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Religion and Worship Theme Analysis

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.
Religion and Worship Theme Icon

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 Equus display 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 hates the fact that Dora tells Bible stories to Alan and sees her as indulging Alan’s fascination with religious images of pain and suffering. Martin Dysart comes to see himself as a “priest” of modern society: as a psychiatrist, his job is to worship the religion of the “Normal”—to restore his patients to normalcy and turn them into average citizens who fit society’s mold. His view of himself as a priest comes from a dream he recounts in Act One, in which he slices open the bodies of children as a sacrifice to the ancient Greek gods.

Given his close relationship with Dora, it’s no surprise that Christianity powerfully influences Alan Strang’s imagined religion. Alan is obsessed with Bible stories and “religious pictures,” especially by images of the torture of Christ. In fact, Alan creates Equus and his horse religion, which echoes many aspects of Christianity, after Frank throws out Alan’s picture of Christ being beaten by Roman centurions, and then replaces it with a picture of a horse. Most important in Alan’s new religion is the combination of spiritual transcendence with physical pain: Christ’s martyrdom is mimicked in Alan’s worship of Equus. In one scene, Alan whips his back with a wire hanger while praying to Equus. In another, Alan achieves a sexual and spiritual euphoria while riding Nugget naked, an experience that simultaneously leaves his legs and feet raw and bleeding. Another major theme of Christianity that pervades the play is the idea of original sin, the notion that the moment we are born, we are guilty of sin that we can never escape. Alan and Dysart embody this idea when they imagine themselves as bridled horses. As Dysart says, there is a “sharp chain” in each of our mouths. This means that there are elements of our humanity that we cannot control: our social standing, the society we are born into, and our innate, animal desires. As human beings, we are at once capable of achieving transcendence, but are also slave to our own physical and societal situations. The horse’s bit represents our paradoxical desire to master ourselves, and our inability to truly be free.

While Christianity is perhaps the most overt religious influence in the play, the religion of ancient Greece also plays an important role. Greece first emerges as a subject of Dysart’s fascination. To him, Greece is a place with “a thousand local Gods.” It’s a place where people worship everything around them, where a passion still exists for the “living Geniuses of Place and Person.” For the Greeks, nothing was merely “normal.” Rather, everything was full of spiritual value and no form of worship is more or less important than another. With a thousand gods, individuals were free to worship in their own unique ways. While Dysart recognizes that certain aspects of Greek religion are horrific—for example, the sacrifice of children to Zeus—he still prefers a society in which the expression of human passion takes many different forms, instead of conforming to the average, dull life that modern society demands.

Though Dysart would characterize himself, Frank, and Dora as “worshippers” of the religion of the “Normal,” he distinguishes this blind and lifeless conformation to modern society from “[r]eal worship.” In Dysart’s view, Alan’s worship of Equus is true worship, and he sees the boy as lucky to be able to experience moments of absolute rapture, moments that Dysart has never and will never know. In ancient Greece, Alan’s passion for Equus might be seen as one of many ways to interact spiritually with the world. In modern society, however, this type of worship is considered bizarre and inappropriate, and must be eradicated. Dysart realizes that while it would be healthy for Alan to be able to live a normal life, he cannot “think of anything worse one can do to anybody than take away their worship.” To Dysart—and, one assumes, to Shaffer—the death of passion and “real worship” in modernity spells the death of humanity itself.

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Religion and Worship ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Equus related to the theme of Religion and Worship.
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.

Frank: He took a piece of string out of his pocket. Made up into a noose. And put it in his mouth. And then with his other hand he picked up a coat hanger. A wooden coat hanger, and—and—
Dysart: Began to beat himself?
Frank: You see why I couldn’t tell his mother…Religion. Religion’s at the bottom of all this!

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Frank Strang (speaker), Alan Strang, Dora Strang
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Frank comes to Dysart in secret to inform him of a few things he knows about Alan that he does not wish his wife to know. One of these things is that Frank witnessed Alan performing a secret ritual in his room, with Alan imitating a horse being ridden. Alan's imitation of a horse, though, also has clear parallels to the violent religious imagery Alan was so drawn to. The whip a rider uses on a horse, for instance, is evocative of the extreme Christian practice of self-flagellation, in which a believer tries to physically understand the pain of Christ. Frank believes, then, that religion is to blame for his son's bizarre behavior. By this point in the play, though, it is beginning to become clear that it is Frank's strict insistence that Alan not pursue his passion for religion that causes Alan to worship in secret and develop more and more bizarre practices. We also get the sense here that Frank has something to hide, too, since he is coming to Dysart in secret. This passage begins to get at the dangers of living in the kind of society in which natural interests and passions cannot be expressed.

