Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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Summary and Analysis: Act V

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Elesin stands imprisoned in a cell looking out through the bars, his wrists chained together in thick iron bracelets. His new bride sits on the ground just outside the cell; she does not look up. Two guards vigilantly watch Elesin from deeper inside the cell. Simon enters and sits down, leaning his back against the cell bars. For a moment everything is quiet as Simon and Elesin together contemplate the night sky. Simon comments on the peaceful night. Elesin corrects him, asserting instead that the night is anything but peaceful. Simon has shattered the peace of the world forever. Simon points out that he can bear to lose a night’s sleep as the price of saving the Elesin’s life. Again the Elesin contradicts Simon, saying that he has, in fact, destroyed the Elesin’s life. The conversation goes on like this for a while: where Simon sees the accomplishment of his duty, Elesin sees only disaster and the shattering of cosmic harmony. Elesin reminds Simon that he stole his eldest son and sent him away to England in order to turn Olunde into the image of an Englishman. To Elesin, this proves that Simon has always plotted to destroy the foundations of Yoruban culture, to tilt the world off its course. Elesin states poignantly that he never guessed that white skin covered the future of his people, preventing them from foreseeing the disruption of their world. He proudly tells Simon that when Olunde disowned him earlier, he knew then that his son would avenge his shame. Simon informs the Elesin that he has spoken with Olunde. Olunde sends his apology and requests to see his father one more time before he returns to England. Simon has told Olunde to come to visit Elesin later when the town is a little quieter. Bitterly, Elesin answers that Simon advises everyone—though on what authority, he cannot say. Hearing Jane call him from off-stage, Simon leaves.

Elesin gazes at his new wife for a while and then speaks to her. Tenderly, he tells her that first he blamed the white man for the catastrophe, and then he blamed the gods. Now, he wants to blame her for sapping his will to die. Perhaps, he says, her warmth and youth were what caused his footsteps to turn to lead in the world of the living. He might have shaken off his longing for her at the time appointed for his death, but the white man had entered the room and defiled and disrupted the ritual. At this moment, Simon and Jane return. Jane is asking Simon to let in a visitor to see the Elesin. Apparently, Olunde has sent a note to Jane petitioning her to beg her husband to allow Iyaloja to visit Elesin. Simon perceives a subtle threat in the note from Olunde, who has written that the only way to prevent rioting in Oyo tomorrow is to allow the mother of the market to see Elesin tonight. Annoyed, Simon asks Elesin if he wants a visitor. Although he knows that the visitor is Iyaloja, come to berate and curse him for failing to fulfill his ritual obligation to the community, Elesin exhibits an eagerness for abuse. He bids Simon to bring Iyaloja to him. Simon returns with Iyaloja and demands that Elesin promise as a man of honor not to try anything foolish. Bitterly, Elesin tells Simon that he has stolen away all the honor the Elesin had; in fact, colonialism in general has stolen away the honor of the Elesin’s people. Offended that Elesin would bring politics into this matter, Simon...

(This entire section contains 2703 words.)

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decides he cannot trust Elesin or Iyaloja after all. He makes Iyaloja stand in one place, distant enough from the cell to prevent her from passing anything to Elesin, and he calls on the guards to blow their whistles if she should move. He and Jane go off together.

As anticipated, Iyaloja has no words of pity or compassion for Elesin—only bitter curses and scorn. She reminds him of her earlier warning that he not commit any deeds that would taint the lives of those he leaves behind. As the bride sobs in the background, Iyaloja asks Elesin how he could be so bold as to create new life. She tells him his honor is nothing but hollow, impotent words. He has brought abomination upon the entire community. Elesin initially submits, acknowledging that his powers deserted him, that his voice lost strength. Then, he defends himself, saying that Iyaloja herself witnessed his attempts to regain control of his will upon the white man’s intrusion on the ritual. He tells her he could do nothing to save himself at that moment. Iyaloja counters that Elesin has betrayed the community that treated him like royalty. She reminds him how the people fed him the finest foods and called him leader, only to have been misled by him. Elesin can hardly take more of this; he tells her he has heard enough, that he is burdened by shame. He tells her that he needs understanding—even he does not understand what has taken place. He states that an alien hand polluted the life source of the culture and shattered his mind’s resolution; his will was squelched by an alien race because, at the crucial moment, the blasphemous thought occurred to him that the gods may have had a hand in the intervention of the stranger. Iyaloja tells him that he can make any excuse he likes but excuses are not fitting for someone perceived as a hero and a leader. Elesin abstractly beseeches the world to forgive him. Iyaloja then informs him that she has brought with her a burden and asks him a question in a riddle: in the cycle of life, should a parent shoot wither up in order to feed sap to its young? Elesin affirms that the parent shoot should give up its sap for its young. Iyaloja then informs him that sometimes the cycle of life is reversed. Clearly agitated now, she steps beyond the space that Simon had delineated for her. The guards whistle, and the Pilkingses race in asking what has happened.

