Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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What is the political agenda of Death and the King's Horseman?

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The political agenda of this masterful play clearly concerns colonialism as expressed through the very precarious and uneasy relationship between the two cultures of the Yoruba and the British. The juxtaposition of these two cultures is never something that is shown to compliment or work well together. Note the tango and orchestral music in Acts 2 and 4 that is listened to by the British against a backdrop of Yoruba drumming. Soyinka continually juxtaposes these two cultures throughout the play, causing both cultures to have a major celebration on the same evening to allow this contrast to be highlighted still further.

The contrast does not depict the colonial force in a good light. Simon and Jane Pilkins use a number of dismissive words such as "nonsense" and "barbaric" to describe what they do not understand and they show massive disrespect to Yoruba culture by wearing sacred garments to the fancy dress party, even after the disrespect of their actions has been pointed out to them. Note what Olunde says to Jane when he tries to explain his culture to her and finds understanding impossible:

You believe that everything which appears to make sense was learnt from you.

Olunde's comment at once highlights the arrogance of the imperial project and of colonialism in general. Yet Soyinka shows that the representatives of these two cultures in conflict cannot be equalled in terms of their sincerity and commitment: Simon, ostensibly a Christian, has only a surface level of committment to his faith, whereas Elesin's sense of tradition is so important he is willing to die for it. Soyinka's poltical agenda is to point out what is lacking at the heart of the British colonial project whilst extolling the depth of meaning in the Yoruba culture.

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