The Royal Hunt of the Sun

by Peter Shaffer

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What are the themes in The Royal Hunt of the Sun?

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This rich drama is so much more than a mere historical narrative of the colonialism of South America by Spain. Although the focus on this historical event clearly links to the theme of colonial exploitation and greed, at the same time this rich play comments equally on the theme of the need for status and reputation and also faith in an uncertain world. The comment on colonialism and how negative Spain was to the ancient Inca kingdom is however one of the central messages of this play. Note what Old Martin says at the very end after Atahuallpa has been strangled about the fate of the new nation of Peru:

We gave her greed, hunger and the cross: three gifts for the civilised life. The family groups that sang on the terraces are gone. In their place slaves shuffle underground and they don't sing there. Peru is a silent country, frozen in avarice. So fell Spain, gorged with gold; distended; now dying.

Sarcastically, Martin says that the "three gifts for the civilised life" only served to enslave the Inca people and replace freedom with the chains of exploitation. The image of the singing being replaced by slaves toiling in mines acts as a chilling summary of what colonialism brought to Peru, which is a country that is now "silent" and "frozen" thanks to the avarice of Spain. This negative impact is not restricted to Peru alone, as Old Martin suggests Spain has equally suffered from its unrestricted greed and plunder. Old Martin at the very beginning of the play says this tale is one of "Ruin and gold," and the ending clearly states how the two are linked through the rapacious exploitation of the colonial power of Spain.

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