The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.