Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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Summary and Analysis: Act III

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New Characters
Two constables accompanying Sergeant Amusa.

A group of young girls who have been attending to the Elesin’s new bride.

Scene Three begins back in the market, where a cloth stall has been converted into a lavish tent, the entrance of which is covered in rich cloths. The market women back onto the empty stage as a group, pursued by Sergeant Amusa and two constables who are waving their batons. When they get closer to the tent, the women take a determined stand and begin taunting the policemen. Amusa tells them he is there on official business. Calling him the white man’s eunuch, a woman retorts that they too are there on official business, but it isn’t something Amusa would understand. Another woman tugs at one of the constable’s batons and jokes that what is in his shorts is what really matters. They laughingly tell each other that the constable has nothing between his legs. Attempting to preserve some dignity, Amusa orders the women to clear the road. One woman fires back pointedly that it was Amusa’s father who built the road, implying that Amusa has deserted his culture. Another tells Amusa to go tell the white man to come himself. Amusa gestures towards the tent and tells the women that the British colonial government has decided that this sort of ritual practice must stop. A woman asserts that the king’s horseman will prove himself greater than the laws of white strangers tonight. Just then, Iyaloja comes out of the tent and asks why Amusa comes to disturb the happiness of the community. Amusa tells her that it is his duty to arrest Elesin for criminal intent. Iyaloja replies that he has no right to prevent Elesin from performing his duty. She explains to Amusa that the Elesin is enjoying his wedding night. At this, some of the women start jeering at Amusa again, insinuating that he knows nothing of what should happen on a wedding night. When Amusa asks Iyaloja to stop the women from insulting him further, several young girls push through the crowd and begin ridiculing and upbraiding him. The girls say that Amusa is cheeky and impertinent to intrude where he is not welcome and talk so rudely to their mothers. They surround the two constables, snatch their batons, and begin to wield them threateningly. The girls knock the hats right off the constables’ heads. Then, some of the girls begin to play-act, to the great amusement of the market women. Aping the British as if at the club or a party, the girls outdo each other in gestures of exaggerated politeness, overwrought English accents, and empty chatter. Two girls put on the constables’ hats, bow, and greet one another. One asks the other what she thinks of the natives. The other girl replies that the natives are restless, even difficult, but she is coping. At the encouragement of the tittering audience of market women, the girls continue. Still in character, one girl says that all natives are liars, and the other agrees. The play-acting girls affectionately call each other “old chap” and discuss the weather, whisky, and golfing. One of them bellows for Sergeant Amusa, who has been so taken by the mimicry that he actually obeys the voice of the girl and snaps to attention. The women burst out laughing at Amusa all over again. Finally, defeated and humiliated, Amusa and his constables retreat.

Once the policemen have left, the women clap their hands together in wonder, asking one another if they have ever seen anything so wonderful as their daughters’ fierce...

(This entire section contains 1962 words.)

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defense and clever mimicry. One of the mothers asks her daughter if she learned to do that in school. Another shudders at the memory that she nearly kept her daughter from attending school. One woman tells the others that the next time a white man sets foot in the market, she will just set her daughter after him! At this, a woman bursts into a joyful song, and the rest of the women begin dancing around the girls. At this moment, Elesin appears holding a stained white cloth and announces that the union of life is complete. The drums are heard in the distance as the new bride stands shyly at the doorway of the tent. Paying attention to the messages transmitted by the “talking drums,” Elesin declares that the king’s dog and favorite horse have been killed and his time of death now also approaches. He turns to his new wife and reminds her that she must stay with him to the end, in order to close his eyes. He tells everyone that he has chosen to live his last moments in the market because it is the heart of life, a swarming hive where he has known love and laughter away from the palace. Continuing to speak in a tragic, poetic manner, the Elesin falls into a state of semi-hypnosis: his eyes begin to glaze, and his voice grows breathless. He speaks of a gateway through which he must pass. He moves down among the women and begins to dance. The women sing a dirge—a song of grief that accompanies funeral rites. The Praise Singer, ever faithful to the king’s horseman, asks if Elesin can hear his voice. The Elesin says he can. The Praise Singer then begins speaking on behalf of the dead King. In the voice of the dead King, the Praise Singer instructs Elesin that if he cannot come to the afterworld in time, to send a message with the King’s favorite horse or dog, and the King will ride on without the Elesin. In a trance-like state, Elesin replies that he trusts no horse or dog to deliver messages between a king and his horseman. He tells the dead King/the Praise Singer that he will not get lost, nor will he forsake his duty. The dead King answers that he fears that Elesin will not successfully make the journey from the world of the living to the gateway of the afterlife where the King waits for him. With a drowsy voice, the Elesin says that he has freed himself from the earth and that strange voices are guiding his feet. Speaking as himself, now, the Praise Singer closes the scene with a final monologue addressed to the Elesin, who has fallen so deeply into his death-trance that he no longer shows signs of any awareness of his surroundings as he continues to dance around. The Praise Singer’s words are full of love, honor, and respect for the Elesin. Finally, the Praise Singer appears to break down completely in grief while the women’s dirge grows louder. The lights fade and the scene ends.

