Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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Can you explain the character of Elesin in the play, Death and the King's Horseman?

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Elesin Oba is a man of "enormous vitality", a little vain, much loved by the women, and known for his sexual prowess.  He is honorable at heart, but susceptible to the weaknesses of the flesh.  As the King's horseman, he enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, but now the King is dead, and tradition dictates that Elesin must commit ritual suicide so as to accompany his liege into the spirit world.  Elesin understands his duty and does not fear death, but on his last day on earth he is distracted by a beautiful girl he has never seen before, and demands to bed her.  His request cannot be denied, so preparations are made, and Elesin spends time with her in a wedding chamber.  Meanwhile, Simon, the British district officer, hears about the suicide that is to take place, and, uncaring about its importance in African culture, arranges to arrest Elesin to prevent it from happening.  Because his distraction has delayed Elesin's suicide, Simon is able to arrest him while he is in a transitional state of hynosis.  Elesin lives, but is disgraced, and in the resulting chaos, it is his son who kills himself in shame in his stead.  Upon seeing the body of his son, Elesin takes responsibility for his failure, and despite the precautions of the British jailers, manages to strangle himself in his cell.

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