Death and the King's Horseman by Wole Soyinka

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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...

(The entire section is 5,440 words.)