Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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The Play

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

"Death and the King's Horsemen" offers a rich tapestry of themes and symbolism. Although the setting is specific, this work transcends its particular cultural context to delve into broader human experiences and societal dynamics.

The power of tradition and culture is a central theme of the play. Colonial forces' disruption of Elesin's death ceremony epitomizes this cultural conflict. This theme reflects the broader historical context of colonialism's impact on traditional societies and the conflicts that arise as a result. In addition, Elesin's internal struggle to balance his duty and personal desires exemplifies the tension between individual freedom and cultural obligations. 

In the play, the audience can see the paternalistic tendencies of the British colonial authorities. Characters like Simon Pilkings embody this attitude, believing they have a duty to guide and civilize indigenous cultures. Simon's interference in Elesin's death ritual reflects his conviction that he knows better than the Yoruba people themselves about their practices, exposing the colonial arrogance and superiority complex.

This paternalism extends to Jane Pilkings, who attempts to understand Yoruba customs to avoid offense but does so through a Eurocentric lens. As she exasperatedly tells Olunde, 

You have learnt to argue I can see that, but I never said you make sense. However clearly you try to put it, it is still a barbaric custom. It is even worse — it's feudal. (Scene 4)

This reflects the larger colonial attitude of imposing Western values on other cultures. The play underscores the negative consequences of such behavior, as Pilkings' intervention disrupts the Yoruba people's sacred customs, resulting in tragedy

This play also centers around notions of death. Specifically, it explores the spiritual conflict surrounding death between the Yoruba and British cultures. Elesin is expected to commit ritual suicide following the death of his king. The whole community expects it and celebrates it. However, the British colonial authorities, who view death as something to be feared and avoided, intervene to prevent him from doing so.

The story's central conflict arises from this difference in cultural perspectives. Elesin believes it is his duty to die for his king, while the British believe he is committing a foolish, disruptive, and unnecessary act. Elesin's son, Olunde, further complicates this conflict; he has been educated in England and has come to understand the British view of death.

In the end, Elesin does commit suicide, but his demise is a tragedy rather than a triumph. His suicide does not fulfill his duty to his king and consequently has brought shame to his family and the community. The play's conclusion suggests that there is no easy answer to the question of how to deal with death and that both the Yoruba and British cultures have valid points of view.

"Death and the King's Horseman" utilizes numerous elements of parables, metaphors, and poetry. These literary devices help to create a heightened emotional atmosphere and a more dramatic experience.

For example, when Elesin first appears in the play, he's full of confidence and swagger. Upon entering the market, he proclaims that:

This market is my roost. When I come among the women I am chicken with a hundred mothers. I become a monarch whose palace is built with tenderness and beauty. (Scene 1)

Elesin knows that he's playing a vital role in the king's funeral rites and is determined to do it right. Elesin believes he is in control of his destiny, and he's not afraid to die.

Elesin's language is also very poetic. He uses vivid imagery and figurative language to describe his feelings and experiences. For example, he says, 

Watch me dance along the narrowing...

(This entire section contains 995 words.)

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Glazed by the soles of my great precursors. (Scene 1)

This line creates a powerful image of Elesin walking down a path his ancestors have traveled. He is following in their footsteps and fulfilling his duty to his people.

When doubts about his willingness to die are raised, Elesin tells a lengthy parable of the Not-I Bird, a servant of Death who reminds everyone of their mortality. Elesin tells the Praise-Singer that, rather than dismissing the bird like everyone else, he welcomes it.

I, when that Not-I bird perched

Upon my roof, bade him seek his nest again,

Safe without care or fear. I unrolled

My welcome mat for him to see. Not-I

Flew happily away, you'll hear his voice

No more in this lifetime — You all know

What I am. (Scene 1)

"Death and the King's Horsemen" encapsulates the essence of a tragic narrative through its exploration of cultural collision and personal dilemmas. The play engages with the Aristotelian concept of tragedy by presenting a noble protagonist, Elesin, who experiences a reversal of fortune due to a combination of internal and external conflicts. 

The tragic flaw, in this case, is Elesin's excessive pride. Elesin takes immense pride in his ceremonial role of accompanying the king's soul on its journey through the afterlife. However, his hubris becomes apparent in his unyielding belief in his entitlement to worldly pleasures, including the Bride, who is promised to another. This pride-driven insistence on consummating a marriage with her before his suicide contradicts his duty.

Had Elesin demonstrated humility, he would have upheld his duty without deviation. His disregard for the wisdom of others, exemplified by Iyaloja, is illustrated through her indirect questioning of his honor. She implores him not to tarnish the Bride's prospects for happiness and reminds him of his professed honorable character.

