The Playboy of the Western World

by

J. M. Synge

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The Playboy of the Western World: Act 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Later on the same day, Jimmy and Philly converse drunkenly in the pub with nobody else around. They talk about Christy’s decisive victories in the village games and sports. As they complain about Christy’s constant bragging about his deed, Old Mahon passes by the window unseen. They wonder what will happen if Mahon’s skull is discovered in the ground, theorizing that it might be assumed to belong to an “old Dane.”
Jimmy and Philly’s conversation reveals the extent to which Christy is trading on his heroic story—he is beginning to overdo it and set himself up for a fall. The “old Dane” refers to bodies found in the bogs of Ireland, which can preserve bodies for a long time. The bogs are part of Ireland’s mythical culture.
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As Philly and Jimmy talk more generally about skulls, Old Mahon comes in and instructs them to look at his. Triumphantly, he tells them it is the result of a blow from a loy by his own son, arousing Philly’s suspicion. Mahon explains that he has been receiving food and lodgings all over the county in exchange for his story. 
This marks the beginning of the unraveling of Christy’s story. The loy is a key detail, being so specific as to clearly link Old Mahon’s story to the one told by Christy.
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Widow Quin comes in, shocked to see Mahon again. She fetches Mahon a drink at his request. As he gulps it down, Widow Quin tries to convince Philly and Jimmy that Mahon is a lunatic “raving from his wound.” She tells them she met Mahon earlier, and that he originally claimed his head was injured by “a tinker;” he then changed his story, she says, when he heard about Christy’s deed. Jimmy buys the story but Philly is more suspicious.
Widow Quin tries to put her and Christy’s plan into action—to discredit Mahon by painting him as mad. Philly is a little more savvy than Jimmy and starts to question whether Christy has been telling the truth.
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In an effort to demonstrate Mahon’s supposed madness to Philly and Jimmy, Widow Quin asks him how he is feeling. He complains in a maudlin but eloquent manner about his fall-out with his son, evidently missing him. Philly tells Jimmy that Mahon seems sane to him, and asks Widow Quin to get Mahon to say more about his son.
Like his son, Mahon has a certain power to his words. Because of Mahon’s eloquent explanation of what’s happened, Philly starts to believe him.
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Widow Quin craftily asks Mahon if his son is “a great hand at racing and lepping and licking the world.” Mahon insists that Christy is “the fool of men.” He hears cheering outside and goes to look out the window; Widow Quin, “with a shade of a smile,” explains that the crowd is “cheering a young lad, the champion playboy of the western world.” Mahon, puzzled, thinks that the “lad” looks like Christy.
Widow Quin uses the fact of Christy’s newfound hero status as a way to convince Philly that Mahon is mistaken. She points out the difference between Mahon’s account of his son and the admirations of the village. The “playboy” here refers to Christy’s victories in the village sports, but still carries with it the suggestion of deception.
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Mahon wants to go out and watch the mule race about to commence on the sands, in which Christy is participating. Widow Quin tries to get him to leave, but Philly settles Mahon on a bench with a good view of the race. All of them mount the bench to watch, marveling at Christy’s riding prowess; Widow Quin calls him “the champion of the world.” Christy wins, resulting in great cheer.
The games are a symbolic arena in which the village can seek out its heroes. All of the characters are engaged in this behavior, feeling an instinctive affinity with the winner.
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As Christy is carried on the villagers’ shoulders towards the pub, Mahon is astonished to realize that the race-winner is his own son. Widow Quin grabs Mahon and tries to convince him that he’s mad. Mahon’s certainty wavers as he tries to reconcile his opinion of his son with the evident worship of the villagers.
Widow Quin’s strategy works, but only temporarily, playing on the incongruity between Mahon’s opinion of his own son and what he can see right there before his eyes.
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Mahon comes to agree that he must be mad on account of his head injury. He decides he’d better leave and Widow Quin shows him out. Philly casts doubt on Widow Quin’s motives and goes after Mahon to see for himself whether the man is “raving” or not. Jimmy follows Philly to protect him from Mahon, who Jimmy is sure is a “madman.”
