Death and the King's Horseman Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Death and the King’s Horseman, one of Soyinka’s tragedies, presents a representation of the Yoruba worldview. In Yoruba cosmology, there are three worlds: the world of the living, the world of the dead, and the world of the unborn. This play focuses on what connects all three worlds—transition, the pathway on which members of the different worlds meet and interact.

The opening of the play involves the ritual ceremonies for the burial of a dead king. Elesin, the king’s horseman, attired in glorious robes, enters the village marketplace in a majestic dance procession, followed by praise-singers and drummers. Elesin dances until he is in a trance, a state of transition. He performs poetry and song about the world of the ancestors and the connectedness of the three worlds.

The purpose of this ceremony is to help the dead king travel peacefully to the world of the dead. It should conclude with the suicide of Elesin, whose soul will accompany the king’s. Elesin sees a beautiful woman in the crowd and demands one night of love with her before he dies. Iyaloja, the mother of the marketplace, reluctantly agrees.

Also in the village is the British colonial district officer, Pilking. He is well-meaning but unable to understand or respect the Yoruban people. He also performs a dance at a gathering of his own people—a mocking imitation of an African dance in captured regalia. When Pilking hears of Elesin’s intention to die, he has him arrested to prevent it.

Soyinka makes it clear in his preface that this is not a mere clash of cultures; this is not simply a case of the white colonialist interfering with native culture. Elesin has failed to perform his duty, and his failure has cosmic significance. The white officer is a catalyst, but he cannot otherwise affect the village. The cosmic world is untouched by colonialism and materialism.

Elesin’s son Olunde, a doctor, returns from England. He has heard of the king’s death and assumes that his father’s death is near. Olunde reveres native culture and has had wide experience of Western culture. He tries unsuccessfully to make Pilking understand Yoruban belief. Ashamed to see his father’s failure, he kills himself in Elesin’s place.

When Elesin sees his son’s body, he takes his own life. This suicide is the result of shame, however, not duty, and it cannot repair the bonds that have been broken. The young bride, pregnant from her one night with Elesin, appears. She ritually closes her husband’s eyes as Iyaloja says, “Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.”

Death and the King's Horseman Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The alafin (king) dies. It is time for his chief lieutenant, Elesin Oba, to will his own death, so that he might accompany the alafin on his passage to the next life. As Elesin enters the market, the Praise-Singer pleads with him to tarry a while, to enjoy the last fruits of life in this world. Elesin, a man of enormous courage, rejects this plea and boasts of his readiness to meet death without fear. He talks of the Not-I bird that sounds at the approach of death, echoed by people from all levels of society who seek to flee death—all but he, the king’s horseman, who was born and lived for this moment.

The women of the marketplace, led by Iyaloja, also ask whether he is truly ready to face death, praising him all the while for his strength of will. On this night, nothing can be denied him: rich clothing, fine food, beautiful women, all are at his pleasure. A beautiful young woman, the Bride, catches his eye. He determines that he will have her, even though she is already promised as a bride to Iyaloja’s son. Tactfully, Iyaloja suggests that he should not claim the Bride, just as an honorable man will leave food at a feast for the children. The insistence of the king’s horseman at this moment cannot be denied, however, and Elesin and the woman retire to the bridal chamber.

At the district officer’s house, the Pilkingses prepare to attend a costume ball in honor of the visiting British prince. They are modeling their disguises, ritual masks of the Yoruba dead cult, when Sergeant Amusa arrives to report a disturbance in the marketplace caused by Elesin’s preparations for death. A Muslim, Amusa is flustered by the Pilkingses’ blasphemous use of the death masks in a nonreligious context and cannot express himself clearly. The Pilkingses’ servant, Joseph, a convert to Christianity, explains what is happening, whereupon Simon Pilkings decides to halt the ritual suicide, upholding Western ideals of the sanctity of life. Pilkings orders Amusa to make the arrest while he and his wife go to meet the Prince.

Back in the marketplace, Amusa’s attempt to enter the bridal chamber and arrest Elesin is blocked by Iyaloja and the young women, who mock the policeman as a eunuch neutered by the white colonial authorities. Defeated by the women, Amusa retreats to seek reinforcement. Then Elesin emerges from the bridal chamber bearing bloodstained bedclothes, evidence of the Bride’s virginity and his success in impregnating her, creating a union of life and the passage to death. Filled with vitality and sexual satisfaction, he momentarily loses his will to die, but recovers and falls gradually into a trance. As his spirit moves away from this world, his body begins a heavy dance accompanied by the Praise-Singer’s ritual pronouncements.

