Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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What do the similarities and differences between cultures in Death and the King's Horseman demonstrate?

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To summarize, universal human experience is the focus of Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman. Although there are obvious similarities and differences between Yoruba/African culture and English-colonial culture in Death and the King's Horseman, it is threnodic essence that comprises much of its theme and meaning.

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Indeed, the original question presents a challenging task. Wole Soyinka, the author of Death and the King's Horseman, expressly warned his readers against a "sadly familiar reductionist tendency" to focus on cultures instead of "threnodic essence" (Soyinka, 2003, p. 3)."Threnodic essence" can be defined as "a presence or...

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quality of death and lamentation." For Soyinka, "threnodic essence" not only is the demonstration pertaining to the two cultures, but also comprises much of the meaning and theme ofDeath and the King's Horseman.

The similarities and differences between the two cultures (Yoruba/African culture and English-colonial culture) in Soyinka's Death and the King'sHorseman help to demonstrate the vision of a culture in which threnodic essence is of greatest importance. The reason for Soyinka's emphasis on threnodic essence, as opposed to an emphasis on the similarities and differences between the two general cultures just mentioned, is due to the universal nature of threnodic essence; the essence of universal human-subjectivity. Furthermore, threnodic essence is itself a synthetic relationship between the two general cultures in Soyinka's novel. It would be fair to say that a projection of the meaning of culture in Death and the King's Horseman as only an analysis of the African/English-colonial cultural distinction is not only to miss Soyinka's point, but also to render cultural analysis artificial in some way. What is of greater emphasis and meaning is universal human experience, or something all humans are subjected to, which is, in Soyinka's case, the universal threnodic essence in Deathand the King's Horseman.

Soyinka, Wole (2003). Death and the King's Horseman. Gikandi, Simon (Ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company: 3. Print.

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It is interesting that Soyinka himself said that the main theme was not the culture clash between the British colonial administration and the Yoruba culture but the dereliction of duty of Elesin and the question of honour. Putting this aside for one moment, it is clear that the culture clash between these two very different cultures is something that dominates the play and, at least in part, helps drive it towards its tragic conclusion. In Act 2 and Act 4, the two cultures are clearly juxtaposed in ways that highlight the radically different worldviews possessed by each. It is hard not to avoid the conclusion that British culture comes off worse with these encounters. For example, in Act 2, the Pilkingtons dress in traditional Yoruba costume which represents a taboo, and they do this for a fancy dress ball, shocking Joseph and demonstrating a massive lack of sensitivity and awareness of Yoruba culture. It is hard not to agree with Olunde in Act 4 when he says to Jane:

Yet another error into which your people fall. You believe that eveyrthing which appears to make sense was learnt from you.

The clash of cultures highlights the difficulties of creating any meaningful engagement between the two different groups of people and shows the tendency of the British culture to dismiss anything that they do not understand as being "barbaric" or "uncivilised." It also demonstrates the tendency of one culture to dominate and demean another culture in cases of cultural conflict, which is clearly what occurred at various points during colonial history, if not being a dominant motif. 

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