What are the themes in The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge?

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The primary themes of The Playboy of the Western World on the literal level are the Oedipus Complex reversed, the difficulty of growing up, and the power of rumor over information. On a metaphorical level, the challenge of rebellion to colonial tyranny is strongly suggested.

The crux of the play...

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The primary themes of The Playboy of the Western World on the literal level are the Oedipus Complex reversed, the difficulty of growing up, and the power of rumor over information. On a metaphorical level, the challenge of rebellion to colonial tyranny is strongly suggested.

The crux of the play is that Christy, the protagonist, thinks he has committed patricide but has not. In the classic Oedipus play, Oedipus did kill his father but did not know it. Christy attacked his bully father, then ran off thinking he had killed him. Finding refuge in the pub, he shares the tale with the villagers, who construct a myth around his exploits. Ultimately, when the father appears decidedly non-dead, Christy’s failure is revealed. Unlike Oedipus, Christy did not marry his mother. However, his acceptance as a leader and hero in the community can be taken as a social marriage, although not a sexual relationship, and through his actions he does win Pegeen.

Growing up involves not just Christy but Pegeen and Shawn as well. As an impulsive, angry young man, Christy lashes out at his father, not thinking about the future implications. Even though he thinks he speaks truthfully to the villagers, he has not established the facts. And rather than face the consequences, he fleed and left his father to die. Through conversing with them, and getting to known Pegeen, he finds himself for the first time amidst a caring community. As Pegeen comes to doubt her relationship with Shawn, she also faces the facts of her father’s domination. In her case, however, growing up includes an acceptance of the reality of her family dynamic. While she might trade Christy for Shawn, she cannot escape her father.

The whole plot, until Christy’s father appears alive, hinges on the villagers’ acceptance of Christy’s tale. All the “information” is rumor; nothing is supported. The story takes on a life of its own as the villagers spread it and make it more elaborate. When it turns out to not be true, they do not accept responsibility for the exaggerations, but blame Christy.

As the play was written during the Troubles, it is often interpreted as an allegory of Irish anti-British resistance. In that scenario, Old Mahon represents the British and Christy is the Irish. The fact that he fails is seen to parallel the historical problem of the actual Irish rebellions.

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When this play was first written in 1907, it sparked riots in Ireland, as it was seen as blasphemous and insulting to Irish nationalists. The themes of the play include the value of rebellion. Christy Mahon commits the ultimate rebellion in his desire to kill his father, though he doesn't actually accomplish the deed. Peegan Mike, as the bartender's daughter is called, loves Christy for his rebellion and declares in grief at the end of the play, after choosing the more conventional Shawn Keough to wed, "I've lost the only Playboy of the Western World." The townspeople also celebrate Christy's supposed act of patricide, going against the dictates of religion and society.

The play also celebrates the value of freedom and unconventionality. As the play goes on and Christy develops as a character who is celebrated for his unconventionality, his speech develops a quality of poetry that he did not have earlier in the play. For example, when Peegan asks why Christy is lonely in Act II, he responds:

"It's well you know what call I have. It's well you know it's a lonesome thing to be passing small towns with the lights shining sideways when the night is down, or going in strange places with a dog nosing before you and a dog nosing behind, or drawn to the cities where you'd hear a voice kissing and talking deep love in every shadow of the ditch, and you passing on with an empty, hungry stomach failing from your heart."

Christy has transformed himself from a roughhewn country fellow into a romantic poet, and the freedom of being liberated from his father's control (or thinking he's free from his father) is the reason for his transformation. The play should be understood in the context of the times, when Ireland was considering freeing itself from English control, and the playwright celebrates the idea of shaking off one's family (or any source of authority) and living freely and unconventionally. 

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There are several different  themes in The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge. The first is gender relationships. The women in the play appear in some ways to be stronger than the men, and although admiring strength in men (e.g. Pegeen dumping the weaker Shawn for the stronger Christy) tend to usurp positions of domestic strength. The next theme is how the Roman Catholic Church seems to be complicit in building a passive character (e.g. Shawn). The next theme is how bullying gets passed down through the generation (Christy and his father). Finally, there is the sense that the "western world" is not the place of Celtic tradition and noble natives of popular imagination, but rather that oppression have built a character of cowardice and bullying.

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