Revenge and Religion

In “The Playboy of the Western World,” I was intrigued by the way that death and violence were treated with such lightheartedness by the characters. I recognize that this play is largely satirical, but it was still interesting that Pegeen and her family praised Christy once they heard that he had murdered his own father, even if it was provoked by the father’s mistreatment of his son. Death is taken so lightly that this was considered honorable, and even heroic. Not only this, but Pegeen and her family simply accepted Christy’s explanation without any evidence that he had a justifiable reason to kill a man, and her father, Michael, even left her alone with him at night. 

This is not the only instance in which revenge murder is not only tolerated, but encouraged. When Christy’s father shows up later in the play, and Christy is proven to be a liar, the characters once again act upon Christy’s father’s word, without any sort of proof. There is no legal trial or official judgment when the characters decide to hang Christy; they simply decide to take matters into their own hands, which makes sense in the context of the play because it is already established that killing is almost a necessary way to deliver justice, about which nobody seems to think twice. Michael even says, “If we took pity on you, the Lord God would, maybe, bring us ruin from the law to-day, so you’d best come easy, for hanging is an easy and a speedy end” (1:57:35). This represents the underlying religious tone that is present throughout the play, and how God is a huge factor in the characters’ actions. The idea that God would prefer that they actually kill Christy instead of spare him is ironic, and does not really align with the forgiving nature of God that Catholics tend to preach. 

The tension between a supposedly-merciful God and the characters’ tendencies towards violence as a religious form of revenge serves as a point of reflection for the audience. The play might be considered a critique on Irish Catholicism, if it allows for such brutality. This makes me wonder if the play, which was set in the early 1900s, applied to the context of our class, might even be speaking to hatred involving racism. Although it does not directly deal with race, I wonder if the play’s depiction of Irish Catholic values gone astray can be applied to Irish racism towards Black Americans during and after the Civil War, especially with the knowledge of Daniel O’Connell’s disgusted stance on Irish Catholic involvement in American slavery.