The head injury lends credibility to Widow Quin’s insistence that Mahon is going mad. That said, Philly’s suspicions have intensified based on Mahon’s recognition of Christy. Philly’s desire to know the truth preempts the extreme reaction that the villagers will have later on when Christy is revealed to have been dishonest.
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Christy comes in, dressed in jockey’s garb, surrounded by admirers who include Pegeen and the village girls. The crowd gives Christy prizes for winning the race. Christy compares his sporting achievements, saying that they’re nothing compared to how he killed his father. Pegeen ushers the crowd out to let Christy rest; they go off to take part in a tug-of-war.
Christy’s attachment to his story by now has become comical for the audience, highlighting that he isn’t as heroic as the villagers think. Carried on the shoulders of his admirers, Christy now has authority within the village based on his heroic deed and sporting prowess.
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As Pegeen wipes the sweat off Christy’s face, he tells her that the prize he really wants is for her to agree to marry him in two weeks’ time. She thinks he’s being “daring” and doesn’t trust that he isn’t a womanizer. But he persuades her, speaking poetically. He asks her to imagine them strolling the countryside, “drinking a sup from a well, and making mighty kisses with our wetted mouths, or gaming in a gap of sunshine with yourself stretched back unto your necklace in the flowers of the earth.”
Christy, his confidence soaring because of his victories, turns his attention to winning Pegeen’s heart. She is reticent to take his poetic “talk” at face value, believing it to be part of his general outlaw personality. Christy’s imagery evokes a deliberately Edenic scene, trying to get Pegeen to indulge in the idea of a utopian future together.
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Pegeen, won over by Christy’s “talk,” asks why a man like him, with “such poet’s talking, and such bravery of heart,” is so interested in her. He says she has “the light of seven heavens in [her] heart alone.” They both agree that “miracles” have brought them together. She agrees to tell her father that she wants to wed Christy when he returns from the wake.
Interestingly, though religion has not really acted as a moral authority at all, it does serve as a kind of a figurative authority. Christy links Pegeen’s “light”—her beauty and character—to the ethereal light of heaven. This religious grounding informs their sense of fate bringing them together: “miracles.”
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Michael comes in drunk, supported by Shawn. He heaps praise on Christy but also chastises him for not giving his father a “decent” Christian burial. Michael slaps him on the back, saying that married men will have to watch out for him stealing their wives.
Michael’s mention of a Christian burial is ironic given that he has praised Christy for the expressly sinful behavior of murder. Like many of the other characters, he links what he sees as Christy’s outsider status to sexual prowess.
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Michael announces to Christy that Father Reilly has given Shawn and Pegeen permission to marry, asking if Christy thought that “I’d leave my daughter living single with a little frisky rascal is the like of you.” Pegeen fiercely states that it’s too late—she wants to marry Christy.
Shawn has finally got the special dispensation required for him to wed his cousin, but has lost her affections in the process. His obedience to authority is contrasted with Christy’s supposed rebellion, which has made Christy the much more attractive option for Pegeen.
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Michael is horrified that Pegeen wants to marry a father killer. She says it would be a “bitter thing” to marry “the like” of Shawn. Michael asks Shawn if he has anything to say; is he not “jealous at all?” Shawn is afraid “to be jealous of a man did slay his da.” Pegeen insists she doesn’t want to marry Shawn.
Michael tries to get Shawn to live up to the values of the community; that is, he wants his future son-in-law to display the heroic characteristics of honor and a willingness to fight for his “property.” In short, he wants Shawn to mete out his own justice, just as Christy is alleged to have done. Shawn, of course, is as cowardly now as he was at the start of the play.
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As Shawn continues to try to persuade Pegeen, Christy intervenes aggressively. Michael is afraid of “murder in this place,” and tells Shawn and Christy to go on to the “foreshore” if they want to fight. Shawn says he’s too scared to fight Christy and implores Michael to do it. Michael, annoyed by Shawn’s cowardice, pushes him towards Christy. Christy picks up a loy, causing Shawn to run out of the pub.
