Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on June 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604

Death and the King’s Horseman is about the potential and imminent collapse of the African world because of an African failure of will. It is not about a clash of cultures in which the victor is the West. Soyinka makes the point in his introductory note to the play that the “clash of cultures” tag has become a catchall for African literature. Its main inadequacy is that it “presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter.” Soyinka insists that this play cannot fit into that category. He has certainly made a conscious effort not to place on equal terms the British culture, which condemns Elesin and the Horseman ritual, and the Yoruba, which considers the ritual crucial to its survival.

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He further makes the point that a director must not make Pilkings into “the victim of a cruel dilemma.” Throughout the play Pilkings quite clearly has a bureaucratic mentality and is blinded by British prejudices and sycophantic concerns. He wears the egungun costume, sacred to the Yoruba, to a fancy-dress ball, in the face of clear evidence that he is being offensive-even Amusa, a Muslim, and Joseph, a Christian, find his wearing of the costume repugnant. Soyinka purposefully makes the representatives of British culture inferior to the Yoruba. There can be no “clash” of cultures when one culture does not even comprehend the other. The one cannot defeat the other when it is clearly inferior. The defeat, if there is one, must come from within.

What Simon does not even try to grasp, and what Jane begins to understand only after it is too late, is the metaphysical world of the Yoruba that makes the fancy-dress ball of the English pale in comparison. The entire play is built around the cosmic significance of Elesin’s death. Act 1, through the warnings of the Praise-Singer and Iyaloja, places a heavy burden on Elesin and makes him affirm that he knows his duty and can fulfill it. The potency of the Yoruba metaphysic is visible even in Amusa, who has converted to Islam. Elesin’s son Olunde has spent years in England studying medicine, but he returns to Nigeria when he hears of the King’s death, and he approves of his father’s traditional role. When his father fails to carry out the suicide, he performs the act himself. When Elesin fails, his own guilt and shame cause him to blame others rather than accept the failure of his own will that is the real cause. Finally, however, his son’s death makes him admit his weakness, and he attempts to recover something of his dignity when it may be too late. As Iyaloja states, his trudging through the excrement of the King’s horse in the transition passage is still the act of a man within a meaningful metaphysic.

The final scene reinforces what the play has been about-not a clash of cultures but the inadequacy of one culture to judge another. Simon Pilkings, in a weak, frustrating attempt to restore Elesin to life after Elesin has willed his own sacrificial death, reveals the pitiful helplessness of a mere public servant trying to control a cosmic event. This night, exactly one month after the King’s death, is as important to the Yoruba as the Crucifixion is to Christians. Simon simply cannot grasp it. Iyaloja and her people, however, know that the night’s events have been precarious. The future of their world is in doubt because one man, Elesin, in a ritual role, proved to be weak of will.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1082

Life Cycle
Like many African cultures, the Yoruba have a fundamental belief that life is a continuum. The dead are not forgotten; the ancestors are honored and cherished as guides and companions. The notyet- born are also cherished, and new babies may in fact be ancestors returning to physical life. The most highly charged moments in the life cycle are the moments of transition from one type of existence to the next that is, the passage into the physical world during birth and the passage into death. Elesin’s responsibility as king’s horseman is to enact the transition from life into death in a ritual manner, to remind the entire community through his death that life is a continuum.

The idea of death is found throughout the play. Elesin and the women of the village are preparing for his death. The clothing that the Pilkingses wear to the ball has been taken away from a group performing the egungun celebration, a ritual in which men dress as the ancestors and mingle with the living. The masqueraders take the ritual seriously, as a reminder that the ancestors are always present, and even the Muslim Amusa has respect for the stolen garments. Simon and Jane, however, cannot understand the calm acceptance of death demonstrated by the Yoruba or the respect shown for the ancestors. They perform a mocking imitation of the egungun ceremony, they try to prevent Elesin from dying, and they find Olunde ‘‘callous’’ and ‘‘unfeeling’’ because he does not mourn his father’s death.