Elesin's decision to marry on his last day among the living sets off a chain of events that prevent his ritual suicide and bring dishonor to his son Olunde, who takes his place in the deadly rite.

Like many tragic heroes, Elesin's ill-fated decisions emanate from his excessive pride and contribute to his tragic downfall. His tragic trajectory aligns with Aristotle's criteria for a tragic hero, encompassing his hubris, erroneous choice, and catastrophic consequences, culminating in the loss of his son and his suicide.

Historical Context

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A Nation in Turmoil
When Soyinka wrote Death and the King’s Horseman in 1974 he was living in exile from Nigeria, lecturing at Churchill College of Cambridge University in England. The preceding years had been difficult for Nigeria, and for Soyinka personally. In 1967, the southeastern area of Nigeria declared itself the independent Republic of Biafra, and a civil war erupted. The causes of the conflict were complex: the secessionists were mostly from the Ibo tribe, and believed that the Nigerian government favored the Hausa tribe; many in the southeast were Christian, while those in the north were predominantly Muslim; oil was being produced in the region, and there was disagreement about how the revenues would be distributed.

Soyinka believed that the government policies toward Biafra were unjust, and he said as much in letters to the editors of national publications. Soyinka was arrested in 1967 and held without charges for two years and two months. For fifteen of those months, he was in solitary confinement. While he was in prison, the war continued, and the Biafrans were pushed to a smaller and smaller area of land. Shortly after Soyinka was released from prison in 1969, the war was over and Biafra had been completely wiped out. It was the first modern war between African blacks, and it left over one million people dead and many more homeless and starving. The Nigerian economy was in ruins; although profits from oil skyrocketed, most of the money was divided up between corrupt Nigerian military rulers and European oil companies, while the average Nigerian was unemployed and underfed.

After these experiences, Soyinka directed the University of Ibadan’s Theatre Arts Department for a short time, and then lived mostly outside Nigeria for five years. He traveled throughout Europe and the United States, teaching, writing, and directing, and he spent two years as an editor in Ghana. According to many critics, his attention shifted after his imprisonment. Whereas previously he had written about the negative effects of the colonial powers on the colonized, he now addressed weakness and corruption wherever he found it. In particular, he was concerned with exploring the ways in which Africans treated each other unjustly, and the ways in which his own community had betrayed itself. Death and the King’s Horseman is a play that reflects this later vision, as Soyinka himself insists in his Author’s Note.

African Literature
African writers during the second half of the twentieth century faced a dilemma. Most of the traditional African forms of literature were based on oral traditional and ritual performance, and these ancient forms were becoming less and less familiar even to the local people. On the other hand, more widely popular genres like the novel and dramatic forms like the classical tragedy were based on European structures and philosophies, and did not always seem to fit African themes and beliefs. Language was also an issue: a play written in the local language would obviously capture the atmosphere and the spirit of a people better than the same story told in English, but the audience for such a play would be very limited.

Most of the African writers who are now considered major international figures traveled, taught, and produced important work in Europe and the United States, and they created works that combined European influences with African materials. With each new work they attempted to define what was ‘‘African’’ about African literature. Soyinka and others wrote eloquent essays in which they explored the place of Africa in world literature, and tried to determine how an African writer should make sense of various influences. Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya, after several successful publications, decided to stop writing in English; since 1977 he has written his novels and plays in Gikuyu, but encouraged their publication in translation. Soyinka’s works are written in English, but retain the original Yoruba for quoting certain proverbs, as in Death and the King’s Horseman. However, in 1994 Akin Isola produced a translation of the play into Yoruba, as part of a new movement of Yoruba literature, a translation Soyinka endorsed.

Literary Style

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SettingDeath and the King’s Horseman takes place in the Nigerian town of Oyo in approximately 1943 or 1944. Nigeria became a colony of Great Britain in the nineteenth century, and into the 1940s British officers kept order and protected a small group of white Europeans who lived in the country. The white expatriates and the black Africans, members of the Yoruba people, inhabited parallel worlds, each group attempting to maintain its own traditional way of life.

The market is the center of the community, where people gather to socialize, to trade, to celebrate and to perform rituals, and it is here that Elesin comes as his last day draws to a close. The Westernstyle homes of the district officer and the resident are set apart from the village, but close enough that the sounds of the ceremonial drumming can be still be heard. The two communities, each holding a special event on the night of the play’s action, do not mingle. No whites are present at the ceremony marking Elesin’s passage, and the only blacks at the fancy-dress ball are servants.

