It is Elesin's duty as the King's horseman to commit ritual suicide at his King's death. Because he allows himself to be distracted by a beautiful woman, Elesin's suicide is postponed, giving imperialist government officials the opportunity to intervene and prevent the completion of the rite.
The play begins on what is supposed to be the last day of his life, as Elesin, the center of great celebration, prepares to pass to the "other side". Elesin's attention is diverted, however, by the sight of a beautiful woman, and he asks to sleep with her, even though she is betrothed to another man. Since Elesin is "at the threshhold between life and death", his wish must be granted. Preparations are made for Elesin to wed and sleep with the woman, and the ritual suicide postponed.
After he has had relations with his new wife, Elesin prepares to die. He falls into a state of hypnosis, and is unable to resist when British officials, charged with maintaining order in the village, arrest him. Because of the delay caused by his being distracted by the woman, the imperialists are able to prevent Elesin from fulfilling his duty according to tradition. His people are thrown into turmoil, and Elesin is disgraced.