Death and the King's Horseman Analysis

Wole Soyinka

The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Death and the King’s Horseman, a tragedy in five acts, is about Elesin, the King’s horseman, who is obligated to undergo a ritual suicide in order to accompany his dead king to the realm of the ancestors. The first act opens with Elesin moving through the marketplace with considerable vitality, singing and dancing, on his way to perform a duty crucial to the continued life and stability of his community. The main concern of the Praise-Singer is Elesin’s courage, but Elesin reassures him by telling the story of the “Not-I bird.” While others who see Death coming respond fearfully (“Not I”), Elesin sends the bird back to its nest and lays out the “welcome mat” for Death. He gives similar assurances to the market women.

Doubt about his willpower surfaces, however, when he demands that the women robe him in their best cloths. Eager to please and honor him, Iyaloja, the “mother” of the market, quickly agrees. Elesin then sees a beautiful young girl. His passion gets the better of him, but he rationalizes it as a desire to leave his seed behind him, to unburden himself of its weight before his journey to the afterlife. While Iyaloja is at first hesitant-the girl happens to be her future daughter-in-law, and she is not sure of Elesin’s motives-she soon grants him his wish by arranging a marriage. She cannot deny the final wish of this man Elesin, on whose death depends the safety of the community, but she warns him that if his will weakens and he does not go through with the suicide, he will place a curse on the girl and her future child. The act ends with the girl offered to Elesin as his bride.

Act 2 takes place at the bungalow of the (English) District Officer. Simon Pilkings and his wife, Jane, are dancing a tango dressed in local egungun costumes. Sergeant Amusa interrupts them by accidentally overturning a flowerpot. He has come with a message about Elesin’s intended ritual suicide-which is against British regulations-but has been so horrified by the Pilkingses’ flagrant dishonoring of the egungun “uniform of death” that he cannot speak. He can only write down his message and leave. Preoccupied with the upcoming fancy-dress ball that evening, Pilkings seems unable to deal effectively with the problem of Elesin. Only with Jane’s prompting does he finally determine how to stop the suicide and still attend the ball: He sends a note to Sergeant Amusa telling him to arrest Elesin and lock him up in Pilkings’ own house. Pilkings voices his regret that he has still not stamped out all pagan practices. Jane reminds him of a past incident, their aid in sending Elesin’s oldest son, Olunde, to England for a medical degree-against Elesin’s strenuous protest. Tradition calls for the son of the King’s Horseman to continue his father’s ritual role during the next king’s reign. They speculate that Olunde may have wanted to leave in order to escape that future. Throughout the act drums play in the background; they have a different sound from anything Jane and Simon have heard before. Joseph, their house servant, interprets them as celebrating “the death of a great chief” and “the wedding of a great chief.” Acts 1 and 2 are obviously taking place simultaneously. Neither Jane nor Simon is adequate to the occasion, both being totally insensitive to the meanings inherent in the African world around them. They are intent instead on the ball, and Simon announces to Jane at the end of the act that the Prince of Wales has just arrived in Nigeria and will be the honored guest. Their party mood is in stark contrast to the spiritual and metaphysical event about to transpire, which they are to be instrumental in turning into a tragedy.

Act 3 opens with Amusa at the marketplace trying to move the women out of his way in order to arrest Elesin. He insists that his “official business” takes precedence; they counter that Elesin himself is engaged in “official business” which is much more important than British law. The women taunt Amusa with sexual innuendos, questioning his manhood in his obedience to white masters. The young girls in the market, who have been to British schools, enact an impromptu play that mocks superficial British manners, patronizing colonial attitudes toward Africans, and the toadyism of servants such as Amusa. They finally chase Amusa and his two constables off by threatening to pull down their shorts. The women, ecstatic over the cleverness and courage of the girls, begin a dance in their praise.

At this moment Elesin enters with proof of the consummation, declaring it “the union of life and the seeds of passage.” To the sounds of drums in the distance, Elesin announces his intention to perform the ritual suicide in the marketplace itself, which he regards as the vibrant symbol of life. The rest of the act depicts Elesin’s gradual entrance into the trance of death. As his Praise-Singer sings to him, he dances and frees himself gradually from the sounds of earth. It appears at the end of the act that the ritual will continue to its successful conclusion.

Act 4 takes place at the fancy-dress ball in honor of the Prince of Wales; it is a twentieth century imitation of a seventeenth century masque. Pilkings learns from Amusa that the market women have foiled the attempt to arrest Elesin. As the clock strikes midnight, Pilkings rushes out, fearing that he may be too late to avert what would be an embarrassing incident on this night of the Prince’s visit. Just after he leaves, Olunde appears, looking for him. He believes that Pilkings will be unable to stop the suicide and wants to make him understand its significance. The rest of the act consists mostly of a conversation between Olunde and Jane, who, he says, is more likely than Simon to accept and respect Yoruba custom. They swap statements about the British and African ways of thinking and acting. Olunde is especially critical of the British tendency to cover up realities and distort history. While Jane finds his truthfulness, especially his cool acceptance of his father’s ritual death, disturbing, even “savage,” she recovers her composure and makes an effort to understand. He explains that ever since he received the cable announcing the King’s death, he has regarded his father as dead. He seems cold only because his grief is already a month old. When the drums tell him that the ritual is complete, he is relieved, but when Pilkings returns with Elesin as his prisoner, Olunde feels humiliated, as does Elesin himself. While it was forbidden for Olunde to look upon his father during the month between the King’s death and Elesin’s own, now Olunde looks upon him with disgust, declaring, “I have no father, eater of left-overs.”

