Critical Context

The human quest for spiritual fulfillment or belief in something of spiritual worth seems to be a major concern of Peter Shaffer, and the tragic dimension in many of his plays derives from the playwright’s apparent conviction that, for various reasons often related to feelings of inadequacy and envy, humans seem compelled to destroy either what they believe in or their capacity for belief.

Although Shaffer’s first play, Five Finger Exercise (pr., pb. 1958), was conventional in its setting and its portrayal of a generally banal, upper-middle-class English family, what marked the play as important and Shaffer as a serious dramatist was Walter, a young German tutor whose desperate struggles to attain a place of belonging in such a family (wherein he imagines he will find spiritual peace) destroy him and fracture the family’s complacency.

On a much grander scale, and with an enormous cast and a set representing locales in Spain and Peru, Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun (pr., pb. 1964), his second stage play, presents a man murderously determined to succeed in his spiritual quest to find the source of life. The man is Pizarro, Spanish conquerer of the Incas. While he longs to discover the means to achieve immortality and wants desperately to believe that the Inca leader Atahuallpa is the powerful god he claims to be, Pizarro’s megalomania causes the massacre of an entire people—including the revered Atahuallpa...

(The entire section is 406 words.)