In defiance of Amusa’s authority as a native policeman, the market women taunt him with insults of a sexual nature. They repeatedly suggest that he is impotent and that he doesn’t understand the “official business” of a wedding night. That the women defame Amusa’s manliness and virility by calling him the “white man’s eunuch” suggests that the British colonial powers have symbolically castrated Amusa by making him their pawn in the “Native Administration.” Even though Amusa wields some power as native constable, the women clearly consider this to be a position of powerlessness, impotence, and dishonor. By insulting Amusa in this manner, the women imply a contrast between Amusa and the Elesin, who not only is at that moment demonstrating his virility and manliness by consummating his marriage, but also will perform a heroic duty to the community by undertaking ritual suicide. In contrast, Amusa’s submission to colonial power has deprived him of the capacity carry on the Yoruban culture. When the woman pointedly reminds Amusa that his father built the road that he stands on, she implies that he has deserted his culture. The women twist this metaphorically into Amusa’s inability to sexually procreate. His subservience to the British prevents him from being a “real man” in the Yoruban sense of the term. The emasculation of all three constables is complete when a bunch of young girls take away their batons, surround them, and threaten and mock them. The representatives of colonial authority are forced to retreat with their tails between their legs.

In this scene, too, the motif of cultural clash arises in the conflicting definitions of the terms “official business” and “duty.” Amusa tells Iyaloja that it is his “duty” (to the British colonial government) to prevent the suicide ritual from taking place; Iyaloja replies that it is the Elesin’s “duty” (to the community of Oyo) to ensure that the ritual takes place. The audience is left to wonder, which version of “duty” should take precedence? Who decides which version of “duty” is more important? In fact, in situations of colonialism, the imbalance of power is such that the colonizers’ definition of “duty”—determined by British colonial law and administrators like Simon Pilkings in this case—has much more authority than that of the colonized natives. Likewise, although the Elesin successfully completes the “official business” of his wedding night, as evidenced by the stained white cloth he carries out of the tent and displays, ultimately, the “official business” of British colonialism holds more authority at this historical moment in time. The way that this power imbalance might play out creates a mood of suspense and dramatic tension, as the audience is led to question whose will is stronger—that of Pilkings or the king’s horseman.

An essential irony of colonialism is that it often creates the conditions under which the natives can liberate themselves. For example, it is their English colonial education that enables the girls to perform so accurately their fierce mimicry of the British. Historically speaking, the schoolgirls are the next generation of colonized natives: they will grow up to become the educated, “Westernized,” nationalist elite. They benefit from the educational opportunities that colonialism has brought—their command of the English language far surpasses Amusa’s, for instance—but they are also critical and resentful of colonialism and the British occupation. Thus, their mimicry is not a flattering adoption of English traits but rather a menacing critique of English claims to authority over their land, culture, and people. The girls will never be accepted by the colonizers as “real” English subjects or citizens. Their performance reinforces the fact that simply imitating the English will not make the schoolgirls more English; rather, their parodic demonstration of Englishness suggests precisely that they are not English, never will be, and may not even wish to be. This realization is a blow to Amusa, who imitates the British in an attempt to empower himself. More abstractly, the girls’ performance of mimicry is a bigger blow to the English colonial psyche, which depends for its existence on the widespread, chauvinistic belief that English culture and society is naturally superior to non-English and especially to non-Western cultures and societies. Through mimicry, the girls show the cultural follies of the British.

The scene ends with hints of the tragedy to come, as the king’s horseman commences his ritual transition from the world of the living to the world of the ancestors. Elesin intends to dance himself into a death-trance, a hypnotic condition akin to spirit-possession that is brought on by Elesin’s strong will. The Praise Singer also plays in important role in this ritual: he becomes the voice of the dead king, questioning Elesin’s intentions and confirming that Elesin will go through with the deed. The scene ends not with dialogue and action—typical features of Western drama—but with music and dancing, which are prominent elements in traditional African drama.


Summary and Analysis: Act II


Summary and Analysis: Act IV