Act One Scene Five

Synopsis of Scene 5

Dysart is alone, and addresses the audience directly, telling them about a dream he had which has disturbed him. The dream seems to be based on classical myths and involves ritual sacrifice of children. In the dream, Dysart is the chief priest and cuts open the children. This makes him feel sick but he is afraid to give himself away. However, eventually the mask he is wearing slips and his assistants turn on him. At this point, he wakes up.

Commentary on Scene 5

Homeric Greece: In his dream, Dysart is in the ancient Greece written about by the epic poet Homer, who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey in the eighth century BC. This period conjures up an age of fighting and bloodshed, in which sacrifices to the gods were common.

Death mask of AgamemnonMask … Mycenae: The Mask of Agamemnon is a gold death-mask discovered by an archaeologist in 1876. Initially the mask was thought to belong to Agamemnon, a great warrior written about by Homer, among other writers, but was later concluded to have been made earlier than this.

plain of Argos: Argos is a place near Mycenae, associated with classical legends. It is where, according to the ancient plays by Euripides, the warrior Agamemnon went to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia.

hieroglyphics: These were the pictograms of ancient writing (usually Egyptian) which need to be translated for modern readers. In Dysart’s dream, the intestines of the children are thrown onto the floor and ‘read’ in much the same way, as his assistants look for signs and omens. This is a literal rendition of Dysart’s work as a psychiatrist.

mask: The references to masks in this scene refer not only to the actual masks the people are wearing in the dream, like the chorus of a Greek play, but to the metaphorical masks behind which people hide. This suggests that Dysart feels he is playing the part of a psychiatrist.

Investigating scene 5...

  • How does Dysart feel about his dream?
  • What do you think the meaning of the dream is?
    • What is the significance of the ‘reading’ of the ‘hieroglyphics’?
    • What will happen after his assistants have taken the knife off him? Why?
  • Why do you think Shaffer frames the dream in terms of classical references?
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