that they are pathological and must be treated. This passage begins to reveal the hypocrisies and contradictions of a social morality that declares some abnormalities good and others evil (as well as condoning some evil as normal). We begin to get the sense that these delineations are arbitrary, and modern morality cannot be considered wholly rational.


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A boy spends night after night having this stuff read to him; an innocent man tortured to death—thorns driven into his head—nails into his hands—a spear jammed through his ribs. It can mark anyone for life, that kind of thing. I’m not joking. The boy was absolutely fascinated by all that. He was always mooning over religious pictures. I mean real kinky ones, if you receive my meaning…. Bloody religion—it’s our only real problem in this house, but it’s insuperable; I don’t mind admitting it.

Related Characters: Frank Strang (speaker), Alan Strang, Frank Strang
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Dysart is speaking with Alan's parents to try to untangle the things in Alan's past that might have led him to mutilate the horses. This passage, spoken by Frank, weaves together religion, violence, and sexuality in a way that will be crucial to the remainder of the play. Frank establishes that Alan is somebody naturally drawn to religion, and particularly to the parts of religion that have to do with punishment. Frank's use of the word "kinky" to describe imagery of the crucifixion is unusual and noteworthy; one would not likely jump to the conclusion that someone obsessed with the violence of religion is getting sexual thrill from it. So, while this passage is ostensibly Frank's condemnation of Alan's religiosity, the passage also raises questions about how Frank's parenting has affected Alan. Frank's rejection and sexualization of Alan's religion, for example, may have made Alan feel ashamed, or put ideas into his head about the relationship between sex and violence that he didn't have before. Regardless, Frank's rejection of Alan's passion for religion has made Alan practice in secret, which certainly contributes to the ways in which Alan's religion has diverged from "normal" worship.

I was pushed forward on the horse. There was sweat on my legs from his neck. The fellow held me tight, and let me turn the horse which way I wanted. All that power going any way you wanted…. It was always the same, after that. Every time I heard one clop by, I had to run and see…. I can’t remember when it started. Mum reading to me about Prince who no one could ride, except one boy. Or the white horse in Revelations. ‘He that sat upon him was called Faithful and True. His eyes were as flames of fire, and he had a name written that no man knew but himself’…. No one understands! …Except cowboys. They do. I wish I was a cowboy. They’re free. They just swing up and then it’s miles of grass…I bet all cowboys are orphans! …I bet they are!

Related Characters: Alan Strang (speaker), Dora Strang, Young Horseman
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 48-49
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Alan describes to Dysart his first experience of riding a horse as a child. Alan's narration shows his powerful association of horses with freedom. In light of his controlling father, it makes sense that riding the horse would have given him a feeling of freedom and control for the first time in his life. The description is also evocative of a sexual experience, as Alan describes the physical feeling of being on the horse, particularly the sweat from the horse rubbing off on his legs. In addition to associating this experience with freedom and sex, Alan brings up imagery from the Book of Revelations, which ties horses in with Alan's interest in religion. Clearly, the experience of being on a horse evoked in Alan all of the things about which he cares the most, and also the things which he is denied forcefully by his father--no wonder the experience was powerful. Dysart senses, rightfully, that this experience was formative in Alan's development.

I wish there was one person in my life I could show. One instinctive, absolutely unbrisk person I could take to Greece, and stand in front of certain shrines and sacred streams and say ‘Look! Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods. And not just the old dead ones with names like Zeus—no, but living Geniuses of Place and Person! And not just Greece but modern England! Spirits off certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip shops, if you like, and slate roofs—just as of certain frowns in people and slouches’ …I’d say to them—‘Worship as many as you can see—and more will appear!’ …If I had a son, I bet you he’d come out exactly like his mother. Utterly worshipless.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Hesther Salomon
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Dysart is confessing a deep desire of his to his colleague Hesther, and, by implication, also confessing a deep dissatisfaction with his life as it stands. Dysart's dream of going to Greece is one that is nominally about travel, but is really about spirituality. Dysart feels a compulsion to worship beauty and individuality, which he talks about in terms of appreciating the specificity of particular places, and admiring the ancient Greeks who had many local gods. Dysart does not dream about a shared and all-consuming faith, but rather a spirituality that is particular to each individual. For Dysart, this is evoked by the beauty of differences and the specificity of all things that are true to themselves, not homogenized or existing in accord with social pressure. This passage reveals an affinity between Dysart and Alan that was less clear before; Alan has a specific, individual passion of a kind that Dysart admires but is not courageous enough to cultivate. 