Simon tells Iyaloja that it is time for her to leave and that she will not be allowed to return. Iyaloja informs Simon that she has brought a “burden” to the gates outside. Elesin tells Simon to go the gates and bring inside whatever he finds there. Iyaloja says darkly that the community has sent a new messenger on to meet their dead King in the after-world. At this moment, the Aide-de-Camp runs in and reports to Simon that a group of women are approaching, chanting as they climb the hill to the Residency. Jane says that Olunde mentioned something about this in his letter. Recollecting the difficult position of the horseman’s son, Simon says that he must get Olunde out of the town as soon as possible. Iyaloja tells him that Olunde will come soon enough to bid farewell to his father. The Aide-de-Camp asks Simon what he should do about the “invasion” of women. Then he observes that the women appear to be peaceful. Simon agrees to let them in. Addressing Simon as “ghostly one,” Elesin tells him he has a message to send to the dead King and expresses his gratitude that he can at least perform this deed. The women enter, singing a dirge and swaying from side to side. They carry on their shoulders a long wrapped object, which they place on the ground where Iyaloja was standing earlier. The Praise Singer and the drummers accompany them, playing and chanting. Elesin asks to be let out of the cell so that he may perform his duty, but Simon asserts that he will not allow it. The Praise Singer begins speaking in the voice of the dead King again, asking Elesin Oba why he has not come to meet him at the gates of the after-world. In the background, the sound of the women’s dirge rises and falls, punctuating the Praise Singer’s intonations. The dead King instructs Elesin to release his “shadow,” the substitute messenger, to fulfill the Elesin’s rightful duty. Iyaloja moves forward and unwraps the long object lying on the floor. She tells the Elesin to look upon the new courier and companion of the dead King. Rolled up in the cloth is Olunde’s dead body. Iyaloja tells Elesin that Olunde could not bear to lose his family’s honor and has prevented such a loss with his own death. The son has taken on the role of the father. The Praise Singer intones that Elesin has sat with folded arms and watched while evil strangers have tilted the world off its course, so his son and heir has taken the burden on himself. Elesin has been listening to and watching the proceedings silently. Suddenly he flings one arm around his neck and swiftly strangles himself with the chains on his wrists. Though the guards rush forward to prevent this, Elesin dies instantly. Simon races into the cell to attempt to resuscitate the body while the women’s dirge continues in the background. Iyaloja asks Simon why he strains himself at such a thankless task. Exhausted and resigned, Simon ceases to work on Elesin’s dead body and asks if this is what Iyaloja wanted. Iyaloja tells him that it is he who has brought about this turn of events. As Simon bends to close Elesin’s eyes, Iyaloja screams at him to stop. She turns to the bride and calls to her. The girls picks up a little earth, calmly walks into the cell, and pours it over Elesin’s eyelids. Iyaloja’s last words are addressed to no one in particular. She commands: Forget the dead, forget the living, and think only about the unborn. Iyaloja and the bride leave together. The lights fade upon the women who are left behind, and the sound of the dirge increases in the darkness.

At the commencement of Scene Five, Elesin accuses Simon of many things. He says that Simon has shattered the peace of the night, has ruined Elesin’s life, has plotted to destroy the Yoruban culture, and even that Simon has no authority to advise anyone in Oyo to do anything. These accusations can all be interpreted as indictments against the unethical British occupation of Western Nigeria and against colonialism in general. From the perspective of the colonized, here represented by Elesin, colonialism both destroys the individual and rocks the foundations of the indigenous culture. Elesin’s statement that he never thought that white skin would cover the future of his people suggests that colonialism has such deep impact on the culture of the colonized peoples that their future is forever altered. This impact can be seen, for instance, in the behavior and attitudes of the schoolgirls and Olunde, all of whom have been given an English education that changes how they perceive the world and interact within it. Figuratively speaking, for native children, receiving a colonial education can be seen as taking on white skin, a veneer of English culture beneath which lies a deeper affiliation with the indigenous culture. Over time, as Elesin (or perhaps Wole Soyinka) fears, future Yoruban generations may experience the fading of that affiliation and the loss of shared cultural memory.