In its structure, Death and the King’s Horseman appears to be based on the tragedy. The tragedy is an ancient form of drama in which an important person passes through a series of events and choices, resulting in a great catastrophe. Tragedies have been written all around the world over thousands of years, to examine the dignity of humans and their greatest strengths and weaknesses. According to the ancient Greeks, tragedy filled the audience with fear and pity, and so helped a community deal psychologically with these emotions. The structure of a tragedy may be generally divided into several distinct parts: an introduction in which the characters, setting and situation are established; the complication or rising action, during which an opposing force is introduced; the climax or turning point; the falling action, or another focusing on the opposing forces; and the catastrophe, or the unhappy conclusion.

Death and the King’s Horseman has in fact been built on this pattern. Act 1 introduces Elesin and his duty; Act 2 introduces an opposing force in the figure of Simon Pilkings, who plans to prevent Elesin’s suicide; Act 3 ends with the climax of Elesin in transition, apparently only moments away from the central action, his death; Act 4 shifts the focus back to Simon Pilkings, and ends with the revelation that Elesin’s suicide has been prevented; Act 5 contains Elesin’s musings on the disorder brought about by his failure, and presents the deaths of Olunde and Elesin.

When a play or story includes early clues to what will happen later, the writing is said to include foreshadowing. In Death and the King’s Horseman there are several hints in Act 1 that Elesin will not carry through with his plan to commit suicide. As Elesin and the Praise- Singer enter the market, for example, Elesin comments on the attractiveness of the women there. The Praise-Singer agrees, but warns, ‘‘The hands of women also weaken the unwary.’’ This warning creates in the audience’s mind the possibility of failure, even danger. When Elesin promises that he will be faithful and join his forbears, the Praise-Singer replies, ‘‘In their time the world was never tilted from its groove, it shall not be in yours.’’ Again, the possibility of failure is presented, as it will be several more times by the Praise-Singer and the women of the market as they assure each other that Elesin will not fail.

Elesin himself speaks eagerly about his determination to complete his duty. He dances and chants a long tale of the ‘‘Not-I bird,’’ a bird who flew away when ‘‘Death came calling.’’ Several critics have pointed out that Elesin seems here to be protesting too much. Why does he repeatedly assure the crowd that he will ‘‘not delay’’? Why does he keep raising the specter of failure on what should be a glorious day of celebration? The foreshadowing helps prepare the audience for what will happen, prolonging and intensifying the experience of watching Elesin confront and then turn away from his duty.

RitualDeath and the King’s Horseman is set firmly in Yorubaland, and the metaphysical issues spring from Yoruba belief. However, as Nigeria and the rest of the world move ‘‘forward,’’ the world becomes more homogenous and Western, and ancient beliefs and customs are lost. Soyinka writes in the Author’s Note of the play’s ‘‘threnodic essence,’’ or the play’s mourning the loss of tradition. With Elesin and Olunde both dead, the tradition of the king’s horseman cannot continue, because it depends on the job of chief horseman being passed down from father to son. With Elesin’s failure, an important ritual has been lost.

On stage, the play both celebrates and mourns ritual. Unlike the plays of William Shakespeare, which contain almost no stage directions, Death and the King’s Horseman includes several lengthy passages in which the playwright describes what the actors are doing in addition to speaking their lines. Frequently, these stage directions describe elements of music, dance, and costume that are specific to Yoruba ritual. For example, Elesin parades into the market with an entourage of drummers and praisesingers, and the beginning of the play before a line is spoken—is a reenactment of part of the ritual of the horseman’s last day. The stage directions also mandate that Elesin dance, accompanied by drumming, as he chants the story of the ‘‘Not-I bird’’; that the alari-cloth the women drape him with be bright red and that they dance around him; that Simon and Jane dance the tango, and that they perform a sacrilegious imitation of the egungun ceremony; that Elesin dances his way into a trance; and so on. These scenes are rich with sound and color, and most of them are not discussed by the characters. They form a separate layer of understanding, unavailable to those who merely read the printed script. In addition to the themes and ideas portrayed by the words the actors speak, the audience of a performance also witnesses a series of rituals enacted on stage as they used to be enacted in village markets.

Compare and Contrast

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

1963: Nigeria becomes an independent republic, with Nnamdi Azikiwe as first president.

1975: A military coup brings General Olusegun Obasanjo to power. He is Nigeria’s third military dictator since 1966.

1999: The latest in a series of military rulers, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, assumes power and invites Soyinka back from a four-year exile. The general pledges to bring Nigeria out of its long period of oppression at the hands of corrupt military rulers.

1967: Soyinka begins a prison term of more than two years for criticizing the Nigerian government. He will serve fifteen months in solitary confinement.

1974: Nobel-prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is stripped of his Soviet citizenship and forced into exile. Writer Es’kia Mphahalele is living in exile from South Africa, after being arrested for protesting apartheid. Soyinka accepts a position as a visiting lecturer at Cambridge University in England.

2000: Solzhenitsyn, his citizenship restored, again lives in Russia. Mphahlele and Soyinka live in their home countries, where they are honored as intellectuals and political activists.