Amusa arrives at the ball in tattered clothing to report his failure to arrest Elesin. Pilkings, admonished by his supervisor to maintain control, takes matters into his own hands, going off to arrest Elesin. While he is gone, Elesin’s son Olunde, whom the Pilkingses befriended and sent to England to study medicine, arrives, expecting to bury his father after hearing in England of the alafin’s death. As Jane Pilkings and Olunde speak of England, Olunde shows that he does not accept British values, despite his Western education.

Seeking a topic on which they might agree, Olunde and Jane discuss the progress of the war. Jane tells him of an English naval captain who died while destroying his ship, thereby saving the city. She finds his self-sacrifice difficult to understand, convinced there must have been another way. Olunde finds the self-sacrifice life-affirming, being death in the cause of life. Jane then informs him that her husband is en route to prevent Elesin’s suicide. Olunde explains that Pilkings’s success would be catastrophic because of the ritual importance of the horseman’s death. Pilkings returns and becomes nervous and distracted on hearing Olunde’s words. The mood is explained when a heavily chained Elesin arrives on the scene; Pilkings has succeeded. Olunde first ignores his father’s presence and then rejects him, calling him, like Amusa, an eater of leftovers.

In his prison cell beneath the resident’s palace, Elesin first blames Pilkings for arresting him. The moment at which Elesin should have joined the alafin on his journey to heaven passed with the arrest, and it is too late to restore the cosmic order. Elesin claims to have regained his sense of purpose after experiencing the contempt of his son, but Elesin is no longer able to carry out his own death. When Pilkings is called away, Elesin shifts blame to the Bride for tempting him away from his destiny. In truth, the white man only provided an excuse for him to succumb to his desire to remain in the world, enjoying its pleasures.

The Pilkingses return to the cell to announce a visitor, Iyaloja, who castigates Elesin for his loss of will and the betrayal of his people. She also announces that a volunteer is found to carry Elesin’s last message: that he will not come to the waiting alafin. When the body of this messenger is carried into the prison area, Pilkings and Elesin are both horrified to recognize Olunde, who takes his father’s place. In a final affront to Elesin’s lost honor, Pilkings refuses to allow Elesin to whisper the ritual message in his son’s ear, thus—from the Yoruba perspective—completing the destruction of the cosmic order. Left with nothing to salvage, Elesin strangles himself with his own chains before the colonial authorities can react. His death, however, comes too late to fulfill his hereditary function. What hopes remain lie with the unborn child the Bride carries, the only fruit of the night’s events.

Death and the King's Horseman Summary

Act I
As Death and the King’s Horseman opens, Elesin Oba walks through a Nigerian village market at the close of the...

(The entire section is 1295 words.)

Death and the King's Horseman Summary and Analysis

Summary and Analysis: Act I

New Characters
Praise Singer: Accompanied by various drummers, he follows Elesin Oba and sings praises of his deeds.

Elesin Oba: The horseman of the King.

Iyaloja: “Mother” of the market and acknowledged leader of the market women.

Various market women.

A beautiful young girl.

Summary
The market is closing for the day. Women are emptying the stalls, folding mats, and putting away their wares. Elesin Oba, the king’s horseman, enters via a passage in front of the market scene, pursued by praise singers and drummers. He is described in the stage directions as a man of enormous vitality. The primary Praise Singer asks Elesin what tryst he is hurrying off to, and Elesin laughs at the joke. They tease each other a great deal in this scene, speaking to each other in highly poetic language. Elesin states that the market is the home of his spirit and that he has neglected “his” women, by which he means the market women. The Praise Singer states that the women will cover him with expensive cloths because it is a special day. He coyly asks Elesin if there will be a praise singer like him on the “other side.” He expresses doubt that Elesin will meet the Praise Singer’s father, and if not he or his father, who else can sing the horseman’s deeds in such beautiful accents? Elesin tells the Praise Singer that he is like a jealous wife and that rather than accompanying the horseman on his journey to the other side, the Praise Singer must remain behind and sing of his honor and fame to the world of the living. The Praise Singer promises Elesin Oba that his name will be like a sweet berry on the world’s tongue.

At this, the horseman bids the Praise Singer to proceed with him into the market. The Praise Singer acknowledges that the women of the market will spoil the horseman, but he also warns Elesin to be wary of women because too much spoiling weakens a man. Elesin insists that he will lay his head in the women’s laps tonight because he wishes to smell the air of the market one more time before he goes to meet his great forebears.

