The Royal Hunt of the Sun

by Peter Shaffer

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The Play

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The Royal Hunt of the Sun begins in darkness with old Martin, a wealthy soldier of Spain, serving as chorus and providing exposition. His function is to provide an eyewitness account of how the aging Francisco Pizarro, with a scruffy expeditionary army of 167, conquered an empire of 24 million Incans. “This story is about ruin,” he says. “Ruin and gold.” It is also a story of vaulting ambition and colonial greed. The mature Martin Ruiz rues the day he first set eyes upon Pizarro.

The action then shifts back in time some forty years to Trujillo, in Spain, where Pizarro is recruiting soldiers for his Peruvian expedition. Young Martin, a boy of fifteen, well schooled in the codes of chivalry and an idealistic advocate of his king and Roman Catholicism, is enlisted, along with others: Diego, who becomes master of horse; Salinas, the blacksmith; Rodas, the tailor; and the Chavez brothers, Juan and Pedro.

The second scene introduces Valverde, the Dominican chaplain; his associate, the Franciscan de Nizza; Pedro de Candia, a cavalier from Venice, in charge of weapons; and the arrogant Miguel Estete, overseer in the name of King Carlos V, who threatens to challenge Pizarro’s authority in the New World. The expedition departs into the forest at the end of the scene.

Scene 3 introduces the god-king Atahuallpa, Sovereign Inca of Peru; Villac Umu, his high priest; and Challcuchima, his general. Atahuallpa believes that the White God is coming to bless him. This naïve belief will be his undoing.

Thereafter, the action continues to alternate between the Incan court, fortified high in the mountains, and the approaching Spanish army. After six weeks, the army passes through the forest and arrives at the border of the Incan Empire, finding a road fifteen feet wide. The army is there met by the Incan general Challcuchima, who brings commands that the Spaniards should visit the god-king at Cajamarca, a month’s march up the mountains. Scene 8 contains “The Mime of the Great Ascent” high in the Andes. After they arrive, the Sovereign Inca demands to see their god, whom he believes to be Pizarro. Valverde, angered by his blasphemy, orders Pizarro to attack. Act 1 ends with “The Mime of the Great Massacre.” The Indians are massacred, and Atahuallpa is taken hostage, as Pizarro crowns himself.

Act 2 is titled “The Kill,” and here the conflict is brought down to a personal level between Pizarro and the captive Atahuallpa, who still has the power and authority to crush Pizarro and his meager invading army, vastly outnumbered by the native people. Communication is at first complicated by Felipillo, the treacherous Indian interpreter, who lusts after the Inca’s wife. Having learned enough of the Incan language to recognize Felipillo’s deceit, young Martin advises Pizarro. The tactful and honest Martin from that point forward becomes the interpreter and is therefore “privy to everything that passed between them during the next months.”

Pizarro, a cynic mainly interested in plunder, promises to set Atahuallpa free if the Inca will fill with gold a room twenty-two feet long by seventeen feet wide, and Atahuallpa commands that the gold be gathered from across his empire. He is trusting and does not entertain thoughts of Spanish treachery. During the time required to accumulate this treasure, Atahuallpa debates the nature of divinity with the churchmen and the nature of kingship with Pizarro.

The Spaniards put pressure on Pizarro to kill the Inca, but he would rather not. In conversation with his second-in-command, De Soto, Pizarro realizes that his reputation as conqueror will be assured only if he murders his...

(This entire section contains 705 words.)

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Incan counterpart. Atahuallpa calmly believes that because of his divinity he cannot be killed. He tells the sixty-three-year-old Pizarro: “You will die soon and you do not believe in your god. That is why you tremble and keep no word. Believe in me.”

Finally, Pizarro allows a Spanish court to accuse Atahuallpa “of usurping the throne and killing his brother; of idolatry and having more than one wife.” The god-king is found guilty and murdered; thus he fails the ultimate test of his divinity. Curiously, Pizarro seems to want to believe in Atahuallpa’s divinity and is devastated by this demonstration of the Inca’s mortality.

Dramatic Devices

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Peter Shaffer is arguably one of the most purely theatrical playwrights of his generation, skilled in constructing a distinctive theater of spectacle. His characters are mythic figures set within the framework of ritual drama, as evidenced especially in The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Equus, both plays structured around central quest figures. In The Royal Hunt of the Sun Pizarro describes his mission as “God-hunting,” and the Inca represents for him a primitive god in whom he wishes to believe. Like Dysart in Equus, however, Pizarro is fated to kill the god. Both Dysart and Pizarro are cynics—“figures of despair,” in the words of one critic—and neither one succeeds in achieving his spiritual goal.

