Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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Last Updated on June 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 812

Elesin Oba

Elesin Oba (ay-LAY-sihn OH-bah), the chief horseman of the recently deceased king of a Nigerian village. Full of vitality, Elesin enjoys women, singing, and dancing. Despite his great thirst for life, he is a man of honor and wisdom. He must, therefore, adhere to native laws and customs that mandate that he kill himself prior to the king’s burial so as to accompany his master to heaven. Although he has an abundance of wives and is in his final hours on Earth, his eyes wander to a young woman who has been promised to another man; as a result of his stature, the girl is given to him in marriage. Regardless of having yet another reason to live, he is prompted by honor to pursue his death ceremony. When the critical rite is interrupted by the British colonial forces and his suicide is prevented, Elesin is disgraced and humiliated. His son, whom he had previously disowned for abandoning the tribe to attend school in Europe, now disowns him. Elesin is repudiated by friends and tribesmen and is held in prison by the British as a means of protecting his life. After witnessing his son’s suicide to right his wrong, he strangles himself with his own shackles.


Praise-Singer, a man who follows Elesin around only to sing praises of him. Although his love for Elesin is great, he knows that the world demands the death of his master. During the death ritual, he takes on the role of the deceased king to speak with Elesin. He, too, is disgraced by Elesin failing to complete the ceremony, thereby disrupting the order of the universe.


Iyaloja (ee-yah-LOH-jah), the “mother” of the marketplace. Despite her lofty position above the other women, she is subservient to men and is terrified of offending Elesin, a man of such prominence. Her respect of his mission is so great that she willingly gives her son’s fiancée to him in marriage. When Elesin’s death is stalled, she scorns him, even calling his seed an abomination.

Simon Pilkings

Simon Pilkings, an English colonialist and district officer of the territory. He is insensitive and impatient of beliefs foreign to him, especially tribal superstition. He does not respect religion (even his own) and often offends people. By seeing things from only his vantage point, he disrupts the order of the tribe’s universe, which leads not only to the death of Elesin (whom he was attempting to save) but also to the destruction of Elesin’s honor and of his eldest son.

Jane Pilkings

Jane Pilkings, Simon’s wife. Although shallow and ignorant, she has educated herself concerning the tribal customs and tries not to denigrate them. She is more compassionate than her husband and is the buffer between Simon and the people he tends to offend.

Sergeant Amusa

Sergeant Amusa (ah-MEW-sah), a black man absorbed into the white man’s order, including Her Majesty’s government service. He is despised by his people for denying his heritage and is considered less than an equal by the British. Although he converted to the Muslim religion, he remains superstitious regarding his own primitive beliefs. Amusa is sent to arrest Elesin to prevent his suicide. He is humiliated and chided by the native girls as a white man’s eunuch.


Joseph, Simon Pilkings’ native houseboy. He takes his conversion to Christianity seriously and is disturbed by Pilkings’ sacrilegious speech.


Bride, the young virgin desired by Elesin. Although she is promised to Iyaloja’s son, Iyaloja proudly gives her to the honored Elesin before his valiant death. The bride is impregnated by Elesin, but her unborn child is later cursed by Iyaloja after Elesin fails in his mission of death. The bride remains outside Elesin’s jail cell after his incarceration, and it is she who closes his eyes after his suicide.

The Prince of Wales

The Prince of Wales, the visiting English prince to the native colony.

The Resident

The Resident, Simon Pilkings’ superior. He is an arrogant, silly, and ignorant man who is not at all in touch with the natives. His lack of substance is displayed in his fascination with surfaces such as uniforms and tassels.


Aide-de-camp, an assistant to the resident. He is rude and bigoted and much like his superior.