The final act finds Elesin in chains, behind bars in an old jail once used for slaves bound for the Americas. His recent bride is seated outside, and guards inside the cell watch Elesin’s every move. Pilkings arrives to console him. It is clear that he still does not comprehend that in following his British duty he has committed a sacrilege. Elesin rejects Pilkings’ consolation and tries to explain what happened to him during this most important night of his life. The ritual called for him to die at exactly the proper moment, when the moon “reached a certain gateway in the sky,” but his will failed him. He does not know whom to blame. When Pilkings leaves, hearing urgent cries from his wife, Elesin explains to his bride that his mind wanted to blame first Pilkings, then the gods, and now the temptation of the bride herself. He did not want to give up the pleasures of earth.

Pilkings returns with Jane, debating whether to accede to Olunde’s written request that Iyaloja be allowed to see Elesin. Pilkings’ fear is that she will give a weapon to Elesin, permitting him to go through with the suicide. Relying on Elesin’s “honour” and forbidding Iyaloja to step beyond a designated line, he agrees to the conference. Thus begins her scornful rebuke, in which she accuses Elesin of reversing the order of nature-the father saving himself to feed on the world while destroying his children and allowing their king to wander unprotected in the passage to the other world. Iyaloja finally has her women carry in their “burden.” The Praise-Singer, who accompanies it, insists (as Iyaloja had before him) that he gave Elesin adaquate warning. When Iyaloja removes the cover from the “burden,” Olunde’s dead body is revealed. Olunde, in substituting himself for his father, has become Elesin’s father and thus has reversed the cycle of nature. Neither Iyaloja nor the Praise-Singer knows whether the son’s sacrifice will save their world. If it does not, the blame will fall entirely on Elesin. The Horseman then tries to recapture what honor he can by strangling himself with his chain. Still unable to understand any of this, Pilkings enters the cell and tries to revive Elesin’s dead body. Iyaloja then turns her scorn on him. His attempts at resuscitation are in vain. Though Elesin’s entry into the death passage is late and “clogged with droppings from the King’s stallion,” his body is nevertheless “no pauper’s carrion abandoned on the road,” and she now blames Pilkings for his role in Elesin’s failure. It is the young bride, not Pilkings, who has the right to close the Horseman’s eyes. The hope for the future, it is suggested, is in her “unborn” child.

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Soyinka emphasizes in his prefatory note that the director of the play must, if he is to capture its meanings, work to “elicit” its “threnodic essence.” While Aristotle in his analytical definition of tragedy would relegate song and spectacle to a secondary role, Soyinka, recognizing the religious demands of drama as ritual, insists upon their role in creating the cosmic setting. If any one thing accounts for Soyinka’s method in Death and the King’s Horseman, it is ceremony. The play opens with a ritual procession, with Elesin singing and dancing his way through the first act. He demands of the market women a robing ceremony, and the act closes with a wedding. The language is metaphorically rich, and the entire act represents a spiritual service, containing not conversations among characters but stylized rhetoric: the Praise-Singer quizzing Elesin on his fitness and readiness for the journey, Iyaloja and the Praise-Singer responding joyfully to Elesin’s mastery of the situation as the market women sing a refrain, the heightened debate between Iyaloja and Elesin over his desire for the young girl, and finally her formal warning to Elesin that the wedding must not draw him back into life. Further, much of the act is in verse form. The drums that are now onstage accompanying Elesin on his procession will throughout the play beat in the background, sending messages on his progress. The marriage at the end of the act has not individual but communal significance: It is a ritual to celebrate the union of the three worlds—the dead, the living, and the unborn.

Such ritual qualities dominate in acts 1, 3, and 5. They present the stages of Elesin’s journey. The first ends with his marriage, the third with his entrance into the trance of death, the fifth with his actual death by strangulation and with the wake lamenting the death of his son. Acts 2 and 4 are almost devoid of ritual. Their function is to provide contrast-to emphasize that the play is not a conflict of equals but an exposure of the alien culture’s inadequacy to sit in judgment. Instead of ritual, Soyinka presents (in act 2) an uninformed and distasteful mockery of Yoruba ritual, as the Pilkings stand onstage doing the tango in the sacred egungun costumes. In act 4, the setting is a masque at the residence: a superficial imitation, with no spiritual significance, of an entertainment from seventeenth century England.

