Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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What is the main conflict in Acts 2 and 3 of Death and the King's Horseman?

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The central conflict that is introduced in Scenes 2 and 3 of this masterful tragedy is the conflict between Yoruba culture and Western culture. This of course finds its strongest expression in Elesin's planned suicide, which is seen as being a necessary duty for the king's horseman to carry out after the death of his king. However, to Pilkings, suicide is something that is "illegal" under British rule, and therefore is something that has to be prevented. Above all, the arrogance of the British colonial powers is introduced through the character of Pilkings, who, in front of his native house-boy, calls the Yoruba "sly, devious bastards" because they, from his perspective, continue to practice traditional tribal practices like the suicide of the King's Horseman whilst also suggesting that they have become more "civilised" through contact with the British.

This conflict becomes real in Scene 3, when Amusa carried out his orders from Pilkings and goes to the market, trying to arrest Elesin and take him into custody. However, he finds himself opposed by the women of the market and their daughters, and is forced to utter empty threats:

I hope you women know that interfering with officer in executino of his duty is criminal offence.

The women, and more humiliatingly for Amusa, their daughters, are shown to be more than a match for Amusa and he is sent running back to Pilkings whilst Elesin begins his ritual suicide. However, Scene 3 builds on Scene 2 in presenting the central conflict between the Yoruba and the British who possess such different cultural practices as to make true understanding between these two cultures impossible.

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