Religious / philosophical context

The decline of widespread religious belief in Britain

Although Britain was officially a Christian country, religious observance there declined in general during the twentieth century. The huge destruction of the First World War and Second World War challenged people’s belief in a beneficent God, whilst the advance of scientific rationalism questioned the orthodoxy of the creation. Meanwhile, the advance of economic prosperity from the 1950s onwards appeared to satisfy people’s longings with materialism.

By the 1960s, previously sacrosanct practices had become the object of satire and religious belief became relegated to the world of the personal rather than regulating social behaviour and expression. Those who were committed in their beliefs were regarded with a degree of scepticism. This can be seen in Shaffer’s portrayal of Dora Strang, whose religious convictions are a key factor in our negative judgement of the character.

Shaffer’s faith

Peter Shaffer’s own family were Orthodox Jews. This means that Shaffer grew up in an environment in which religious faith was taken seriously, and the family would have attended the synagogue regularly to worship and to meet other people.

More on JudaismJudaism is a religion based upon the teachings of the Old Testament and other texts such as the Talmud. Orthodox Judaism follows the principles of these books strictly, as revealing the laws and commandments of God. Jews recite prayers daily, and attend the synagogue on a Saturday, their weekly celebration of Shabbat/Sabbath. The principal feasts celebrated each year include Hanukkah, Purim and Yom Kippur. Judaism is a ritualised religion, with specific objects, clothes and prayers for different occasions.     

Although the religion which features in Equus is not Jewish, the ideas of faith in a higher being which the play explores are relevant and may have their roots in the faith of Shaffer’s family.

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