Parallels between these two plays abound, despite the fact that Equus is set in contemporary England and The Royal Hunt of the Sun in sixteenth century Peru. Both plays are structured in two acts subdivided into multiple scenes. As Barbara Lounsberry has noted, the action of both plays follows a similar four-stage development: the god free, the god chained, the god sacrificed, and the sacrificer chained. In Equus the action is placed within a psychological contest, while in The Royal Hunt of the Sun the action is historical and the outcome determined by the “facts” of the historic conflict.

The historical Inca is a man trying to be a god, and so is Equus’s Alan Strang, the disturbed boy who mutilates horses. They are both younger than their adversaries, Pizarro and Dysart, and the conflict in both instances on the larger scale is between innocence and experience. Just as Atahuallpa trusts Pizarro, Alan trusts Dysart, the doctor who will cure him by killing his spiritual potential. Dysart understands what he is doing to his patient, unlike Pizarro, who knows that he is only a cog in the colonial machinery of imperial Spain but who seems somehow to believe in the serene transcendence of his adversary.

The larger conflicts of the two plays are essentially the same. The main conflict is that between the civilized and primitive worlds, with the suggestion that the primitive is bound to lose against the deviousness and treachery of the civilized. Pizarro is in conflict both with the Sovereign Inca and with himself. Christianity is in conflict with paganism.

The larger quest of a “hunt” for God gives the play an allegorical design, and the characters are to an extent locked into allegorical functions. The challenge is to make these symbolic characters believable as authentic human types, and Shaffer meets that challenge. Estete, for example, serves the king of Spain and has made the state his god. Martin Ruiz demonstrates how innocence is transformed by experience. As a young boy, Martin is a trusting idealist who believes devoutly in “the rules of Chivalry.” Pizarro’s actions destroy the ideal, leaving the older Martin with nothing to believe in. In the end, Martin is nearly as cynical as Pizarro, whom he has come to hate for showing him the way of the world and destroying his chivalric illusions. Chivalry, for Martin, is a failed religion.

The playwright’s second challenge was to translate symbolic action into effective theatrical terms, and in this regard Shaffer had the help of director John Dexter. The Royal Hunt of the Sun depends upon abstract spectacle and a flexible, abstract design that will advance the play. Two key actions are presented in mime—the ascent of Pizarro’s army into the Andes mountains and the massacre of the Incas. As with the final spectacle of Equus, the massacre of the Indians would be repugnant if represented in literal and naturalistic terms. Instead, the effect is of a purely imagined theatrical spectacle that will by nature resist being translated into another medium, such as the cinema. Some have argued that Shaffer’s success as a playwright is attributable mainly to the imaginative stagecraft of Dexter; this is an overstatement, perhaps, but Shaffer himself has acknowledged his debt to Dexter in the preface to the Equus text. First and foremost, The Royal Hunt of the Sun is an exquisitely designed piece of theater that can be perfectly realized only on the stage, and in this it shares a strong kinship with Equus.


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Sources for Further Study

Cooke, Virginia, and Malcolm Page. File on Shaffer. London: Methuen, 1987.

Dean, Joan F. “Peter Shaffer’s Recurrent Character Type.” Modern Drama 21 (September, 1978): 297-308.

Glenn, Jules. “Twins in Disguise: A Psychoanalytic Essay on Sleuth and The Royal Hunt of the Sun.” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 43, no. 2 (1974): 288-302.

Kerensky, Oleg. “Peter Shaffer.” In The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights Since Osborne and Pinter. London: Hamilton, 1977.

Klein, Dennis A. Peter and Anthony Shaffer: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

Klein, Dennis A. Peter Shaffer. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Lounsberry, Barbara. “God-Hunting: The Chaos of Worship in Peter Shaffer’s Equus and Royal Hunt of the Sun.” Modern Drama 21 (March, 1978): 13-28.

MacMurraugh-Kavanagh, M. K. Peter Shaffer: Theatre and Drama. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1998.

Pennel, Charles A. “The Plays of Peter Shaffer: Experiment in Convention.” Kansas Quarterly 3, no. 2 (1971): 100-109.

Plunka, Gene A. Peter Shaffer: Roles, Rites, and Rituals. Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988.

Stern, Carol Simpson. “Peter Shaffer.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Taylor, John Russell. Peter Shaffer. Harlow, England: Longman, 1974.


Critical Essays