The Praise Singer then speaks poetically of the continuity of the culture and the way that the world as they know it will keep its course. To illustrate this idea, Elesin replies by chanting and performing the story of the “Not-I bird.” In the story of the Not-I bird, Elesin chants that Death comes calling, but the farmer, the fearless hunter, the courtesan, the student, a kinsman, and a courier all deny that they can hear Death’s calling, out of fear. Everyone says, “not I,” and a bird takes the phrase as its song. Elesin chants that the Not-I bird was even heard in the forest when all other animals were crouching in fear. The Not-I was a restless little bird that Death found nesting in the leaves. Elesin observes that while even the immortal beings were afraid of death, he alone had the courage to tell the Not-I bird to go back to his nest. He explains that he alone is unafraid of Death; he will not say “not-I” to Death when Death comes calling. Elesin tells his rapt audience that he is the master of his fate, and when the hour comes, he will dance along the narrow path. He says that his soul is eager, and that he will not turn aside from the path. During this time, the gathering audience has become infected with Elesin’s humor and energy. Iyaloja and more market women have joined the audience. The women ask him if there is nothing that will hold the horseman back. Elesin affirms that he will approach Death confidently because he goes to keep his friend and master, the king, company. He tells the women how he and the king shared everything, including food and thoughts. The town, the land, the world itself has been his because of his great relationship to the king. Together, they withstood the siege of envy and the termites of time. Elesin proudly tells his audience that life is honor, and life ends when honor ends. The women assure him that they know he is a man of honor. This appears to offend Elesin, who insists that they stop. The women are puzzled and nervous, wondering what they have said that was wrong. Iyaloja speaks for all the women, telling Elesin that they are unworthy and that they ask his forgiveness. The women all kneel down. At first, Elesin behaves as if he is too insulted to explain what the women have done wrong, but after some coaxing from the Praise Singer, he tells his audience that words are cheap. Asking the women how should a man of honor seem, Elesin establishes the appearance of humility and then laughs at his own joke. The women stand up, relieved, and Elesin indicates that he was only playing; the offence was not real. Happily, Iyaloja directs the women to robe the king’s horseman richly, in the cloths of honor, friendship, and esteem. Together, like a chorus, the women say they truly feared they had wrenched the world adrift.

While the women adorn him in fancy cloths and dance around him, the horseman’s attention is drawn offstage. He announces that the world is good and that he was born to keep it so. The women affirm that the world is in his hands.

At this moment, a beautiful young girl enters along the market path. Elesin tells the women that he embraces the world and appreciates the farewell the world has designed. He tells the Praise Singer how great his reputation is, and the Praise Singer confirms this by referring to the horseman as a stallion. Elesin then asks Iyaloja who the girl is, calling her a goddess. As he describes her beautiful body in the most poetic terms, Iyaloja starts to interrupt him by calling his name. Elesin responds by reminding her that he is still among the living, and inquires again who the radiant girl is. Iyaloja tells him that the girl already has one step in her husband’s home. Irritated, Elesin asks her why she must tell him that. Iyaloja falls silent, and the women shuffle nervously. Iyaloja placatingly tells Elesin that today is his day and the whole world belongs to him, but that even those who are about to leave like to be remembered by what they leave behind. Elesin replies that the considerate traveler likes to shed that part of his excessive load which may benefit those left behind. He tells the women that he deserves a bed of honor upon which to lie. He expresses the desire to travel lightly and adds that he wants to leave behind his seed in the earth of his choice, meaning that he wants to sleep with the girl before he goes to the world beyond that of the living. Iyaloja tells the women that she dare not refuse him this request. The women protest that the girl is betrothed to Iyaloja’s own son, but Iyaloja reminds them that her son will do whatever she wishes; his loss can be easily remedied, but she will not perform the impiety of denying the honorable Elesin his last request. Iyaloja sighs and tells the king’s horseman that he always had a restless eye, but his choice has her blessing. She sends some of the market women off to prepare the girl. But she warns Elesin to make certain that his final actions among the living do not earn him their curses. She announces that she will go prepare his bridal chamber and then lay out his shrouds. Elesin asks why she must be so blunt and then expresses his desire that his new bride be the one to seal his eyelids and wash his body when the time of his death comes. The women bring out the beautiful young girl, and as she kneels in front of the king’s horseman, the lights fade out on the scene.

