Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Elesin Oba

As "a man of enormous vitality," Elesin commands the attention and respect of his entire community. He embraces life's pleasures, from women to song and dance. Elesin also embodies tradition, honor, and wisdom, bound by the ritual that mandates his self-sacrifice, symbolizing his transition to the afterlife.

At the play's outset, he eagerly prepares for death stating,
I am the master of my fate. When the hour comes
Watch me dance along the narrowing path
Glazed by the soles of my great precursors.
My soul is eager. I shall not turn aside. (Scene 1)

During his final hours, he's drawn to a young woman, igniting an unexpected union that clashes with his sense of duty. The intervention of British colonial forces disrupts the death ritual, plunging him into disgrace and isolation, forsaken even by his son.

Confined by the British, he is confronted by his son's redemptive suicide. Overwhelmed by his choices, Elesin uses his own chains to end his life, making his legacy a portrait of complex desires and cultural clashes.

Simon Pilkings

As the colonial District Officer, Pilkings finds dealing with the local population a "confounding nuisance." However, he still needs to make more effort to understand the people he has been placed in charge of. He feels his mission is solely to implement colonial policy, not meddle in the tribal affairs of the native populace.

I don't have to stop anything. If they want to throw themselves off the top of a cliff or poison themselves for the sake of some barbaric custom what is that to me?" (Scene 2)

With unwavering certainty in his ways, Simon dismisses all he fails to understand immediately. His intervention to halt Elesin's intended suicide on the night of the prince's visit stems not from genuine concern for Elesin but to avoid disruption to an extravagant ball and royal visit.

Paradoxically, Pilkings' efforts to maintain order spirals into chaos as he undermines the tribe's traditions. His disregard for Yoruba beliefs amplifies the harm he inflicts, inadvertently contributing to the demise of Elesin and the unraveling of familial honor.

Praise-Singer

The Praise-Singer, known as Olohun-iyo, gracefully shadows Elesin, intertwining his admiration within melodious verses. As his title suggests, the Praise-Singer is tasked with promoting a favorable image of Elesin. He tells Elesin that

Your name will be like the sweet berry a child places under his tongue to sweeten the passage of food. (Scene 1)

As a devoted companion, the Praise-Singer discerns Elesin's innermost desires while acknowledging the community's demands for his master's departure. During the sacred death ritual, he metamorphoses into the departed king's essence, engaging in ethereal discourse with Elesin.

Acting as a conscience shrouded in song, he helps Elesin navigate the precipice of transition with ritual chants. However, when Elesin is prevented from fulfilling the death rite, shame also comes upon the Praise-Singer.

Iyaloja

Iyaloja, the revered "mother" of the marketplace, assumes a prominent role yet remains subservient and deferential to men, even fearing offense toward the esteemed Elesin. Her profound reverence for his mission leads her to relinquish her son's intended bride to him in marriage.

The claims of those whose foot is on the threshold of their abode surpasses even the claims of blood. It is impiety to even place hindrances in their ways… It is those who stand at the gateway of great change whose cry we must pay heed. (Scene 1)

However, after Elesin's arrest and the foiling of his plans to take his own life, Iyaloja treats him with undisguised scorn. She is upset with him for trying to get more out...

(This entire section contains 973 words.)

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of life in his final hours by taking a new bride. She sees this as his undoing and what destroyed his plans and brought shame on Elesin and the whole community.

Jane Pilkings

Jane Pilkings, the wife of British district officer Simon Pilkings, shares many of her husband's superior attitudes. Yet, she is perceived as somewhat more empathetic by Olunde. While she acknowledges the offensive nature of her husband's interactions with the Nigerians, she still deems native customs distasteful. Despite her shallowness, Jane acquaints with tribal traditions to avoid belittling them. Acting as a compassionate buffer, she often mitigates Mr. Pilkings' tendency to offend.

Simon, you must really watch your language. Bastard isn't just a simple swear-word in these parts, you know. (Scene 2)

Sergeant Amusa

I no like trouble but duty is duty" (Scene 3)

As a local Nigerian working for the colonial authorities, Sergeant Amusa receives much ridicule from the townspeople, particularly the women who call him names such as the "white man's eunuch." Shunned by his people for forsaking his heritage and being treated unequally by the British, he inhabits a complex identity.

Despite his conversion to Islam, Amusa still respects traditional tribal beliefs. For instance, he refuses to touch or look upon the garments of the dead. He understands Elesin's plan to commit ritual suicide but also informs on him to Pilkings. As such, Amusa represents the ambivalent allegiances that exist in colonial settings.

Olunde

Olunde, Elesin's eldest son, defies his father and departs the village to study medicine in England. Having lived and studied in England for several years, Olunde has gained an understanding of the full conceit of the English.

I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand. (Scene 4)

You believe that everything that appears to make sense was learnt from you. (Scene 4)

Returning to Nigeria, he warns Pilkings against meddling with his father's suicide, showcasing his commitment to Yoruba customs. Rejecting Elesin upon discovering his failed mission, Olunde undertakes his father's duty to restore honor and chooses self-sacrifice to safeguard the spiritual equilibrium of their community. With a deep understanding of Yoruba and English values cultivated during his time abroad, Olunde becomes an emblem of wisdom and honor, embodying the essence of sacrifice for the greater good.

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