Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka
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In Death and the King's Horseman, Iyaloja talks to the girl about not thinking about the dead or the living but only the unborn. What does she mean?

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The final words spoken in the play by Iyaloja to the Bride of Elesin are “Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.” There are two interpretations of this statement.

Moments prior to the end of the play, Iyajola angrily chastises Elesin: “Who...

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The final words spoken in the play by Iyaloja to the Bride of Elesin are “Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.” There are two interpretations of this statement.

Moments prior to the end of the play, Iyajola angrily chastises Elesin: “Who are you to open a new life when you dared not open the door to a new existence?” In the opening scene of the play, Elesin chooses a new wife and later takes her virginity. Iyaloja refers to the pregnancy of the Bride; she is carrying “new life” in her womb. An understanding of this leads to the second interpretation of Iyaloja’s words.

Iyaloja is also speaking to the Bride as a member of the wider community that has just experienced a catastrophe. The play begins when Elesin is preparing to take his own life one month after the death of the King; he is the King’s Horseman, and his final duty is to follow the King and lead him safely through the afterlife. In the faith of Elesin’s culture, this ritual is of vital importance, and there are terrible consequences if it is not carried out at the appointed time. Even Elesin’s son, who had apparently abandoned his people and gone to study in England, returns home to play his part in the ritual. He has to bury his father and assume the role of the King’s Horseman. When Elesin is prevented from completing the ritual suicide by the arrogant and misguided Pilkings, a shamed Olunde takes his own life in an attempt to restore his family’s honor and prevent the terrible consequences that will fall on his people. Elesin is overcome with guilt, grief, and shame and finally takes his own life.

After the terrible events of the play are concluded, Iyaloja expresses the practical wisdom of her culture. By “forget the dead,” she means that there is no point in continuing to fret upon the deaths that just occurred. By “forget even the living,” she means that nothing can be done to prevent the consequences that the living will suffer as a result. By telling the Bride to turn her mind “only to the unborn,” she is giving her the only advice she can; she must focus on the fate of her unborn child, as the fate of the living has already been decided.

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Iyaloja's words to Elesin's bride actually end the play, as the women react to Elesin's suicide and then have to face the consequences both of Elesin's inaction and of his terrible final action in killing himself. Note carefully what Iyaloja says to the girl, who is bearing Elesin's unborn child in her womb:

Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.

Iyaloja encourages the girl to focus only on the future highlights the theme of the cycle of life in the Yoruba world view, where death is not seen as an ending so much as a new beginning. In the Yoruba view of the world, death, birth and life are viewed as a cyclical process, with unborn children regarded as potentially being ancestors who are returning to life. Life in this play is presented as a continuum, and the focus at the end of the play on the future in the form of the not-yet born child in the girl's womb is appropriate after the two deaths of Elesin and his son, Olunde. Having considered so much the transition from life to death of both Olunde and Elesin, it is appropriate that the play ends with a more optimistic focus on the future and the beginning of new life.

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