Death and the King's Horseman Essays and Criticism
by Wole Soyinka

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Roles of Women

(Drama for Students)

Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman tells the story of a man who fails to fulfill a responsibility. When Elesin, the king’s chief horseman, does not complete his ritual suicide so that he can accompany his dead king to the world of the ancestors, he breaks a thread of continuity that has for generations connected the worlds of the unborn, the living, and the dead. The connecting thread in this case is based on patriarchy: the kingship passes down from father to son, and so does the position of king’s horseman. Olunde, as eldest son, knows as soon as he receives word of the king’s death that his own father will die a month later and Olunde will be required to properly bury his father and then step into his role. When Olunde dies before his father, and leaves no son of his own, the thread is broken, and the ritual can no longer be performed.

Death and the King’s Horseman focuses on a man’s world, and a man’s responsibility, and women are incidental to its central ritual. The role of women in this play can be problematic for Western readers who have become attuned to Western-based forms of feminism, and who are practiced at unearthing belittling treatments of women in literature written by men. As a white Christian woman from the American Midwest, I would not presume to judge Yoruba culture, or to analyze Yoruba women under a Western lens. I do think, however, that a close look at the women characters in Death and the King’s Horseman can reveal different ways of thinking about power and influence and responsibility.

To be sure, there are moments in Death and the King’s Horseman that make a Western feminist cringe. As the play opens, Elesin comes strutting into the market bragging about his many sexual conquests. The Praise-Singer fondly remembers the time the horseman was caught with his sister-in-law and claimed, ‘‘but I was only prostrating myself to her as becomes a grateful in-law.’’ Later in the same Act, Elesin becomes distracted, ‘‘his attention is caught by an object off-stage’’ (italics mine). That ‘‘object’’ is soon revealed to be a young woman, the bride, whose body Elesin praises piece by piece. In Act 3, Elesin emerges from the wedding chamber with the stained cloth that proves that the bride was a virgin when he took her and that she has not dishonored him. Clearly the rules are different for men and for women. When Elesin is in his cell for the last Act and Jane Pilkings tries to make him see her husband’s motives, Elesin is pointedly rude and dismissive: ‘‘That is my wife sitting down there. You notice how still and silent she sits? My business is with your husband.’’

A reader must not stop here, however. It is true that Elesin has an important position in a male world, and that he does not see women as important influences on that position. But in fact, the women in the play tend to be wiser and stronger, and they appear to be closer to the spirit world and less bound to the material world, than the men.

As Mother of the market, Iyaloja is the leader of the women, and even Elesin pays respect to her. She can see more deeply than Elesin can. She is the one who recognizes that the child of the union between Elesin and the bride will be ‘‘the elusive being of passage.’’ (Elesin has no high moral or spiritual purpose in asking for the bride. He simply wants sex.) Iyaloja is also the one who sees the danger in Elesin’s request, and she warns him to be careful: ‘‘be sure the seed you leave . . . attracts no curse.’’ Of course, Elesin does not listen to her, just as he refuses to hear Jane Pilkings. Only in the last Act is he forced to admit, ‘‘I more than deserve your scorn.’’

In every pairing of a woman and her ‘‘equal’’ in stature, the woman emerges as the wiser. Iyaloja, the highest-ranking woman, is wiser than Elesin, the king’s horseman. The market women easily make fools of Amusa and the two constables and run them off, although...

(The entire section is 16,328 words.)