Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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How is Elesin Oba portrayed as a tragic hero in Death and the King's Horseman?

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In his Poetics, Aristotle defined a tragic hero as a noble person who has a tragic downfall. The downfall is caused by hamartia, which is a fatal character flaw or mistake in judgement. The hamartia brings about a negative change in the status of the character's wealth or...

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happiness, otherwise called a tragic downfall. The tragic hero's hamartia is oftentimes hubris, which is defined as improper pride. Finally, according to Aristotle, a hero is tragic if the hero's fate is worse than the hero really deserves ("Tragic Hero as Defined by Aristotle," Bainbridge Island School District).

In Wole Soyinka's play Death and the King's Horseman, one reason why Elesin Oba, the king's horseman, can be considered a tragic hero is because he has hubris, or excessive pride. Elesin takes great pride in his ceremonial role to commit suicide in order to help the deceased king's soul transition into the next world. Yet, he displays excessive pride in taking to heart all of the people's praise of his bravery and in believing he is entitled to all the riches he sees, including the beautiful Bride who is promised to another man. Due to his excessive pride, he insists on having a wedding night with her before proceeding with his ceremonial suicide. Had he acted in the situation with humility, he would have continued without hesitation to follow through with the ceremony he believed was his duty to fulfill. He even insists on having her as a bride against the wisdom of other characters, like lyaloja, who begs him to leave her as a bride for her intended. The character lyaloja expresses her displeasure in his desire through indirectly questioning his honor in the following:

The best is yours. We know you for a man of honour. You are not one who eats and leaves nothing on his plate for children. Did you not say it yourself? Not one how blights the happiness of others for a moment's pleasure. (p. 20)

In saying the above, she is begging him not to ruin the happiness and future of the Bride by ruining her for other men. She is also trying to remind him of his professed honorable character in order to persuade him to do the right thing by questioning the truth of what he has asserted about his beliefs and character.

In his "Author's Note," Soyinka asserts that Elesin's decision directly led to severe consequences "largely metaphysical," meaning directed by fate. As a consequence of his decision to share a wedding night with the Bride, Elesin postpones fulfilling his ritual suicide. As a consequence of his postponement, he is arrested by Pilking, a colonial officer who considers suicide illegal. Due to his arrest, Elesin must further postpone his suicide, and the postponement brings shame to his son Olunde, who decides to do the ritual suicide in his father's place. The loss of his son can be seen as the major negative turn in Elesin's fortunes. Elesin's downfall is finalized when he eventually commits suicide out of shame for his actions rather than out his belief in upholding the honor bestowed to him.

Hence, Elesin's poor decision to share a wedding night was a direct result of his excessive pride, and both his decision and pride led to his downfall. His tragic downfall is the loss of his son and his own suicide committed out of shame. His pride, poor decision, and tragic downfall all fit Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero.

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A tragic hero is a hero who comes to a tragic end, usually death.  The hero does so in performance of his duty.  Elesin is the King’s Horseman in a small tribe in Nigeria during Word War II.   Like many cultures, Elesin’s tribe believes that there is an afterlife.  Elesin is honor-bound to commit suicide in order to keep his late king company.

Elesin says:

“Life is honour. It ends when honour ends.”

This sums up Elesin’s belief that his suicide is honorable and his duty.  In the end, Elesin is able to commit suicide, even if he does not do it as he intends.  He dies, and he dies doing his duty.

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In Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman, is Elesin a tragic hero?

In Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s horseman, the character of Elesin is not a tragic hero. His story is not particularly heroic for several reasons, but most of all because he fails in his ultimate mission due to his own vice. Elesin’s mission, as the horseman, is to commit suicide alongside the king and accompany him to the afterlife. However, when the king passes away, Elesin delays this because he is engaged to be married to a beautiful young woman, and he lusts desperately after her.

Because of his delay, his son commits suicide instead, partly out of shame and partly to preserve the family’s duties when his father refuses to. The shame eventually overcomes Elesin, and he commits suicide in his depression, which is no longer honorable. The fact that Elesin failed in his duties, and even worse that he allowed his son to die because of his inaction and refusal to perform his duties, makes him a poor hero, so I would say he is not a tragic hero.

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In Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman, is Elesin a tragic hero?

In Wole Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horseman, Elesin is certainly a tragic figure.  Whether he is a hero, however, is debatable.  Elesin is the titular “King’s Horseman,” whose responsibilities include accompanying the now-deceased king into the afterlife.  That he fails in this central mission, with his son Olunde taking Elesin’s place so as to protect his family’s heritage from the shame that would accompany his father’s failure to execute this sacred obligation, could be considered a direct consequence of Elesin’s decision to allow lust for his bride-to-be, an unnamed but extraordinarily beautiful young woman with whom the horseman falls deeply in love at first sight, to divert him from his mission.  As such, Elesin is not particularly heroic.  He lets his desire to make love to the young woman interfere with his responsibilities, which results in his son’s suicide and then Elesin’s own belated suicide, the act the execution of which on a timely basis could have prevented the tragic chain of events.  Also tragic is the king’s ultimate fate.  Early in the play, Elesin performs his ritualistic dance-of-dying, with the praise-singer reciting the requisite lyrics, the latter’s words become an avenue through which the dead king reaches out to his horseman with a reminder of the latter’s obligation:

If you cannot come, I said, swear

You’ll tell my favourite horse. I shall

Ride on through the gates alone.

If you cannot come, Elesin, tell my dog.

I cannot stay the keeper too long

At the gate.

Elesin could be considered a tragic hero insofar as the British colonial administrator, Simon Pilkings, aborted Elesin’s plan to commit ritualistic suicide on the grounds that such seemingly barbaric native traditions run counter to the more enlightened perspectives of the British Crown.  One cannot, however, ignore the fact that, had he not delayed in carrying out his obligation to commit suicide by sleeping with the young woman, he could have already done the deed, and his son would still be alive.  In that sense, he is, as noted, a tragic figure.  He is not, at least to this educator, heroic.  His eventual suicide is the product of remorse over Olunde’s death and not the ritualistic act of a responsible king’s horseman.

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