How is Elesin Oba portrayed as a tragic hero in Wole Soyinka's play Death and the King's Horseman

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In his Poetics, Aristotle defined a tragic hero as a noble person who has a tragic downfall. The downfall is caused by hamartia, which is a fatal character flaw or mistake in judgement. The hamartia brings about a negative change in the status of the character's wealth or happiness, otherwise called a tragic downfall. The tragic hero's hamartia is oftentimes hubris, which is defined as improper pride. Finally, according to Aristotle, a hero is tragic if the hero's fate is worse than the hero really deserves ("Tragic Hero as Defined by Aristotle," Bainbridge Island School District).

In Wole Soyinka's play Death and the King's Horseman, one reason why Elesin Oba, the king's horseman, can be considered a tragic hero is because he has hubris, or excessive pride. Elesin takes great pride in his ceremonial role to commit suicide in order to help the deceased king's soul transition into the next world. Yet, he displays excessive pride in taking to heart all of the people's praise of his bravery and in believing he is entitled to all the riches he sees, including the beautiful Bride who is promised to another man. Due to his excessive pride, he insists on having a wedding night with her before proceeding with his ceremonial suicide. Had he acted in the situation with humility, he would have continued without hesitation to follow through with the ceremony he believed was his duty to fulfill. He even insists on having her as a bride against the wisdom of other characters, like lyaloja, who begs him to leave her as a bride for her intended. The character lyaloja expresses her displeasure in his desire through indirectly questioning his honor in the following:

The best is yours. We know you for a man of honour. You are not one who eats and leaves nothing on his plate for children. Did you not say it yourself? Not one how blights the happiness of others for a moment's pleasure. (p. 20)

In saying the above, she is begging him not to ruin the happiness and future of the Bride by ruining her for other men. She is also trying to remind him of his professed honorable character in order to persuade him to do the right thing by questioning the truth of what he has asserted about his beliefs and character.

In his "Author's Note," Soyinka asserts that Elesin's decision directly led to severe consequences "largely metaphysical," meaning directed by fate. As a consequence of his decision to share a wedding night with the Bride, Elesin postpones fulfilling his ritual suicide. As a consequence of his postponement, he is arrested by Pilking, a colonial officer who considers suicide illegal. Due to his arrest, Elesin must further postpone his suicide, and the postponement brings shame to his son Olunde, who decides to do the ritual suicide in his father's place. The loss of his son can be seen as the major negative turn in Elesin's fortunes. Elesin's downfall is finalized when he eventually commits suicide out of shame for his actions rather than out his belief in upholding the honor bestowed to him.

Hence, Elesin's poor decision to share a wedding night was a direct result of his excessive pride, and both his decision and pride led to his downfall. His tragic downfall is the loss of his son and his own suicide committed out of shame. His pride, poor decision, and tragic downfall all fit Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero.

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A tragic hero is a hero who comes to a tragic end, usually death.  The hero does so in performance of his duty.  Elesin is the King’s Horseman in a small tribe in Nigeria during Word War II.   Like many cultures, Elesin’s tribe believes that there is an afterlife.  Elesin is honor-bound to commit suicide in order to keep his late king company.

Elesin says:

“Life is honour. It ends when honour ends.”

This sums up Elesin’s belief that his suicide is honorable and his duty.  In the end, Elesin is able to commit suicide, even if he does not do it as he intends.  He dies, and he dies doing his duty.


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