Here a schism opens up between myth and reality. Michael—and by extension the village—is enamored by stories of violent deeds, but reluctant to have them take place where he lives. This would in part make them too real, and risk trouble with the “peelers.” The loy is a symbol of Christy’s original deed and his willingness to now act like a hero.
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Christy appeals to Michael to let him marry Pegeen, asking why he would want a “quaking blackguard” like Shawn in his house at all. Michael considers his family legacy, deciding that he’d rather have “a score of grandsons growing up little gallant swearers by the name of God, than go peopling my bedside with puny weeds” like Shawn. He joins Pegeen’s and Christy’s hands together, approving their engagement.
“Blackguard” is Irish English slang for a bad person, pronounced “blaggard.” Michael is easily persuaded to approve Christy and cast off Shawn, thinking about his own legacy in relation to the land in which he lives. He would rather populate it with a host of heroes than people like Shawn.
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Just then, Mahon rushes into the pub, followed by the crowd (including Widow Quin). He runs at Christy and strikes him down. Pegeen drags Mahon off, asking who he is. Mahon reveals that he is Christy’s father, and though Christy tries to say that Mahon is mad, nobody believes him.
Mahon comes back yet again, literally haunting Christy—but it’s worse because he’s actually alive. Christy tries to stick to the plan he has agreed to with Widow Quin, but it fails to convince the crowd.
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Pegeen is shocked that Christy has been lying: “and to think of the coaxing glory we had given him, and he after doing nothing but hitting a soft blow and chasing northward in a sweat of fear.” Though Christy pleads with her, she tells Mahon to take him away; she doesn’t want “the world” to see her “raging for a Munster liar and the fool of men.” The crowd taunts Christy.
Pegeen turns on Christy immediately when she realizes that Old Mahon is the father he is supposed to have killed. There is an element of spectacle in the scene, which is part of the same psychology that allowed the villagers to enjoy Christy’s story in the first place.
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Christy becomes increasingly desperate, realizing that no one will help him—not even Widow Quin. Mahon tries to grab Christy, who tells him to “leave me go.” The crowd is bloodthirsty for them to fight. Christy picks up a loy, threatening “a blow” that would “set the guardian angels winking in the clouds above.” The crowd shouts, “run from the idiot;” Christy angrily points out how, just moments ago, they were celebrating him.
Here, the scene of the original fight between Christy and Old Mahon is replayed. The only ostensible difference between the two is that in the first fight the villagers were not present, whereas now they are. Christy shows himself willing to strike a fatal blow on his father; that is, to do the exact deed that he had been rewarded for. Yet, faced with the deed in reality, the villagers are no longer appreciative; it has been shorn of its mythic value because it is no longer a story.
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Christy chases Mahon out of the pub with the loy. After a great noise and “a yell” outside, Christy comes back in. Widow Quin hurries in too, telling Christy that the crowd is turning against him and he needs to escape before he gets “hanged.” He insists that he won’t leave Pegeen, who should be impressed with him again now that he has dealt his father a fatal blow.
Though its offstage, it’s clear that Christy strikes his father again. The crowd is bloodthirsty and wants justice, without having a clear sense of the parameters of that justice. In essence, they want to impose their own collective authority and Widow Quin knows that they will come for Christy and tries to help him escape.
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Widow Quin implores Christy to go, saying there are plenty of other girls in the world. Christy replies stubbornly, “what’d I’d care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself maybe, from this place to the Eastern World.”
Christy retains part of his new character, showing determination and bravery (and still a little naiveté). This is a famously controversial line in the play. Audiences at the first performances objected to what they saw as the indecency of the word “shifts” (female underwear).
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Sara runs in and tries to disguise Christy in her petticoat to help him escape. Christy threatens the two women with a stool, insisting that he will wed Pegeen and be “a proven hero in the end of all.” Widow Quin goes to get a doctor, fearing Christy is going mad.
