Symbolism in The Playboy of the Western World
Symbols are a powerful way of conveying information and feelings by
substituting something concrete to represent an idea e.g. the heart
(love), the dove (peace). Such representation is called symbolism.
In writing The Playboy of the Western World, Synge serves us an Irish
delicacy, in which lies the subtle yet memorable flavour of symbolism,
in the midst of rollicking comedy and luscious language.
The play opens with Pegeen writing about wedding requirements since
she is to marry Shawn Keogh. This marriage is a symbol of the Mayo
peasants’ bondage to a life of boredom, from which only ‘until death
do (they) part’. Christy, however, takes the village of Mayo
temporarily out of this reality, as Pegeen answers to his question
with the words, “What would I want a wedding so young?” knowing that
she is to marry Shawn. It appears a life of excitement awaits Pegeen
but she says rightly “We’re only talking, maybe.” Just as Pegeen’s
marriage to Shawn was delayed but not altogether dismissed by
Christy’s appearance so the excitement in Mayo was temporary and
boredom continuation inevitable. Such symbolism is effective in that
it links together the individual and communal levels of the play.
The picture we first obtain about Christy from Shawn is symbolic of
the epic proportions of Christy’s account reaches. Shawn tells of “a
kind of fellow” stealing poultry, following him and probably going to
kill him, “groaning wicked like a maddening dog,” when in reality
appears only “a very tired and frightened” young man. Christy
testifies of how his ‘da’ lay “stretched out” and “split to the knob
of his gullet” when his father is actually alive and after him. Thus
Shawn’s account serves as the starter in this meal of exaggeration so
whetting the audience’s dramatic appetite.
The clean, soft bed that Christy mentions towards the end of Act I is
symbolic of the situation he has created for himself. He has made his
bed, from his story telling, and is now lying in it, as the proverb
follows. The bed is “clean” as in his story he is in the right; the
bed is also “soft” as being potboy is relatively comfortable, bearing
promise even of “soft, lovely skin” (symbolic of gentility and genteel
lifestyle that every commoner and peasant would aspire to). The
implications of such symbolism are soon fulfilled by the locals and
their gifts of homage to their (mock) hero. The eggs, butter cake and
pullet are symbols of the comforts and richness of the life that
awaits Christy as he achieves full self-realization. In the same way,
the three wise men’s gifts to Christ upon his birth were symbolic:
gold is fit...