Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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What are the themes in Death and the King's Horseman?

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Death and the King’s Horseman is a play by Wole Soyinka. It was played on stage for the first time in 1975. It deals with the story of Elesin, the king’s horseman, who according to tradition should commit suicide upon the king’s death. However, the British colonial rulers intervene and try to prevent this from happening.

The main theme of this play is obviously that of death, which is further highlighted by the fact that it features as part of the title. The King has died, therefore his horseman is required by tradition to commit suicide. This is because the Yoruba tradition believes that this is vital in order for the king’s soul to reach the afterlife. The play presents two different views on death and suicide: the view of the natives and the view of the British invaders. To the natives, death is merely a normal and necessary part of life. Ritual suicide is part of their tradition and culture. We can understand that, because Elesin is ready to commit suicide in order to help his king reach the afterlife. To the British, however, death is something negative. Ritual suicide in particular is viewed as barbaric und uncivilized. Therefore, the British begin to interfere in order to stop Elesin’s ritual suicide from happening.

British interference links to another theme in the play: colonialism. The play shows how the cultures of the local people and of the colonial rulers clash. The British want to interfere in a ritual which they don’t understand, because it is so different from their own cultural background.

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