Christy, trying desperately to retain his heroic nature, refuses to be disguised. He feels that, if he can kill his father, it will prove his heroism and win him Pegeen.
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The men come back in. Philly confirms to Michael that Mahon is dead. Michael, fearing that the murder will get him and his community in trouble with the law, gives Shawn a rope to try and ensnare Christy so that they can then hang him. He’s too scared to do it, so Pegeen takes the rope and drops it over Christy’s head.
This highlights the hypocrisy of the villagers, who now feel they have to kill Christy for doing the exact deed that they had earlier venerated him for. Pegeen is angry at Christy for his dishonesty, but also feels the pressure of the entire community expecting Christy to be killed.
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Michael explains to Christy that hanging him is “an easy and speedy end,” necessary to keep the “peelers” away. Christy appeals to Pegeen, who says: “I’ll say a strange man is a marvel with his mighty talk; but what’s a squabble in your back-yard and the blow of a loy, have taught me that there’s a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed.” She implores the men to take Christy outside.
Pegeen comes to the realization of the difference between stories and reality. She sees Christy’s hero status as being inflated by his verbal dexterity, and is no longer impressed by his ability to act violently.
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Christy tussles with the villagers, insisting that if they take him to the gallows he’ll “shed the blood” of some of them before he dies. Christy squirms around on the floor and bites Shawn’s leg. He promises to come back and kill Shawn, thinking himself now on the side of “Satan,” who he says “hasn’t many have killed their da.”
Christy puts up a strong fight, again emphasizing that he is not the meek and mild man that first arrived at the pub. In fact, he is becoming a genuine moral outlaw, feeling himself to be outside of the village community and aligning himself with the most notorious of outlaws, Satan.
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Mahon, still alive, crawls back into the pub. Christy, also on his knees, asks his father if he wants to be “killed a third time.” Mahon wonders why the villages have tied up Christy. Christy explains that they’re trying to deliver him to the “peelers.” Michael apologetically explains to Mahon that their actions are necessary to prevent Michael from being ruined or hanged himself. 
Mahon comes back from the dead once again. Michael feels a kind of respect towards him based on them both being fathers and he absurdly tries to reason why Christy needs to die. The village is afraid of being in trouble with the peelers, and killing Christy, or turning him in, seems to be the easiest option for self-preservation.
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Mahon loosens the rope around Christy, insisting that they will be “going on our own way and we’ll have great times from this out telling stories of the villainy of Mayo and the fools is here.” Christy, now freed, says he will go with Mahon—but he will now be the “gallant captain,” and his father the “heathen slave.” He pushes his father out of the door, telling him not to speak. Mahon wonders again if he is going “crazy.”
Mahon exerts his authority by releasing his son, attempting to restore them to their former way of life. But Christy portrays an important change—he is no longer willing to be subservient to his father, symbolized by the way he pushes him out of the door. This disruption to normal reality again makes Mahon question his mental state.
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On his way out, Christy turns to the villagers, offering them “ten thousand blessings” for turning him into “a likely gaffer in the end of all.” Now, he says, he’ll “go romancing through a romping lifetime from this hour to the dawning of the judgment day.”
Christy feels that he is fundamentally changed, determined to take on the heroic characteristics that the village had temporarily granted him.
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Michael says, “by the will of God, we’ll have peace for our drinks.” He calls Pegeen to get them. Shawn goes up to Pegeen and says, “it’s a miracle Father Reilly can wed us in the end of all, and we’ll have none to trouble us when his vicious bite is healed.” Pegeen hits him on the ear, telling him to go away. She puts a shawl over her head and cries out wildly: “Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only playboy of the western world.”
Pegeen, too, is fundamentally changed, no longer willing to settle for the boring future that Shawn represents. Because Christy has now gone, his mystery is restored; he has returned into the unknowable outer world from whence he came. This explains her sudden change of attitude, switching from anger to grief, and ultimately demonstrating that she does see Christy as a heroic figure.
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