Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1664
Essential Passage 1: Act 2
The government say dat kin’ ting must stop.
Who will stop it? You? Tonight our husband and father will prove himself greater than the laws of strangers.
I tell you nobody go prove anyting tonight or anytime. Is ignorant and criminal to prove dat kin’ prove.
[entering from hut. she is accompanied by a group of YOUNG GIRLS who have been attending the BRIDE] What is it Amusa? Why do you come here to disturb the happiness of others.
Madam Iyaloja, I glad you come. You know me, I no like trouble but duty is duty. I am here to arrest Elesin for criminal intent. Tell these women to stop obstructing me in the performance of my duty.
And you? What gives you the right to obstruct our leader of men in the performance of his duty?
Amusa, who is a sergeant in the British police force, is in a difficult position as an African in the service of the British. Under orders from Pilkings, he has come to arrest Elesin so that the king’s horseman will not commit suicide. Amusa interrupts the wedding celebrations of Elesin and his new young bride, evoking the ire of the market women. The women try to prevent Amusa from carrying out his orders, stating that Elesin, their “husband and father,” will prove himself greater than the British laws against suicide. Interrupted by Iyaloja, the market mother, Amusa is initially glad to see her, believing that she will be the voice of reason in this trying situation. Yet Iyaloja proves otherwise, stating that Amusa has no right to prevent the ceremony or the ritual suicide of Elesin. It is Elesin who is to be allowed to do his duty, not Amusa.
Essential Passage 2: Act 4
…Mind you there is the occasional bit of excitement like that ship that was blown up in the harbor.
Here? Do you mean through enemy action?
Oh no, the war hasn’t come that close. The captain did it himself. I don’t quite understand it really. Simon tried to explain. The ship had to be blown up because it had become dangerous to the other ships, even to the city itself. Hundreds of the coastal population would have died.
Maybe it was loaded with ammunition and had caught fire. Or some of those lethal gases they’ve been experimenting on.
Something like that. The captain blew himself up with it. Deliberately. Simon said someone had to remain on board to light the fuse.
It must have been a very short fuse.
I don’t know much about it. Only that there was no other way to save lives. No time to devise anything else. The captain took the decision and carried it out.
Yes…I quite believe it. I met men like that in England.
Olunde, Elesin’s son, has returned from England where he has been attending medical school. Olunde went to England against his father’s wishes, and there is still much animosity on the part of Elesin that Pilkings would try to make his son over to fit in with the white man’s world, though to the limited degree allowed to a person of color. Olunde had left England on hearing of the king’s death, knowing the duty that was required of his father. By chance or by design, he arrives on the day of his father’s predetermined suicide. Mrs. Jane Pilkings and her husband Simon are discussing the voyage to Africa during a time of war. Jane mentions a British sea captain who died by purposely blowing himself up with his ship to prevent its endangering the coastal town. Olunde, though he says that he has known men in England who would commit such brave acts, seems confused that the man did not try to save his own life when it should have been unnecessary to remain on the ship to die. Both Jane and Olunde seem oblivious to the parallel in this situation with the ceremonial suicide of Elesin.
Essential Passage 3: Act 5
The night is not at peace, ghostly one. The world is not at peace. You have shattered the peace of the world forever. There is not sleep in the world tonight.
It is still a good bargain if the world should lose one night’s sleep as the price of saving a man’s life.
You did not save my life, District Officer. You destroyed it.
Now come on…
And not merely my life but the lives of many. The end of the night’s work is not over. Neither this year nor the next will see it. If I wished you well, I would pray that you do not stay long enough on our land to see the disaster you have brought upon us.
Well, I did my duty as I saw it. I have no regrets.
No. The regrets of life always come later.
Elesin has been imprisoned on the night of his scheduled ritual suicide. Pilkings, following the law of the British Commonwealth and also moral law as he sees it, has arrested Elesin to prevent him from taking his own life. Suicide, for whatever reason, is against the laws of God and man, to Pilkings way of thinking. As Elesin waits in his cell, Pilkings comes for a visit. It is a quiet night, and Pilkings remarks on the peacefulness of it. Yet Elesin argues that it is not peaceful at all, because his duty to follow his king in death has been disrupted. To Pilkings, the disruption is worth it since a man’s life will be saved. To Elesin, however, he sees that one life is saved at the cost of many, that his failure to commit suicide as required by his tradition will result in cosmic chaos. Pilkings dismisses this argument however, and asserts that at least he did his duty as he saw it, without regrets. Elesin remarks that the regrets have not been escaped so easily. They will manifest themselves later, both in Pilkings's life and in the lives of the Yoruban people.
Analysis of Essential Passages
The concept of duty is foundational to Death and the King’s Horseman, but the fulfillment of duty is defined differently by the British and the Africans. Duty—the obligation to fulfill the responsibilities placed on you by a higher law—has the same definition for both cultures, but how the justification of how that duty is carried out presents the tension in the piece. The duty required of Elesin and the duty of Pilkings are mutually contradictory, and thus it is impossible for both to fulfill their duties as desired.
The character of Amusa represents the inner conflict derived from trying to combine both cultures' duties. As an African, Amusa is in touch with the traditions of his people, though he has forsaken the animistic beliefs for the Muslim faith. By accepting a position in the British police force, Amusa was forced to make a choice of whose duty he is pledged to fulfill first. This puts him in an impossible situation, not being fully accepted by either culture. Soyinka shows this by having Amusa, of all the characters, using a “pidgin” form of English, one in which he pronounces the English language with a strong African accent. No other African characters are thus represented, since they have placed themselves securely within the African culture. Amusa, by “abandoning” the duty to his African conditions, thus is unable to properly communicate in his new culture, positioning himself as a bit of an outsider.
Pilkings believes that, in preventing Elesin from taking his own life, he is following the dictates of a higher moral law—the sanctity of life. Believing that Elesin’s ritual sacrifice is barbaric, Pilkings endeavors to “enlighten” the African to the Western traditions that forbid suicide. Yet, in an odd juxtaposition, Jane Pilkings relates to Olunde a nearly identical tale of a British ship captain who willingly gives his life for the good of his people. Deliberately choosing to remain on the ship and thus being blown up with it, the captain did indeed perform a type of “ritual suicide.” By laying down his life willingly, he saved the lives of many. Elesin, in his eyes, is doing the same thing by killing himself in order to follow his master into the afterlife. By tradition, the failure to do so will bring calamity on the people. It is for this reason that Elesin tells Pilkings that he has not indeed saved one life, but has instead condemned many to death.
The duty of self-sacrifice is inherent in Western culture, not just in African, as the ship captain’s death demonstrates. The difficulty lies in the fact that Elesin is procuring by his death a higher good that is not visible to people. The ship captain’s death was such that it was evident to all that his sacrifice did indeed save the lives of many. It is the focus of the Western culture on the visible and the temporal that leads to the conflict with the African focus on the transcendental. The “higher law” for both is in fact the same, yet the benefits and consequences of that law, and the location of their evidence, are what lead to the lack of understanding and respect between Pilkings and Elesin. Elesin assures Pilkings that he will indeed live to have regrets over his choice of stopping Elesin’s suicide (which in the end he did not do), and Olunde’s death is the first proof of that. As Iyaloja states at the end, the focus is now to be on the unborn, on whether or not some new understanding, rather than regrets, can grow from Elesin’s willingness to lay down his own life for that of another.
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