The Lion and The Jewel main character Sidi sitting in the middle of the picture wearing a striped dress with the outlines of two male faces on other side of her

The Lion and the Jewel

by Wole Soyinka

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The Lion and the Jewel Analysis

  • The play dramatizes the conflict between modernization and tradition through the characters of Baroka and Lakunle. Whereas Lakunle embraces all things progressive and new, Baroka defends traditional values through oftentimes underhanded means.
  • Baroka is depicted as a trickster character who uses his intelligence to manipulate events to his advantage. 
  • Each character vies to assert their superiority over others. Lakunle views his modern sensibilities as a mark of superiority, Sidi prides herself on her beauty, and Sadiku draws authority from her relationship with Baroka. However, it becomes apparent that the true power in Ilujinle is tradition, as represented by Baroka.

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Analysis

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Lion and The Jewel is rich with imagery and pageantry. The stage is populated with performers, whose performances of Yoruban music and dance intersperse the plot throughout. On one level the music, and especially the dances, mirror the “dance of love,” the age old trope of two men vying for the attention of a single woman, seeking to outdo each other in the performance of romance and seduction. While the older man, “The Lion” triumphs in this case, the marriage dance that comes at the end of the play might be read as the playwright’s calling for a “marriage” not only of a man and a woman but of the old and the new, of tradition and modernity in order to create a cohesive new identity for Nigeria.

On another level, the theme of performance and gaudy impressions has been read as having a political meaning. In the figure of Lakunle, for example, can be seen the insidious influence of western ideas that threaten Nigerian tradition, a threat which is all the more pressing since as a school teacher, Lakunle is empowered to influence the development of the young in Nigeria. He has cast off the traditional dress worn by his people, and has become scornful of matrimonial traditions he considers demeaning towards women.

However the sympathy this might have won him, especially with London audiences to whom the play was first performed, is mitigated by his somewhat patronizing attitude towards Sidi. Much as colonial powers saw those countries they colonized, he sees Sidi as ignorant, in need of enlightenment by military and cultural domination, here symbolized by the physical domination of unequal marriage.

Meanwhile, in the hands of Baroka, hallmarks of western progress and liberalism such as the trade union become mere tools to impress and seduce Sidi. If Sidi herself is to be seen as the people of Nigeria as some critics have asserted, then her promiscuous behavior, the way she fluctuates between the tradition and modernity that her two lovers represent can be seen as Soyinka’s way of commenting on the impressionability of his people, endeavoring to manage conflicting impulses in their formation of a national identity in the modern world.

Analysis

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Wole Soyinka’s play The Lion and the Jewel contains echoes of folklore, depicting characters and conflicts that are reminiscent of familiar narratives, such as the love triangle and the trickster archetype. Though the play’s narrative is straightforward, the notions of progress and modernization that underpin the story prove to be complex issues.

Nigeria, a British colony until 1960, underwent a period of industrialization and modernization under the influence of British rule. Though Soyinka does not specify the exact time period in which the play is set, the play was first performed in 1959. The timing of the play’s first production, as well as the presence of the white surveyor and Lakunle’s descriptions of cities like Lagos, suggest that the play takes place some time during the African colonial period. The village of Ilujinle serves as a microcosm for all of Nigeria, representing many other villages facing significant change as modernization descends on the country. The struggle to maintain traditions while keeping up with progress is a common theme in African colonial literature, and The Lion and the Jewel is somewhat unusual in that, at least in the case of Ilujinle, tradition evidently triumphs. 

The love triangle between Lakunle, Sidi, and Baroka provides insight into the changing gender roles in Nigeria under the influence of white colonial rule. Sidi and Lakunle bicker about the terms of their relationship, but their discussions bear the weight of much more than mere romantic tribulations. Sidi’s insistence that Lakunle pay her bride price, for example, emphasizes the role of tradition in Nigerian village life; to Sidi, the bride price is an essential element of the rite of marriage, but to Lakunle, the dowry represents provincialism and resistance to positive change. When Baroka becomes the third member of the love triangle, his presence adds even more complexity to Soyinka’s exploration of progress and tradition. Baroka’s hyper-masculinity suggests more than virility; it is also a symbol of the unrelenting presence of tradition in village life, a tradition that stubbornly holds fast in the face of progress.

In addition to his representation of tradition, the character of Baroka can be interpreted within the framework of the trickster archetype. This archetype, as outlined by Carl Jung, recurs in world myths and folklore as well as in various forms of contemporary literature. Like other literary tricksters, Baroka is a character who possesses significant intellect and knowledge. Tricksters are also typically disruptive to the communities in which they live. Baroka toys with his leadership role in order to keep his villagers in their place and to challenge the assumptions of the audience, and he benefits from the tricks he plays. The wily Baroka surpasses the requirements of the trickster archetype, fooling Sadiku, Sidi, and the audience into believing his state is weakened and triumphing over any attempts to discredit him as a man and village leader.

Baroka’s role as a trickster also extends outside of the narrative. Alongside Sadiku and Sidi, the audience is led to believe that Baroka is impotent. When Sidi reveals Baroka’s deception and subsequent triumph to Sadiku and Lakunle, she also reveals it to the audience. Soyinka thus positions Baroka as wily enough to fool even an outside observer. His dominance over the narrative extends to the audience, from whom he withheld knowledge.

Ironically, Sadiku and Sidi believe that they can be tricksters themselves, but the conditions of their traditionally patriarchal existence ensure that they fail at their attempts to trick the ultimate trickster. Sidi is young and vibrant, but she lacks experience. Her ability to easily dominate Lakunle renders her overconfident in her power over men. Sadiku has experience, but her age has made her susceptible to flattery. Baroka, with his earned knowledge of human nature, takes advantage of Sadiku by flattering her and asserts his dominance over Sidi by punishing her for her audacity; his prize is Sidi herself. Lakunle, the representation of modernization, loses the jewel of Ilujinle to Baroka, and tradition triumphs over progress as the love triangle dissolves.

The victory of tradition as evidenced by Baroka’s coercion of Sidi and Sidi’s acceptance of her future as Baroka’s newest wife concludes the power struggle that energizes the play and moves the action forward. Every character in the play is concerned with power. Sidi utilizes her power by withholding herself from Lakunle until he pays her bride price, and when her photographs appear in the magazine, she believes her power has increased. Sadiku believes that Baroka has given her power by confessing his impotence to her, while Baroka simply ensnares her in a ruse that enables him to assert his own power over Sidi. Lakunle’s power as a man and a potential husband to the jewel of Ilujinle is usurped by Baroka, whose power over everyone in the village is unshakeable. Like Baroka himself, old traditions cannot be easily destroyed.

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