As a person in transition, Elesin has special powers and special rights. His request for the Bride, although unexpected, must be granted, because ‘‘the claims of one whose foot is on the threshold of their abode surpasses even the claims of blood.’’ Iyaloja realizes that the child born of Elesin and the Bride will be extraordinary, ‘‘neither of this world nor of the next. Nor of the one behind us. As if the timelessness of the ancestor world and the unborn have joined spirits.’’

Elesin, of course, does not complete his transition. Olunde dies in his place and Elesin, seeing the chaos demonstrated by the father and son reversing roles, kills himself. Simon and Jane are horrified, but Iyaloja and the Bride are placid and accepting. Iyaloja rebukes Simon for his panic, and the Bride ‘‘walks calmly into the cell’’ to close Elesin’s eyes in the appropriate, ritual manner. The last line of the play, spoken to the Bride by Iyaloja, repeats the idea of the continuum of life: ‘‘Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.’’

Culture Clash
Westerners who come to Death and the King’s Horseman without much knowledge about Yoruba culture and belief are apt to focus on the theme of the clash of cultures. Clearly, two cultures, Yoruba and British, are uneasily occupying the same geographic space, although their emotional and spiritual worlds could not be further apart. During Acts 2 and 4, for example, the British listen to a tango and orchestral music, while the sound of African drumming is continually heard in the background. Both communities call their members together during the same evening: The British hold a fancy-dress ball with the prince in attendance, and the Yoruba gather for the ritual suicide of the king’s richly robed horseman and the burial of the king and his entourage. Although the differences are interesting to observe, the two communities do not enrich each other, but remain apart.

Simon and Jane Pilkings do not understand the beliefs of the Africans, and they dismiss what they do not understand as ‘‘nonsense,’’ and as ‘‘barbaric’’ and ‘‘horrible custom.’’ They see no harm in wearing the sacred egungun garments to a costume party and mocking the ceremonial dance, even after Amusa and Olunde point out the disrespect in their actions. Elesin’s sense of tradition is so important to him that he is willing to die for it. By contrast, Simon’s Christianity seems to mean little to Simon, who mocks Joseph for his devout faith in ‘‘that holy water nonsense.’’ Nevertheless, this man of little faith feels qualified to label Elesin an ‘‘old pagan.’’ Simon does not understand or respect Elesin’s culture, and he uses his authority to interfere only because he does not want to be embarrassed while the prince is visiting.

It is tempting, therefore, to see Simon as the cause of Elesin’s not fulfilling his duty, to see the clash of cultures as the force that moves the universe off its course. But in an Author’s Note that accompanies the play, Soyinka indicates his displeasure with this reading, which he calls ‘‘facile.’’ For Soyinka, Simon’s inability to understand is clearly present, but the focus of the play is on what happens to the universe when duty goes unfulfilled. Simon is simply an instrument or a ‘‘catalytic incident merely.’’ Those who understand Yoruba belief can easily see the metaphysical confrontation in the play. For most Westerners, however, the recognizable conflict is between two religions, two races, two communities, and two cultures.

Duty and Responsibility
When Elesin heads toward death, he is repaying a debt. All his life he has enjoyed the company of the king, the finest clothes, ‘‘the choicest of the season’s harvest.’’ He has always known that he would follow the king in death, and as a man of honor he claims that he is eager for death and ‘‘will not delay.’’ He knows his responsibility, and he accepts it. However, he is distracted at the end by the richness of the physical world. Rather than letting go of the world he draws it to him more closely, demanding finer clothing and one last sexual encounter.

His distraction proves his downfall. The ritual suicide is delayed while Elesin takes his new bride to bed, and the delay is enough time for Simon to have him arrested. The failure is Elesin’s not Simon’s, though Elesin tries to put the blame on the ‘‘alien race.’’ Iyaloja rejects this interpretation. If Elesin were strong enough in spirit, Simon could not keep him from his duty. Elesin is surrounded by others who fulfill their responsibilities: Iyaloja gives her son’s bride-to-be to Elesin, Olunde travels all the way from England to bury his father and dies in his father’s place, the bride closes her dead husband’s eyes. Only Elesin fails, and the cost of his failure is high.

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