Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

Start Free Trial

Why is Elesin blamed for failing to complete the suicide ritual in Death and the King's Horseman?

Quick answer:

Elesin’s behavior causes the ritual to be changed. His son takes his place as horseman and sacrifices himself in order to complete the ritual.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Wole Soyinka’s play, Elesin Oba is a high-ranking Yoruba nobleman who is bound to serve his king in the capacity of horseman. One of the sacred duties of this role, as Elesin well knows, is to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the king, following his death, and of the whole society. Not just the suicide but the proper completion of the ritual is necessary for all to go smoothly. While in some ways it is understandable that Elesin wants to prolong his time on earth, he decides to marry and have sex with a young woman, even though she is otherwise committed. Even had his delay not resulted in his arrest, the failure to complete the ritual at the proscribed time would have had a negative effect. But because the British officials intervene, Elesin is imprisoned and so can never complete the ritual. Not only has he brought down the foreigners’ wrath, but he has forced his people to devise an alternative way of completing the ritual obligation; this turns out to be his son’s assuming his role.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It is Elesin's duty as the King's horseman to commit ritual suicide at his King's death.  Because he allows himself to be distracted by a beautiful woman, Elesin's suicide is postponed, giving imperialist government officials the opportunity to intervene and prevent the completion of the rite.

The play begins on what is supposed to be the last day of his life, as Elesin, the center of great celebration, prepares to pass to the "other side".  Elesin's attention is diverted, however, by the sight of a beautiful woman, and he asks to sleep with her, even though she is betrothed to another man.  Since Elesin is "at the threshhold between life and death", his wish must be granted.  Preparations are made for Elesin to wed and sleep with the woman, and the ritual suicide postponed.

After he has had relations with his new wife, Elesin prepares to die.  He falls into a state of hypnosis, and is unable to resist when British officials, charged with maintaining order in the village, arrest him.  Because of the delay caused by his being distracted by the woman, the imperialists are able to prevent Elesin from fulfilling his duty according to tradition.  His people are thrown into turmoil, and Elesin is disgraced. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial