The play can be read in several ways, and the possible interpretations are not necessarily exclusive. It represents a quest on at least three levels: the quest for gold by a greedy colonial power, Pizarro’s personal quest for fame and reputation, and the quest for faith and meaning in an apparently random and haphazard world. Because of these layers of symbolic meaning, the play demands to be considered as an allegory. It is more than simply a historical drama.
Like Peter Shaffer’s play Equus (pr., pb. 1973), The Royal Hunt of the Sun reveals the playwright’s fascination with the ancient world and its religions. This fascination, which is more clearly articulated in Equus by Martin Dysart, is dramatized in The Royal Hunt of the Sun and commented upon by Martin Ruiz, who mediates the action for the audience much as Dysart does in Equus. The suggestion in both instances is that modern humankind has lost something of value as a consequence of distancing itself from the primitive. Pizarro wants desperately to believe in Atahuallpa. The Inca believes in himself and his power, but his power has never been tested by cynical nonbelievers such as the Spaniards. Atahuallpa is a perfect icon of honesty and trust, while the Spaniards are dishonest and deceptive. In the end Pizarro cannot deny his own nature and conditioning, but he is still seeking some means of transcendence.
Martin Ruiz and Pizarro are both middle-aged men undergoing a crisis of faith. They are modern men who sense that organized religion cannot provide for their spiritual needs and yearn for a release through primitive, ritualistic worship. Clearly, Atahuallpa is a noble figure, godlike in his serenity in the face of danger and treachery that he cannot quite comprehend. Marcos de Nizza, the spiritual leader of the expeditionary force, by contrast seems politically compromised and morally bankrupt.
The play also criticizes European civilization, which is more greed-centered than God-centered. The conquistadores invade Peru in the name of Christianity, but their true motive is clearly greed and, in the case of Pizarro, ambition for fame. The themes of the play as announced by Martin are “ruin and gold,” and the play can easily be read as an indictment of colonial exploitation.
The Incas live in a peaceful and prosperous, well-structured and decently governed society. The implication is that their civilization may in fact be superior to the civilization represented by the invading Spaniards, who are clearly interested only in plunder. What is ruined is as much the decadent Spaniards as the Inca empire they leave wasted behind them. As the older Martin gives evidence, the ill-gotten gains of plunder and colonial exploitation have not provided much spiritual comfort. The play sets in clear contrast Martin’s youthful idealism and his later conscience-ridden cynicism. Miguel Estete is the perfect allegorical representative of the king of Spain—vain, arrogant, and utterly lacking in compassion or human understanding. Old Martin summarizes the fate of Peru: “We gave her greed, hunger and the Cross; three gifts for the civilized life.” The Spaniards turned “the family groups that sang on the terraces” into slaves, leaving in their wake “a silent country, frozen in avarice.” Martin goes on to speak of the ruin and fall of Spain, “gorged with gold, distended; now dying.”
Shaffer therefore invites the spectator to judge a civilization by the quality of its religion, and Christianity is clearly found wanting. Both Martin and Pizarro have rejected organized religion; Pizarro, in particular, finds primitive worship as a possible alternative to atheism, which affords no potential for spiritual expression. Martin’s mistake was to idolize...
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Pizarro as a chivalric hero. Actually, Pizarro has only contempt for the ideals of chivalry. The chivalric knight owes his allegiance to his God and to his king; Pizarro, however, is a cynic and an atheist, so he essentially betrays the false image that Martin has romantically fabricated.
Shaffer’s characters reveal a schizophrenic split between the actual and the ideal. Martin perfectly captures this split by being presented on one hand as a hopeful and trusting young idealist and on the other as an older and disillusioned cynic who has witnessed and understood the death of idealism and hope through the fate of Pizarro. Pizarro yearns for transcendence. He shifts his faith from Christianity to the Incan sun god, and when Atahuallpa dies, so does his faith and his final hope, and so, too, does Martin’s faith in Pizarro.