Olunde (oh-LEWN-day), the eldest son of Elesin. Despite his father’s renunciation of him for leaving the village, Olunde traveled to London to become a doctor. In his four years among the English, he has learned that they have no respect for what they do not understand. He returns to the village to warn Pilkings not to interfere with his father’s suicide. Olunde rejects his father when he learns of Elesin’s failed mission. To redeem his people, he takes on his father’s task and kills himself.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 885

Amusa is a sergeant in the native administration police, a black African working for the white British colonialists. His position is a difficult one: he is not trusted by Simon Pilkings, his superior, because Simon cannot conceive of an African as being intelligent or honest, and he is no longer trusted by the villagers because he works with the whites to enforce ‘‘the laws of strangers.’’ Amusa was converted to Christianity two years before the play begins, but he still feels profound respect for native beliefs. He will not speak with Simon so long as Simon is wearing the egungun garments, but Amusa does not hesitate to follow Simon’s orders and arrest Elesin to prevent his suicide.

The Bride does not speak at all during the play. Already engaged to Iyaloja’s son, the Bride is seen by Elesin and taken to bed by him; no one asks for her consent. When Elesin is arrested she sits silently beside him, and upon his death she closes his eyes in fulfillment of her wifely duty.

Iyaloja is the Mother of the market, the spokesperson and leader of the women of the village. She is the voice of wisdom in the play, the one who can see beyond Elesin’s charms to the danger he represents when he swerves from his responsibility. When Elesin asks for the young woman as his Bride, Iyaloja has no choice but to hand her over, even though the young woman is engaged to Iyaloja’s own son. Iyaloja knows the power of the forces of the universe, and she understands that refusing the request of a man who is ‘‘already touched by the waiting fingers of our departed’’ will ‘‘set this world adrift.’’ But she warns Elesin not to leave a cursed seed behind him, and she reminds him of her warning when she brings Olunde’s body to Elesin’s cell.

Elesin Oba
Elesin Oba, a man of ‘‘enormous vitality,’’ was the chief horseman of the dead king. As the king’s companion, Elesin enjoyed a luxurious life of rich food and fine clothing, the rewards of a man of his position. He enjoyed that life, and now that the king has been dead for a month and is ready for burial Elesin is expected to complete the horseman’s duty and commit ritual suicide. The play opens on the evening of Elesin’s last day of life; at midnight he will die. He says repeatedly that he is ready to give his life, and he knows the importance of fulfilling his responsibility. But Elesin, well known for his many sexual conquests, sees a young woman of great beauty and demands that he be allowed to take her to bed before he dies. Just after leaving the wedding chamber, Elesin begins his passage into the next world, and dances in a hypnotic dream-like trance. But when Simon’s men come to arrest Elesin, he cannot summon the strength to resist them and continue through the transitional state into the next world. Instead, he lives, and brings shame to himself and chaos to the world.

See The Praise-Singer

Jane Pilkings
Jane is the wife of Simon Pilkings, the British district officer. Although she shares most of Simon’s superior attitudes, she is, in Olunde’s words, ‘‘somewhat more understanding’’ than her husband. Unlike Simon, she can sense that Simon has offended Amusa and Joseph (the house servant), although she agrees with Simon that the native customs and beliefs are ‘‘horrible.’’ She has no active role in the main events of the play, but serves as a sounding board for Simon as he thinks things through.

Simon Pilkings
Simon is the district officer, charged with maintaining order in the one district of the British colony of Nigeria. He has no interest in learning about the Africans and their culture. He and his wife Jane socialize only with other Europeans, who have tried to transplant as much of their own food, clothing, and manners as they can to maintain their own style of life in a foreign country. Simon is sure of himself and of his way of life, and easily dismisses anything he does not understand. When he learns that Elesin intends to commit suicide on the night of the prince’s visit to the district, Simon uses his authority to stop Elesin not because he values Elesin, but because he does not want any commotion to disrupt a fancy- dress ball and the prince’s visit. Ironically, the steps Simon takes to ensure peace in the village actually help bring about chaos in the universe. Because he does not care to understand Yoruba belief, his actions do more harm than good.

The Praise-Singer (also known as Olohun-iyo) accompanies Elesin on his last journey, singing and chanting. He is devoted to Elesin, and sees into the darkest corners of his heart. Almost like a conscience, he voices Elesin’s hesitations and questions about his passage into the next world. As Elesin enters his trance to begin the transition, the Praise-Singer monitors his progress. He can sense Elesin moving away from him, and calls him back in a ritual, repetitive chant. Once Elesin is arrested and brought to his cell, the Praise-Singer is not seen nor heard again.

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