Chains and bondage

Literal and metaphorical tethering

There are images throughout Equus of horses and humans being tethered or chained, either literally or metaphorically. Shaffer also plays with the idea of who is controlling whom.

Alan learns how a horse has to be controlled by a bit and bridle, but sees the ‘chinkle-chankle’ almost as an accoutrement of the horse’s grandeur. He voluntarily submits himself to a similar, symbolic harness, with his string noose, coat-hanger crop and stick ‘Manbit’, as a way of subsuming the horse’s power.

It is Dysart who more fully understands the control which the horse’s bit imposes. He sees how the ‘non-stop jerks and jabs’ (Sc 1) of daily life for a horse cannot be escaped because ‘the bit forbids it’, then applies the metaphor to his own life. Dysart begins the chronology of action as a man whose professional status gives him power to manipulate young psyches. He ends the play feeling utterly powerless, unable to confront the power of worship/passion/the unknowable and permanently chained in subjection to it.

The bondage of the ordinary 

One of the reasons why Dysart is drawn to Alan’s passion is because it represents an escape from the bondage of the ordinary.

In his soliloquy of Scene 35 he describes modern life as being curtailed by materialism and technical advances. Modern life substitutes plastic and metal for the warmth of horse-hide; it drives roads through locations destroying any human appreciation of belonging to a natural environment (so important in Ancient Greek culture). Alan’s future will be as a producer (working in a factory) and consumer (of a scooter then a car), ‘tethered .. in dim light’.

Dysart wants to escape his mundane marriage to Margaret, a woman he has not kissed for six years, both having retreated into their respective ‘surgeries’. He longs to find a companion with whom he can share an intuitive understanding of - and wonder at - the environment. He reaches out to Hesther, but she evades his advances, and there is nowhere for him to go other than the dreary prison of his living-room.

In Scene 25 Dysart recognises that he is held back by his own lack of ‘horsepower’ (given substance by his low sperm count) and impulse for security. What should be wild explorations of the ‘womb of civilisation’ are actually ‘cautious jaunts’ where ‘every bed [is] booked in advance’. He lives more fully through his books than in reality.

The Equus religion

Alan’s development of a religion around the figure of Equus initially grants him freedom from the constraints of his life. He can escape the control of his parents and the demands of customers in the shop. Unlike the conflicted views of his parents, he can experience unbridled power and passion, untrammelled worship.

However, Shaffer makes the point that, ultimately, Alan is enslaved by his worship. The ‘Godslave’ becomes a monster who possesses him and from whom Alan must beg forgiveness – forgiveness for behaving as a ‘normal’ teenager might expect to act. He tries to break his bondage to the horse by taking out the horses’ eyes, but in his mind knows that Equus still has power over him.

Perhaps Shaffer is using the arc of worship/enslavement as a metaphor for organised religion. He is certainly critical, through the voice of Frank, about how:

religious people .. always think their susceptibilities are more important than non-religious (Sc 7)

and that what Dora has been doing is ‘dosing [Christianity] down the boy’s throat’, that the Bible is responsible for the damage to Alan’s psyche.

Sexual liberation?

Another area of bondage is human sexuality. The scene at the ‘skinflick’ demonstrates the enslavement of pornography – an addiction in which Frank is also caught up. Unable to freely express his sexuality with his wife, he has become, in Alan’s view, a ‘poor old sod.’

Jill comes across as having no real inhibitions about her sexuality. She is just curious about pornography, rather than embarrassed, and finds it easy to start getting undressed before Alan. It is clear that she has already had a number of partners, but even here, Shaffer’s insertion of the information that she was abandoned by her own father may be a hint that she is driven to seek affection in this way, much to the discomfort of her mother.

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