The question of who is at fault for Elesin’s failure to complete the ritual becomes relevant when considering the evils of colonialism. It is easy for audiences to point to the cultural conflict and imbalance of power as the primary reason that the Yoruban world is tilted off its axis. The turning point in the play has occurred offstage, so it is unclear what exactly happened in the bridal/death chamber to cause the ritual suicide to be a failure. Elesin admits that even he does not understand it. One interpretation is that the intrusion of Simon Pilkings at the crucial point in the ritual was the cause for Elesin’s failure. This interpretation seems to place all the blame for the upsetting of the Yoruban cosmological world on the European colonizers. However, the author Wole Soyinka himself has rejected this perspective. In prefaces to and commentaries on this play, Soyinka asks his readers not to make the mistake of reductively analyzing the play as simply a cultural conflict between British colonizer and indigenous colonized peoples. Another interpretation is that the Elesin was weakened at the last moment by the beauty of his bride and his longing to stay with her and continue to enjoy the pleasures of life. Yet, when Elesin tells his new wife that he could blame her for preventing him from completing his journey to the land of the ancestors, his words are full of ambiguities. A final interpretation of the reason for Elesin’s failure lies in his characterization. From the beginning, he has been established as full of vitality and love of life. Perhaps he did not want to leave the world of the living and travel to the world of the ancestors. In other words, Elesin’s personal weakness caused him to fail in his duty to the community. In classical Greek tragedy—which Soyinka admits to being deeply influenced by—this is called hamartia, or the hero’s personal frailty, flaw, or mistaken judgment that causes the tragic outcome of a story. Elesin’s tragic flaw in this case could be his fondness for living or his arrogance.

It is noteworthy that Elesin’s character has changed from Scene One to this final scene. In the beginning of the play, he conducts himself in a proud and magisterial manner. He dances about freely, triumphantly singing and arrogantly performing the folktale of the “Not-I bird.” By Scene Five, however, he has become one of very people he scorned in the folktale. By the end, his fear of death and unwillingness to die instantly demote his status in the world. The members of the community, represented by the scornful and enraged Iyaloja, look upon Elesin as a failure. Though he does not understand what has happened, Elesin views himself as a failure. Silenced and weighed down by the colonizer’s shackles, he is full of shame and sorrow. Though he is still alive, Elesin’s voice and vitality have abandoned him.

Olunde’s rejection of his father in Scene Four reinforces the profundity of Elesin’s failure. In order to redeem his family honor, and in an attempt to preserve cosmic harmony, Olunde performs the ritual suicide in place of his father. The community accepts this action and appears to honor it by performing all the rites necessary to send this new substitute messenger off ceremoniously to the meet the dead King at the gateway to the after-world. Just before Olunde’s death is revealed to Elesin and the Pilkingses, the Praise Singer, again speaking as the dead king, reproaches Elesin for not fulfilling his duty and instructs Elesin to release his “shadow.” Having grown up in the shadow of his heroic father, Olunde has literally become the shadow of the king’s horseman, a replacement companion to the dead king. Olunde has taken on the burden that the father was supposed to bear. The word “burden” is used in this scene several times, with varied meanings. The market women literally carry the heavy burden of Olunde’s corpse on their shoulders. But the community must also bear the burden of the knowledge that their culture is irreparably damaged by what has taken place. The town of Oyo must continue to bear the burden of British colonialism. Further, it could be argued that Elesin cannot bear the burden of knowing that his son has died in his place, and so Elesin kills himself at the end of the play. And finally, Simon Pilkings must live with the knowledge that, as part of the colonial administration, he is partially responsible for what he considers the unnecessary death of two Yoruban men. Even today, the burden of colonialism remains something that the peoples of former colonizing nations, and those formerly colonized, must bear.


Summary and Analysis: Act IV