1970s: African writing is not much taught in European or American schools, and is not widely read or understood outside Africa. When Soyinka is invited to be a visiting lecturer at Cambridge University, he is invited to talk about not literature, but about anthropology.

1986: Soyinka becomes the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is both an acknowledgment of his importance to world literature and an opportunity to attract even more readers around the world.

2000: High schools and colleges routinely offer courses in World Literature, and these courses increasingly include African and other so-called Third World literatures. Soyinka’s plays, including Death and the King’s Horseman, are frequently included in textbooks.

1953: In the nation’s first official census, 43 percent of Nigerians report themselves as Muslims; 22 percent label themselves Christians; 34 percent are recorded as followers of ancestral religions.

1999: Fewer Nigerians now practice traditional religions. Approximately 50 percent are Muslims, 40 percent are Christian, and only 10 percent adhere to ancestral beliefs.

1945: Few opportunities for higher education are available for blacks in Nigeria. Formal education consists mostly of missionary schools, and does not extend beyond the secondary level.

2000: Nigeria has an extensive system of public schools as well as many religious schools. There are several universities, and a few medical schools affiliated with teaching hospitals. Nigerians pursuing medical careers need not go abroad for their education.

Media Adaptations

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

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Gotrick, Kacke, ‘‘Soyinka and Death and the King’s Horseman, or How Does Our Knowledge or Lack of Knowledge of Yoruba Culture Affect Our Interpretation?,’’ in Signs and Signals: Popular Culture in Africa, edited by Raoul Granqvis, University of Umea, 1990, pp. 137, 139.

Maduakor, Obi, Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing, Garland, 1986, p. 273.

Mwagiru, Ciugu, ‘‘A Crusader’s Return,’’ in World Press Review, Vol. 46, no. 2, February 1999, p. 35.

Wright, Derek, Wole Soyinka Revisited, Twayne, 1993, p. 73.

Further Reading
Aboyade, Bimpe, Wole Soyinka and Yoruba Oral Tradition, in Death and the King’s Horseman, Fountain Publications, 1994. A brief examination of the importance of oral tradition in Nigerian culture, and as a source for the play. Aboyade, himself a Yoruban, describes the egungun celebration, explains the role of the praise-singer, and considers the way in which Elesin and his people would understand honor.

Durosimi Jones, Eldred, The Writing of Wole Soyinka, 3d ed., Heinemann, 1988. The first edition of this volume, issued in 1973, was part of the Twayne World Authors Series, and for many years was considered the best book-length study of Soyinka. The third edition is still strong on incorporation of Christian and Yoruba elements, but the discussions of later plays, including Death and the King’s Horseman, are brief.

Gibbs, James, ed., Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka, Three Continents Press, 1980. A collection of critical essays on Soyinka’s plays, poetry, memoir and criticism from a variety of perspectives. The book is now somewhat dated, and many of these essays may be difficult for the general reader, but the essays are consistently insightful and the collection is thorough.

Gotrick, Kacke, ‘‘Soyinka and Death and the King’s Horseman, or How Does Our Knowledge or Lack of Knowledge of Yoruba Culture Affect Our Interpretation?,’’ in Signs and Signals: Popular Culture in Africa, edited by Raoul Granqvist, University of Umea, 1990, pp. 137-148. Gotrick delineates the two major interpretations of the play as Elesin’s failure or as a clash of cultures and concludes that readers and viewers are likely to choose an interpretation based on their level of ‘‘Yoruba competence.’’ The analysis is based on the 1987 New York production, and the article includes three photographs from that production.

Levy, Patricia, Nigeria, Marshall Cavendish, 1996. Part of the Cultures of the World series, this volume is intended for middle school and high school students. Accessible but substantial, it gives an objective overview of Nigeria’s history and geography, and explores the religions, languages, arts and festivals of the major ethnic groups. The many colored pictures illustrate dramatically the ways in which Nigeria is like and unlike North America.

Maduakor, Obi, Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing, Garland, 1986. This volume is intended to make Soyinka more accessible to Western students by explaining the playwright’s world view, his use of mythology, and his use of language. Maduakor analyzes Death and the King’s Horseman as a play about transition from one spiritual world to another, paralleling the passage of the hero-god Ogun.

Wright, Derek, Wole Soyinka Revisited, Twayne, 1993. An excellent introduction to Soyinka’s life and work, with an emphasis on Yoruban traditions and themes as they inform Soyinka’s writing. Wright’s discussion of Death and the King’s Horseman focuses on the changes Soyinka made to the actual historical events, demonstrating how these changes reinforce the themes of interrupted ritual and substitution. the early years and early works, and on Soyinka’s




Critical Essays