Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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Questions and Answers: Act V

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Study Questions
1. What does Elesin accuse Simon of? What does he mean when he says that white skin covers the future of his people?

2. Who is at fault for Elesin’s failure to fulfill his duty?

3. How has the Elesin’s character changed from Scene One to Scene Five?

4. What “burden” is brought to the cell? Who has to bear this burden?

5. Why does Olunde take upon himself the cultural obligation of the king’s horseman?

1. Elesin accuses Simon of having ruined his life and destroyed his people’s culture. When he states that white skin covers the future of his people, he means that colonialism will continue to negatively affect his culture. Living under the unethical authority of the British, various members of the community have taken on a veneer of Englishness—Amusa, the schoolgirls, even Elesin’s eldest son—and this will alter the future of the culture.

2. Simon is partially at fault, due to his role as colonial District Officer. He believes it is his duty to disrupt the ritual suicide, and he succeeds. More generally, colonialism may be said to be at fault; if the British were not in Western Nigeria, Yoruban cultural traditions would have persisted unchanged. Elesin himself is partially at fault, due to his weakness for the pleasures of life and his fear of death. His bride may also be to blame, for being young and beautiful and tempting Elesin to remain alive.

3. At the beginning of the play, Elesin enjoys high status in his community for his heroic role as the king’s horseman. Pampered by women and followed about by praise singers, Elesin is proud, fun-loving, and energetic. By the end of the play, the king’s horseman has become a failure, to himself, his family, and the community. Demoted in status, scorned by the people of Oyo, and shackled in the colonizer’s chains, Elesin has lost all his power and vitality. He is sunk in shame and self-disgust.

4. The market women literally shoulder the burden of Olunde’s corpse. But the term “burden” takes on many meanings in this scene. Olunde bears the burden of redeeming his family’s honor and preserving the delicate balance of the three worlds of Yoruban cosmology—the worlds of the unborn, the living, and the ancestors. Elesin must bear the burden of personal failure and public contempt. The community must bear the burden of being a colonized and subjugated people. Simon Pilkings must bear the burden of knowing that he is partially responsible for the deaths of two natives.

5. Olunde performs ritual suicide in place of his father. He takes on this cultural obligation because he is the rightful heir to the heroic role as Elesin’s eldest son. He kills himself both to redeem the honor of his family and to preserve harmony among the three worlds of Yoruban cosmology.

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Questions and Answers: Act IV