Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised 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...
(The entire section is 448 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 984 words.)
As Death and the King’s Horseman opens, Elesin Oba walks through a Nigerian village market at the close of the business day. He is followed by an entourage of drummers and praise-singers, and as he makes his way through the market he talks with the praise-singer Olohun-iyo about ‘‘the other side’’ and about the importance of ‘‘this day of all days.’’ Apparently, Elesin Oba is enjoying his last day on earth; at night he will go to join his ‘‘great forebears.’’ The women abandon their work of putting away the goods from their stalls and come to flirt with Elesin, who is obviously a great favorite and well known for his sexual prowess and his many conquests.
Much of the dialogue is written in rhythmic free verse. Elesin dances, and chants the story of the Not-I bird, a bird who fails to fulfill his duty. In an exchange with the crowd, laced with Yoruba proverbs, Elesin promises that when the time comes to fulfill his duty he will not delay. Led by Iyaloja, the mother of the market, the women dress Elesin in their richest cloths and dance around him. Suddenly he is distracted by the sight of a beautiful woman whom he has never seen before. Although she is already engaged to someone else, Elesin demands that he be allowed to take her to bed before he dies. Because Elesin is at the threshold between life and death, he cannot be refused. Iyaloja warns him not to be deterred from his duty, and not to bring...
(The entire section is 1295 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Summary and Analysis: Act I
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.
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.
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
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.
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 masks, practicing the tango. When Amusa recognizes the costumes as ritual Yoruban dress, he is visibly horrified. Startled, he upsets a flowerpot, and this attracts the attention of the Pilkingses, who stop dancing. Jane turns off the gramophone, and Simon approaches the verandah. Recognizing Amusa, Simon asks him what is the matter. Stammering in non-standard English, Amusa points his finger at Simon’s costume and asks why they are dressed as they are, in clothing that belongs to a “dead cult.” Simon cannot understand why Amusa appears so bewildered and worried. Simon tells Amusa that he is a disappointment after all, for Simon has been bragging at the club that Amusa does not believe in any “mumbo jumbo.” Ignoring these remarks, Amusa begs Simon to take off the outfit because it is not good for a white man to touch such a thing. Simon informs Amusa that he and Jane plan to wear the costumes to the fancy-dress ball at the club, and that they hope to take first prize in the contest. Amusa refuses to talk to Simon while he is wearing the traditional outfit. Jane advises her husband that this is a matter that must be handled delicately, but Simon shrugs off this advice, telling Amusa to use some sense and to remember that as a constable in the service of the British king’s government, he is obligated to provide Simon with any important information or face disciplinary action. Amusa says that his report involves death, and he cannot talk about death to a person in the uniform of death. He begs to be released, to return to give his report later. This enrages Simon, who roars at Amusa. Amusa remains stubbornly silent, looking up at the ceiling. Jane tries a different tact, asking Amusa what there is to be so afraid of....
(The entire section is 2137 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Act III
Two constables accompanying Sergeant Amusa.
A group of young girls who have been attending to the Elesin’s new bride.
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 something Amusa would understand. Another woman tugs at one of the constable’s batons and jokes that what is in his shorts is what really matters. They laughingly tell each other that the constable has nothing between his legs. Attempting to preserve some dignity, Amusa orders the women to clear the road. One woman fires back pointedly that it was Amusa’s father who built the road, implying that Amusa has deserted his culture. Another tells Amusa to go tell the white man to come himself. Amusa gestures towards the tent and tells the women that the British colonial government has decided that this sort of ritual practice must stop. A woman asserts that the king’s horseman will prove himself greater than the laws of white strangers tonight. Just then, Iyaloja comes out of the tent and asks why Amusa comes to disturb the happiness of the community. Amusa tells her that it is his duty to arrest Elesin for criminal intent. Iyaloja replies that he has no right to prevent Elesin from performing his duty. She explains to Amusa that the Elesin is enjoying his wedding night. At this, some of the women start jeering at Amusa again, insinuating that he knows nothing of what should happen on a wedding night. When Amusa asks Iyaloja to stop the women from insulting him further, several young girls push through the crowd and begin ridiculing and upbraiding him. The girls say that Amusa is cheeky and impertinent to intrude where he is not welcome and talk so rudely to their mothers. They surround the two constables, snatch their batons, and begin to wield them threateningly. The girls knock the hats right off the constables’ heads. Then, some of the girls begin to play-act, to the great amusement of the market women. Aping the...
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Summary and Analysis: Act IV
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.
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 honor. The Resident proceeds to introduce, selectively, various couples to the Prince, including the Pilkingses. The Prince is fascinated with the Pilkingses’ traditional garb, and they proceed to show him the details of the costume and demonstrate the dance steps, clumsily and inaccurately imitating the sounds of the egungun ritual participants. A footservant enters with a note intended for Simon that the Resident intercepts. Having read it, the Resident interrupts the Pilkingses’ performance for the Prince and pulls Simon aside. The note, of course, refers to the ritual suicide that is to take place. The Resident expresses his concerns: first, that Simon has not properly done his job controlling the natives and second, that a riot might erupt on the very evening of the Prince’s visit—such an incident would be quite a disaster since Oyo is supposed to be a secure colony of His Majesty. Just then, Amusa and the two constables appear. The Resident mistakes them for the ring-leaders of the riot, but Simon admits that they are, in fact, native policemen. The Resident takes in their sloppy appearance and absent-mindedly wonders what happened to their uniform hats and sashes. Instructing Simon to send him a report first thing in the morning, the Resident returns to attend to the Prince and other guests at the ball. Dismissing Amusa from service because he still cannot bear to look at Simon while he is wearing the egungun outfit and mask, Simon runs out of the hall followed by the two constables, leaving Jane behind.
A young black man dressed in a Western suit emerges from the shadows at this time. Startled, Jane asks who he is. Olunde apologizes and explains that he seeks the District Officer. Jane...
(The entire section is 2332 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Act V
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 Simon, saying that he has, in fact, destroyed the Elesin’s life. The conversation goes on like this for a while: where Simon sees the accomplishment of his duty, Elesin sees only disaster and the shattering of cosmic harmony. Elesin reminds Simon that he stole his eldest son and sent him away to England in order to turn Olunde into the image of an Englishman. To Elesin, this proves that Simon has always plotted to destroy the foundations of Yoruban culture, to tilt the world off its course. Elesin states poignantly that he never guessed that white skin covered the future of his people, preventing them from foreseeing the disruption of their world. He proudly tells Simon that when Olunde disowned him earlier, he knew then that his son would avenge his shame. Simon informs the Elesin that he has spoken with Olunde. Olunde sends his apology and requests to see his father one more time before he returns to England. Simon has told Olunde to come to visit Elesin later when the town is a little quieter. Bitterly, Elesin answers that Simon advises everyone—though on what authority, he cannot say. Hearing Jane call him from off-stage, Simon leaves.
Elesin gazes at his new wife for a while and then speaks to her. Tenderly, he tells her that first he blamed the white man for the catastrophe, and then he blamed the gods. Now, he wants to blame her for sapping his will to die. Perhaps, he says, her warmth and youth were what caused his footsteps to turn to lead in the world of the living. He might have shaken off his longing for her at the time appointed for his death, but the white man had entered the room and defiled and disrupted the ritual. At this moment, Simon and Jane return. Jane is asking Simon to let in a...
(The entire section is 2703 words.)