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. 

The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes—all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills—like a God. It is the Ordinary made beautiful; it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his Priest. My tools are very delicate. My compassion is honest. I have honestly assisted children in this room. I have talked away terrors and relieved many agonies. But also—beyond question—I have cut from them parts of individuality repugnant to his God, in both his aspects. Parts sacred to rarer and more wonderful Gods. And at what length…Sacrifices to Zeus took at the most, surely, sixty seconds each. Sacrifices to the Normal can take as long as sixty months.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang, Hesther Salomon
Page Number: 64-65
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is a continuation of Dysart's explanation to Hesther of his troubles with his life and profession and his doubts about the incompatibility of contemporary morality with individuality. Dysart here positions himself as doing evil work, despite his good intentions. He says that by serving the "God of Health" he sometimes helps people, but he just as often takes from people their individuality and joy in the service of making them normal and acceptable in the eyes of their society. Dysart recognizes that the societal definition of normalcy that his profession serves is arbitrary; it is not a universal standard of health, but rather a confining standard that is particular to a place and time. By using his profession to manipulate people to be more like a socially agreed-upon definition of normal and less like themselves, Dysart fears that he is taking away the most precious parts of a person. He compares himself to someone carrying out human sacrifices, a practice that was once considered essential to society, and is now considered cruel and taboo.

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

Whatever’s happened has happened because of Alan. Alan is himself. Every soul is itself. If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn’t find why he did this terrible thing—because that’s him; not just all of our things added up. Do you understand what I’m saying? I want you to understand, because I lie awake and awake thinking it out, and I want you to know that I deny it absolutely what he’s doing now, staring at me, attacking me for what he’s done, for what he is! [Pause: calmer.] You’ve got your words, and I’ve got mine. You call it a complex, I suppose. But if you knew God, Doctor, you would know about the Devil. You’d know the Devil isn’t made by what mummy says and daddy says. The Devil’s there.

Related Characters: Dora Strang (speaker), Martin Dysart, Alan Strang, Frank Strang
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

This monologue, in which Dora tries to convince Dysart that she and Frank are not to blame for Alan's behavior, echoes the monologue of Dysart's that we've just heard, in which he puzzles over how someone becomes the person he or she is. Dora and Dysart share the acknowledgement that a person's development is mysterious, and it is hard to account for which factors matter and which don't. Dora and Dysart also share, in a sense, a commitment to the idea that each person is an individual who is not wholly accountable to a set of experiences or a culture. But Dora believes that what accounts for Alan's behavior is the Devil. Because of this, Dora doubts the power of psychiatry to address Alan's problems. It's ironic that she and Dysart share this doubt about the power of psychiatry, but for very different reasons. Dysart's doubts about psychiatry are wrapped up in his uncertainty about whether Alan's behavior is evil at all, while Dora doubts the practice because it doesn't address the main issue (as she sees it), that of spiritual warfare.

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.

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.

And now for me it never stops: that voice of Equus out of the cave—‘Why me? …Why me? …Account for me!’ …All right—I surrender! I say it! …In an ultimate sense I cannot know what I do in this place—yet I do ultimate things. Essentially I cannot know what I do—yet I do essential things. Irreversible, terminal things. I stand in the dark with a pick in my hand, striking at heads!

I need—more desperately than my children need me—a way of seeing in the dark. What way is this? …What dark is this? …I cannot call it ordained of God: I can’t get that far. I will however pay it so much homage. There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang
Related Symbols: Horses, Hoof-pick
Page Number: 108-109
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is the last one of the play, and it is one of doubt, despair, and hopelessness. Dysart is confessing his greatest uncertainties, and even his fear that he is doing evil. Dysart acknowledges his inability to know the meaning of his life or the morality of what he does, and he feels deeply that it is wrong, in light of his own unknowing, to tell anyone else (particularly in a way that is irreversible) who or what they should be. In this sense, he compares his own work to the crime for which he treated Alan: standing in the dark, blinding people violently (with a horse "pick," no less), irreversibly mutilating them by estranging them from themselves. Dysart ends the play by hoping for "a way to see in the dark" but acknowledging that, instead, he is guided through the dark by the bit in his mouth, which represents the social norms and pressures that dictate his life. It's an ending that leaves little hope for Dysart, or anyone else, to find their way to the "whole new track of being" that Dysart described at the outset.