Just as Soyinka juxtaposes ritual against secular action, so he pairs Yoruba and British characters in formal opposition to each other. The Yoruba king who has died, for example, has an English counterpart in the Prince of Wales. While the Prince’s subjects do not want to disturb his sleep, the Yoruba are concerned with the eternal peace of their king-he must not go unaccompanied to the world of the dead. Both remain in the background, but while the Prince presides over a masque, the King presides over a people and a tradition. Pilkings is a similar foil to Elesin. They both fail in their responsibilities, but one is engaged in social and political niceties, the other in cosmic and cultural survival. The two women, Jane and Iyaloja, have similar roles, the support and encouragement of the central male characters, and both find that they must eventually question the fitness of the men for their assigned roles. More sensitive and perceptive than Pilkings, Jane tries to moderate his bureaucratic zeal; more loyal and self-confident than Elesin, Iyaloja must prod him into his trance and reprimand him for a loss of will. Finally, Elesin has a son, Olunde, who is vital to the life of the community. Soyinka suggests no such familial (or cultural) counterpart on the British side, no symbol of fertility and continuity. While Soyinka does individualize his characters, they function most significantly as symbols in a formal, stylized scheme.

Just as Olunde and Elesin enter to ritualize the ending of act 4, so Pilkings and his wife Jane enter the Yoruba world in act 5 to secularize it-but are instead overwhelmed by it. Their ordinary language is drowned out by the ceremonial richness of word and deed. As Pilkings tries to revive Elesin, “the women continue their dirge, unmoved.” His final question “Was this what you wanted?” he asks “in a tired voice.” British bumbling gives way to the “threnodic essence” that Soyinka wanted to portray.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

A Nation in Turmoil
When Soyinka wrote Death and the King’s Horseman in 1974 he was living in exile from Nigeria,...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Death and the King’s Horseman takes place in the Nigerian town of Oyo in approximately 1943 or 1944. Nigeria...

(The entire section is 1034 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1940s: Nigeria is a colony of Great Britain, governed by a white British minority bureaucracy.

1963: Nigeria...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the involvement of African nations in World War II. Where on the African continent were battles fought? Which nations were involved...

(The entire section is 232 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Death and the King’s Horseman has not been filmed or recorded.

(The entire section is 12 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Lion and the Jewel (1963) is one of Soyinka’s earliest plays, and one of the first to be performed in Africa. More humorous than...

(The entire section is 369 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Gotrick, Kacke, ‘‘Soyinka and Death and the King’s Horseman, or How Does Our Knowledge or Lack of Knowledge of...

(The entire section is 566 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Birbalsingh, E. M. “Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman,” in Presence africaine. CXXIV (1982), pp. 202-219.

Gibbs, James. Wole Soyinka, 1986.

Izevbaye, D. S. “Mediation in Soyinka: The Case of the King’s Horseman,” in Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka, 1981. Edited by James Gibbs.

Jain, Jasbir. “The Unfolding of a Text: Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman,” in Research in African Literatures. XVIII (1986), pp. 252-260.

Jones, Eldred D. The Writing of Wole Soyinka, 1983.

Katrak, Ketu H. Wole Soyinka and Modern Tragedy: A Study of Dramatic Theory and Practice. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. Extended study of the roots of Soyinka’s art in Yoruba ritual and Western dramatic traditions. Argues that the play dramatizes the common fear of death that can be allayed only with ritual suicide, while criticizing the tradition itself and seeking a mythic revision suitable for the modern world.

Last, Brian W. “Death and the King’s Horseman: A Note,” in World Literature Written in English. XXI, no. 1 (1982), pp. 37-42.

Ogundele, Wole. “Death and the King’s Horseman: A Poet’s Quarrel with His Culture.” Research in African Literatures 25, no. 1 (Spring, 1994): 47-60. Treats the play from a social and political perspective, focusing on the social conditions influencing Elesin’s moral position.

Ralph-Bowman, Mark. “‘Leaders and Left-Overs’: A Reading of Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman.” Research in African Literatures 14, no. 1 (February, 1983): 81-97. Emphasizes the spiritual aspects of the play, portraying Elesin as a failed Christ figure whose actions constitute blasphemy and Olunde as a redemptive figure, upholding his culture despite exposure to the West.

Richards, David. “Owe l’esin oro: Proverbs Like Horses: Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature. XIX, no. 1 (1984), pp. 86-97.

Whitaker, Thomas R. “Wole Soyinka.” In Post-Colonial English Drama, edited by Bruce King. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Describes the play as a revision of Yoruba folk opera, under the influence of Western tragedy and Ibsen-like realism. Argues that all moral positions in the play are made problematic by the mingling of Western and African traditions.

Williams, Adebayo. “Ritual and the Political Unconscious: The Case of Death and the King’s Horseman.” Research in African Literatures 24, no. 1 (Spring, 1993): 67-79. Applies to the play the concept that ritual acts carry out political functions through a kind of collective unconscious. Argues that Elesin’s suicide acts to reinforce the ruling class.