Wole Soyinka Analysis

Other Literary Forms

Wole Soyinka is not only a dramatist but also a poet, novelist, and critic. His poetry has appeared in several collections, including Idanre and Other Poems (1967), Poems from Prison (1969), A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972), and Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems (1988). The long poem Ogun Abibiman, connecting Yoruba mythology with African liberation, was first published in 1976. Soyinka has also written a few short stories as well as The Interpreters (1965) and Season of Anomy (1973), two novels. He has also translated the Yoruba novel of D. O. Fagunwa, Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga (1968). His most famous piece of criticism is Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976). In addition, Soyinka has produced two autobiographical works—“The Man Died”: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972), a memoir of his prison experiences, and Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981), a dramatic and imaginative re-creation of his early life—and a memoir to his father, Ìsarà: A Voyage Around “Essay” (1989).


In spite of frequent criticism of his obscure and difficult style, Wole Soyinka is generally regarded as a major literary figure in the contemporary world; by some he is considered to be the most sophisticated writer to emerge in Anglophone Africa. He has achieved success in the three major forms—poetry, fiction, and drama—and in the drama, for which he is best known, his range extends from broad farce and satire to tragedy. If he seems obscure, it is usually because of the density of the text: the constant reliance on imagistic and rhythmic expression and on the ever-present mythic and metaphysical dimension. An ambitious and experimental writer, he invites close textual analysis. His success as a dramatist extends to the practical arts of acting and directing. He has been the prime mover in the establishment of theater companies and the encouragement of the theatrical arts in Nigeria.

Behind all this literary activity lies Soyinka’s loyalty to traditional Yoruba culture. He has had the intellectual capacity to understand and adapt it to his own needs and to the needs of his country. This has, perhaps inevitably, led him into the political arena, since his primary concern for human freedom is based largely on the identity of Ogun, the dynamic god of Yoruba mythology. Ogun is not necessarily the god of all Nigerian society. Soyinka is one of those rare writers of genius whose productions appeal both to the professional critic and to the general public. Soyinka’s social consciousness has given his works a moral force that has made him a leader among political activists in Africa. His plays are translated into French and have been produced in Africa’s Francophone countries. His influence on African theater has been tremendous, and the fear of Soyinka’s revolutionary themes has led at least one African country to ban his plays.

Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. Other prizes include the Jock Campbell Award for Fiction in 1968, the John Whiting Drama Prize in 1966, and his first prize at the Dakar Negro Arts Festival in 1960.

Other literary forms

Wole Soyinka (sho-YIHN-kah) is best known as a dramatist. He has written more than twenty plays in various modes, including The Swamp Dwellers (pr. 1958), The Lion and the Jewel (pr. 1959), A Dance of the Forests (pr. 1960), Madmen and Specialists (pr. 1970; revised pr., pb. 1971), and Death and the King’s Horseman (pb. 1975). He is also a filmmaker. He has published several collections of poetry, including Idanre, and Other Poems (1967), A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972), and Mandela’s Earth, and Other Poems (1988), and the long poem Ogun Abibiman (1976). His nonfiction prose includes impressive books of criticism such as Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976) and Art, Dialogue, and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture (1988). His autobiographical works examine various aspects of his life experiences: his prison years in “The Man Died”: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972), his early life in Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981), and the influence of his father in Ìsarà: A Voyage Around “Essay” (1989). In addition, he has translated the 1938 Yoruba novel Ogboju ode ninu igbo irunmale, by D. O. Fagunwa, as Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga (1968).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Wole Soyinka is perhaps the most talented and versatile writer to have emerged during the literary flowering in Africa beginning in the 1950’s. He is, without doubt, the finest dramatist; he is also an accomplished poet and has written two novels so experimental that critics are not yet sure what to make of them. While tapping numerous twentieth century fictional devices, the novels are based on his own cultural heritage, combining ritual, myth, comedy, and hard realism in a new configuration. He draws from the Yoruba mythology of his native region but makes contact with a larger public by frequent references and parallels to myths and literatures of other cultures. Not only his literary achievements but also his championing of individual freedoms have gained for him recognition both in his native Nigeria and abroad. He has received numerous awards, including first prize at the Dakar Negro Arts Festival in 1960, the John Whiting Drama Prize in 1966, the Jock Campbell Award for Fiction in 1968, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986.

Other literary forms

(World Poets and Poetry)

Wole Soyinka (shaw-YIN-ka) is primarily known as a playwright. His first play The Invention (pr. 1955), is a satire based on the hypothetical situation resulting from South African blacks suddenly becoming white. A Dance of the Forests (pr. 1960) warns his countrymen to avoid the violence and the pettiness of their past, and The Lion and the Jewel (pr. 1959) critiques the effect of Western modernization on traditional African culture. A prolific writer, Soyinka’s first novel The Interpreters (1965) describes Nigeria after it gained independence from Great Britain. “The Man Died”: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972) discusses his own imprisonment as well as the results of the Nigerian Civil War. It provides a context for the imagery and political and personal references in his poetry, as does his autobiography Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981). Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir (2006) describes his exile from Nigeria and his continuing battle for human rights. His essay collection Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976) is helpful in understanding his poetry.


(World Poets and Poetry)

In 1986, Wole Soyinka became the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. He has received numerous grants and won a variety of prizes, including the Enrico Mattei Award for the Humanities, the Léopold Sédar Senghor Award for the Arts, the John Whiting Drama Prize (1966), the Benson Medal of the Royal Society for Literature, the Premio Grinzane Cavour, the Premio Litterario Internazionalle Mondello (Italy), the UNESCO Medal for the Arts, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (1983), and the Agip Prize for Literature (1986). In 1994, he was named the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the promotion of African culture. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom, the French Académie Universelle des Cultures, the German Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Science, the Pan-African Writers Association, and the Association of Nigerian Authors. He has received honorary degrees from numerous educational institutions, including the University of Leeds, Harvard University, Princeton University.

Discussion Topics

How is landscape important in Wole Soyinka’s works?

How does Soyinka depict power in his works? Is power generally a strengthening or a corrupting force?

In Death and the King’s Horseman and other works, how does Soyinka present suicide or sacrifice as a potentially redemptive act?

How does Soyinka deal with issues of violence in his works? Under what circumstances does he seem to condone violence?

Based on his literary works, does Soyinka seem optimistic or pessimistic about the human condition?

In Soyinka’s view, why it is important to know about the past? How does the past shape the future?

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