Analysis
Death and the King’s Horseman is set in the Yoruban village of Oyo in Western Nigeria during World War II. Scene One opens at the bustling marketplace; this immediately festive scene establishes the marketplace as the site of not just commerce but also community and even kinship. The market women have a “Mother,” Iyaloja, and Elesin refers to all the women of the market as his mothers. In this scene, Elesin’s reputation as a great and honorable man is revealed, and his immediate future is gradually unfolded. The word “Elesin” means “horseman,” and “Oba” means “king”—for Elesin Oba, the horseman of the king, his royal title is also his name. He derives his identity from his important cultural role. The king has died, and it is the Elesin’s duty to follow the king in death to the world of the ancestors. The play begins on the day that Elesin is to die. He visits the market because it provides him familiarity and comfort. His character is robust, entertaining, magisterial, and not lacking a certain degree of arrogance. All the women treat him with great respect bordering on fear, as Elesin is followed about by men employed solely in making music and singing his praises. His role as king’s horseman has such importance to the community that everyone views him as a sort of hero; Elesin is told repeatedly that the world is in his hands, and he replies that he was born to maintain the world as everyone knows it. Elesin is also shown to be quite clever, as demonstrated in the complicated story of the Not-I bird, as well as in his reasoning for why he should be allowed to “marry” the beautiful girl on such an important night. It is clear that he feels lust for the girl, but he rationalizes this by explaining that sleeping with her will allow him to unburden himself of unnecessary seed and, at the same time, benefit the community by impregnating the girl and leaving behind more progeny. This scene introduces one of the central motifs of the play: the metaphysical conflict between the individual and the community, between private desires and public duty. The community depends upon Elesin to fulfill his cultural obligations as the king’s horseman in order to keep their world in balance. The Elesin’s self-sacrifice will bring into proper balance the three levels of existence in traditional Yoruban cosmology: the worlds of the living, the ancestors, and the not-yet born. The Elesin’s death will ensure harmony among these three worlds; thus, the ritual suicide has a regenerative function in maintaining the community. This public duty comes into conflict with the Elesin’s private desire to sleep with the beautiful girl, for Elesin’s character is also established as lusty and enjoying the pleasures of life.

This scene contains two crucial moments of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is when something happens that prepares the reader for some future action or event in the play. The first is when the Praise Singer warns the king’s horseman that he must be careful around women for they can ruin (weaken) a man by spoiling him. This warning seems to indicate that Elesin’s distraction—his desire to “marry” the beautiful girl—might disrupt the ritual he plans to participate in later that evening. Similarly, Iyaloja warns Elesin not to commit any last actions that will cause him to lose his honor or be remembered badly by the living. This warning hints that all will not go as smoothly as planned with the evening’s important ritual. These two moments of foreshadowing suggest that Elesin’s “restless” and roving eyes, his attraction to women, may turn out to be not only his personal downfall (the loss of honor and esteem) but also the downfall of the entire community (the upsetting of the delicate balance among the worlds of the living, dead, and unborn).

Summary and Analysis: Act II

New Characters
Simon Pilkings: The District Officer, an administrative figure in the colonial government.

Jane Pilkings: Simon’s wife.

Sergeant Amusa: A “Native Administration” policeman who is a Muslim.

Joseph: A native servant to the Pilkingses who is a Christian.

Summary
Scene Two begins with a view of the verandah, a spacious porch off the front of the District Officer’s bungalow. Sergeant Amusa, a constable in the “Native Administration” police force, is seen climbing up the steps of the verandah and peeking through the wide windows of the bungalow. Inside, Simon and Jane Pilkings are dressed in native costumes complete with traditional...

(The entire section is 2137 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Act III

New Characters
Two constables accompanying Sergeant Amusa.

A group of young girls who have been attending to the Elesin’s new bride.

Summary
Scene Three begins back in the market, where a cloth stall has been converted into a lavish tent, the entrance of which is covered in rich cloths. The market women back onto the empty stage as a group, pursued by Sergeant Amusa and two constables who are waving their batons. When they get closer to the tent, the women take a determined stand and begin taunting the policemen. Amusa tells them he is there on official business. Calling him the white man’s eunuch, a woman retorts that they too are there on official business, but it isn’t...

(The entire section is 1962 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Act IV

New Characters
The Prince of England and various other guests at the fancy-dress ball.

The Resident: A civilian colonial administrator who is Simon Pilkings’ superior.

Aide-de-Camp: A military assistant to the Resident.

Olunde: The eldest son of the Elesin Oba.

Summary
The fancy-dress ball is in full swing in the great hall of the Residency, a sort of “palace” for the Resident, who functions as the colonial stand-in for British royal power. Various guests dressed in a variety of costumes anxiously await the appearance of the crown Prince, who has been on a tour of British colonial holdings. The Prince makes his appearance at the ball as the guest of...

(The entire section is 2332 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Act V

Summary
Elesin stands imprisoned in a cell looking out through the bars, his wrists chained together in thick iron bracelets. His new bride sits on the ground just outside the cell; she does not look up. Two guards vigilantly watch Elesin from deeper inside the cell. Simon enters and sits down, leaning his back against the cell bars. For a moment everything is quiet as Simon and Elesin together contemplate the night sky. Simon comments on the peaceful night. Elesin corrects him, asserting instead that the night is anything but peaceful. Simon has shattered the peace of the world forever. Simon points out that he can bear to lose a night’s sleep as the price of saving the Elesin’s life. Again the Elesin contradicts...

(The entire section is 2703 words.)

Michael Foster, Ed. Scott Locklear