Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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Death and the King's Horseman is considered a classic dramatic play. What makes this play a "classic" piece of world literature?  

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What makes this a true classic in world literature is the way that it seeks to explore Yoruba identity in the context of British colonial control of Nigeria. This is one of the central themes of the play as even the structure of the play itself presents us with two worlds juxtaposed together that can never understand each other through the arrogance of the colonial vision. Note how this is something that Olunde picks up on in Scene Four when he is talking to Jane about what he has learnt from studying in Britain. He says:

Yet another error into which your people fall. You believe that everything that appears to make sense was learnt from you.

Olunde's comment here picks up on the breathtaking and staggering arrogance displayed by Pilkings in this play as he breaks African taboos and completely fails to understand and appreciate Yoruban culture and their differing approach to death and ritual suicide. For Elesin, his ritual suicide is a necessary step to ensure the world as it is known continues as he needs to accompany his king into the afterlife. For Pilkings, it is an annoyance that has the potential to create a disturbance that would jeopardise his position as the Prince is visiting. What makes this play a true classic of world literature is the way that Soyinka shows the collision of two very different and irreconcilable worlds that will never understand each other. As such, this play is a powerful comment on cross cultural relations and global history.

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