Alan [ritually]: Equus—son of Fleckwus—son of Neckwus—Walk.
Here we go. The King rides out on Equus, mightiest of horses. Only I can ride him. He lets me turn him this way and that. His neck comes out of my body. It lifts in the dark. Equus, my Godslave! …Now the King commands you. Tonight, we ride against them all.
Dysart: Who’s all?
Alan: My foes and His.
Dysart: Who are your foes?
Alan: The Hosts of Hoover. The Hosts of Philco. The Hosts of Pifco. The House of Remington and all its tribe!
Dysart: Who are His foes?
Alan: The Hosts of Jodhpur. The Hosts of Bowler and Gymkhana. All those who show him off for their vanity!

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang (speaker)
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Dysart hypnotizes Alan and then convinces him to perform the ritual that he practices with the horses at night. What Alan then reveals is that he strips down in the middle of the night and rides the horses, whom he believes embody Equus, Alan's god. It's significant that Alan calls Equus his "Godslave" and that he compares himself to Equus by wearing his "manbit." This is Alan's acknowledgement that Equus, in some ways, is a way for Alan to make sense of himself. Alan feels within himself the possibility of being free, which means, to him, being true to himself, but Alan also powerfully feels the constricting morals and norms of the society he lives in that limit him and even torture him. Alan feels constricted and insulted by brand-names, which represent the homogenizing force of contemporary culture, and Equus, similarly, feels constricted and insulted by equestrians who subvert and control Equus's true nature in order to stroke their own vanity. This passage gives an idea of the morality Alan has constructed for himself. 

I’m raw! Raw!
Feel me on you! On you! On you! On you!
I want to be in you!
I want to BE you forever and ever! –
Equus, I love you!
Now! –
Bear me away!
Make us One Person!

Related Characters: Alan Strang (speaker)
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage, part of Alan's re-enactment of his religious rituals under hypnosis, shows the ways in which violence, sexuality, and religion remain intertwined for Alan, and lie at the heart of his troubles and passion. Alan's ride on the horse is shown to be both painful and pleasurable, and his seeming need to be in pain in order to experience pleasure gestures towards a shame that Alan feels surrounding his sexuality. This also shows Alan's intertwining of religion and sexuality, as his way of worshipping Equus is to avow his love for Equus and his desire to be both in and one with Equus, which is physically manifested as sexual arousal. The ritual leaves little doubt that Alan has created a religion for himself that combines the passions and curiosities from which Alan was most forcefully dissuaded at home: religion, violence, and sexuality. This is further evidence that, as Dysart suspects, diverting somebody from their true self through social pressure or psychiatry might just intensify their need for an outlet and take them further from what is socially acceptable. 

Act 2 Quotes

Can you think of anything worse one can do to anybody than take away their worship?

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Martin Dysart, Alan Strang, Hesther Salomon
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote represents the moral crux of the play. It comes during an exchange between Hesther and Dysart, in which Dysart feels that Alan is almost ready to have a breakthrough that might "cure" him of his worship of Equus. Despite the fact that this would be a professional success for Dysart as a psychiatrist, he expresses his doubts to Hesther about whether "curing" Alan would actually be the right thing to do. To Dysart, relieving Alan of his need to worship Equus would be tantamount to robbing him of what makes him an individual, and, perhaps more severe, robbing him of his passion and joy. As he is, Alan is considered "abnormal"--and clearly has some serious issues with shame and violence--but Dysart can see that his harmful behavior relates more to the ways in which he has been repressed by his family and his culture than his affinity for Equus. Dysart wonders here to what extent Alan should really be seen as insane, since Alan is living a passionate life that is true to himself, and he wonders whether to take that passion away from Alan in service of social norms would actually be to his benefit.

