Death and the King's Horseman Questions and Answers
by Wole Soyinka

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Soyinka writes of Death and the King's Horseman that, “Colonial Factor is an incident, a catalytic incident merely” and not the primary conflict of the play. What is the conflict?

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It is interesting that Soyinka takes this view, as many critics argue that actually the central conflict of this play is, essentially, colonial, as two civilisations clash with dramatic and tragic results. However, Soyinka argues that the central conflict is centred on duty and Elesin's reluctance to fulfill his duty. He, as his role as the King's Horseman dictates, has a responsibility to kill himself a month after the King dies, or else, the Yoruba believe, the whole world will descend into chaos. Elesin crucially fails to commit suicide as tradition dictates, and thus shows a tremendous lack of will and duty that results in tragedy both for himself and his family. Note how he admits that what made him stop himself from killing himself is his own failure in Scene 5 when he talks to his wife:

You were the final gift of the living to their emissary to the land of the ancestors, and perhaps your warmth and youth brought new insights of this world to me and turned my feet leaden on this side of the abyss. For I confess to you, daughter, my weakness came not merely from the abomination of the white man who came violently into my fading presence, there was also a weight of longing on my earth-held limbs.

Elesin in this quote therefore suggests that what caused him to not commit suicide was not the presence of "the white man" but actually his own reluctance to end his life, having so recently savoured its joys through his recent marriage to his latest wife. This suggests that the central conflict of this play is the conflict between individual responsibility and individual desire. Elesin has a responsibility to end his life, but desires to savour more of that life before he dies. It is this conflict that instigates the tragedy of the play.

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