Equus: Critical approaches

Initial reviews

When Equus was first performed in Britain in 1973, it received mixed reviews – some very good and others not so enthusiastic. Reviewers were concerned by issues such as:

  • The violence and nudity in the play
  • The cruelty to animals depicted on stage
  • The treatment of the profession of psychiatry.

A few books which will provide a good introduction to critical thought on Equus are listed in Resources and further reading. Peter Shaffer (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992), by C. J. Gianakaris, provides a good general introduction to Peter Shaffer’s work.

Psychiatric approaches

One approach to Equus is to examine it in the light of a range of psychiatric theories, such as those espoused by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, since the play is concerned with the psychiatric profession and practice. This enables us to examine the play in a dispassionate way. Instead of becoming involved with the extreme emotions and tensions in the script, critics apply psychiatric models to the characters – almost as it they were diagnosing the characters.

For example, a psychiatric approach would consider for each character, their:

  • Behaviour
  • Background and influences
  • Approach to deep-rooted issues such as sexuality and religion
  • Interaction and dialogue with other characters.

They would also consider the structure of the play and how it reflects and/or supports the behaviours of the characters.

More on Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung...:

  • Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) was an Austrian who began as a neurologist but went on to found the discipline of psychoanalysis. He was particularly interested in the unconscious mind (the id) and the concept of repression. Although today his theories are sometimes disputed, his many books on psychoanalysis are still very influential.
  • Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) was an eminent Swiss psychiatrist, whose writings have had a huge impact on the development of psychiatric studies across the world. He corresponded and worked with Freud for many years.


Structuralism is a critical approach which would consider the theoretical overarching structure of a text. It encompasses cultural or social structures and can also examine the formal structure of a text – i.e. its act and scene divisions, how location and action shifts, the organising principle of a work. (Structuralist writers include Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan, and many structuralist critics would also consider the work of Freud and Jung.)  

This approach might therefore consider:

  • How cultural structures of religion are depicted in the play
  • How the characters exist within social structures (e.g. social class), and whether they conform or resist
  • How the play is structured around the psychiatric treatment of Alan
  • The ways in which the play is structured so that characters fit into a pattern.

For example, one structuralist approach might consider the writings of Foucault, in his book Discipline and Punish (1975), as an appropriate framework in which to read the play. This is because Foucault writes about ways in which those who have committed crimes can be rehabilitated, by examining the structures of society and of discipline. 


Philosophy as a subject considers aspects of human life such as faith and the workings of the mind, which makes it a particularly relevant approach for this text. A philosophical approach to the play would be likely to consider those elements relating to religious faith, the impact of society and the nature of freedom.

Alan and his family have a complex relationship with religious faith, and the effects that it has had on Alan, so a philosophical approach to this play might include: 

  • Alan’s faith development and the established faith of his mother, Dora, as well as Frank’s resistance to any form of religious belief
  • The play’s positive or negative approach to matters of faith, and the impact this might have on an audience or reader
  • Dysart’s treatment of Alan 
  • Dysart’s own emotional problems and his desire for freedom from everyday life.

A performance text

It is impossible to appreciate Equus without acknowledging how it functions in performance. It is therefore important to assess the ways in which the play is staged, the stage directions and stage set (both of which are detailed and very specific in Equus) and how all this affects the action of the play.  

It is of course important to realise that the staging as set out in printed editions of the play relates just to one production of the play (by the National Theatre in 1973) and that other directors may stage the play in different ways. 

Considering the staging of Equus would include:

  • Looking at Shaffer’s descriptions for the stage set, and considering the limitations and possibilities of these directions
  • Examining the directions and descriptions for each character, and considering how they reflect the character’s role in the play
  • Considering the significance of the chorus of horses
  • Thinking about the theatrical influences demonstrated by Shaffer’s stage directions (for more information about developments in twentieth century theatre, see Aspects of Literature > Developments in drama > Expressionism and beyond; Post-modern theatre)
  • Considering how the non-naturalistic elements of the play work, and the overall effect of the action in the play
  • Finding out ways in which the play has been staged and comparing them (for example, seeing the play performed and comparing it with the film).
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.