Hesther: I mean he’s in pain, Martin. He’s been in pain for most of his life. That much, at least, you know.
Dysart: Possibly.
Hesther: Possibly?! …That cut-off little figure you just described must have been in pain for years.
Dysart [doggedly]: Possibly.
Hesther: And you can take it away.
Dysart: Still—possibly.

Hesther: Then that’s enough. That simply has to be enough for you, surely?
Dysart: No!
Hesther: Why not?
Dysart: Because it’s his.
Hesther: I don’t understand.
Dysart: His pain. His own. He made it.
[Earnestly.] Look…to go through life and call it yours—your life—you first have to get your own pain. Pain that’s unique to you…. He’s done that. All right, he’s sick. He’s full of misery and fear…. But that boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have ƒelt in any second of my life. And let me tell you something: I envy it.
Hesther: You can’t.
Dysart [vehemently]: Don’t you see? That’s the Accusation! That’s what his stare has been saying to me all this time. ‘At least I galloped! When did you?’ …[Simply.] I’m jealous, Hesther. Jealous of Alan Strang.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Hesther Salomon (speaker), Alan Strang
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 81-82
Explanation and Analysis:

This exchange between Hesther and Dysart is one of the most morally complex of the book, because it delineates two opposed moral positions that both have compelling ideas to support them. Hesther, who represents the prevailing ideas of psychiatry and social norms, believes that it is morally imperative to treat Alan until he no longer worships Equus, because that is the only way to relieve his pain. Obviously, Alan has tremendous pain that has become, for him, wrapped up in his worship, so Hesther's position is reasonable. On the other hand, Dysart's position is that Alan's pain is what makes him an individual, and a way to take control over one's life is to claim pain that is uniquely yours and grapple with it yourself instead of being told what kinds of pain are acceptable. Dysart explains that Alan's pain enables him to have a passion unlike anything Dysart has seen before, and that it would be cruel to take that away under any circumstances. Here, we see the interweaving of pain and pleasure again, and this time Dysart posits that it is pain and pleasure that make a person who he or she truly is, so it's often unwise to untangle them at all. Society then becomes equated with the flattening of pain and pleasure, which certainly reduces suffering, but also reduces joy.

All right! I’ll take it away! He’ll be delivered from madness. What then? He’ll feel himself acceptable! What then? Do you think feelings like his can be simply re-attached, like plasters? Stuck on to other objects we select? Look at him! …My desire might be to make this boy an ardent husband—a caring citizen—a worshipper of abstract and unifying God. My achievement, however, is more likely to make a ghost!

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang, Hesther Salomon
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is part of Dysart's concluding monolgue, in which he surrenders to Hester's voice telling him to cure Alan instead of allowing Alan to continue to worship Equus, as Dysart had wanted. Even while Dysart acquiesces, his bitterness and uncertainty bubble over. He rants here that to take away the object of Alan's passion might be to take away that passion altogether. In other words, Dysart fears that Alan's passion won't necessarily find another outlet, let alone a "proper" outlet like marriage or good citizenship. More than likely, Dysart suggests, Alan will be made "a ghost," by which he means someone void of passion, which is what made him most alive. This is a tragic and ambivalent ending to the story, in which Dysart is in despair over Alan's future and the implications of his own actions in Alan's treatment. In addition, the fact that Dysart gives into social pressure despite his awareness of its problems shows that social pressure has an overwhelming power, which is itself a tragic message on which to end the play.