Summary And Analysis Of The Play Death And The King’s Horseman By Wole Soyinka

The play, Death and the King’s Horseman, by Wole Soyinka, contains a paradox that can be followed along throughout the reading. Through the traditional values and duties of the Yoruba culture, the reader can see how Olunde perceives them in a different way than his father, Elesin. Although the reader would assume that Elesin would follow his destiny in self-sacrifice because of his role, there is a twist that shows how having an important role in a tradition is sometimes not followed through. In this case, Olunde is shown to still have devotion to his culture even though he has been westernized through his studies in Europe. This devotion can be influenced by his commitment to not only his education in a Western culture but also his originated one by returning.

Olunde’s faithfulness to this culture and sacrifice ritual overcomes his father’s. Because of Elesin’s failure, Olundes reaction can be influenced through the European way of life that he has adapted and one that he has always obtained. Soyinka emphasizes the different commitment’s that Elesin and Olunde feel as though they must perform. When trying to fulfill their duty, there are also inevitable conflicts that arise. Soyinka displays these complications as happening through a “fate or design” perspective. Cosmic order is believed by the Yoruba people and greatly influences their outlook on life. At the beginning of the play, Elesin is portrayed as a man who enjoys a life of luxury by essentially having whatever he wants in the community. These rights were attained through being the King’s horseman but now must be returned through ritual suicide following the King’s death. However, Elesin’s nature of selfishness, self-interest, and worldly possessions override his duty that puts the world in order. On his last day he acclaims, “Who does not seek to be remembered? Memory is Master of Death, the chink In his armor of conceit”. His pride is very clear which will shortly demonstrate his hubris. Within these temptations, Elesin’s new bride is also another reason why he is at odds with his acceptance of death and this ritual. The difference between Olunde and Elesin’s response to duty both determine their fate. Even though Olunde left his home to adopt a new culture, it still did not affect his determination to keep peace in such an important ritual in his old society. No matter how far and wide one may travel, it still does not change one’s connection to their homeland. Although Elesin played a significant role in his society, he did not take it as seriously or importantly as his disowned son.

Olunde’s relationship between European and Yoruba cultures is complex in how he perceives the differences in the people and their traditions. Even though he left his homeland, he is not portrayed as someone to leave their country for worldly possessions and come back arrogant. His identity is complex through being more knowledgeable about the English culture while still preserving his origins. Upon his return, his feelings about English culture are complex when seeing in the egungun costume, “No I am not shocked Mrs. Pilkings. You forget that I have spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for that which you do not understand”. As demonstrated by Amusa, the egungun costumes are a disgrace and horrify the Yoruba tradition. Although Olunde does point out Jane’s ancestral costume as profane, he does not react the same way as Amusa. Instead, he is not personally offended or upset showing that he has grown a distance while still respecting the Yoruba culture. He then goes on to say to Jane that he, “found your people quite admirable in many ways” even though he is home due to the traditions of his own culture. While displaying a calm and reasonable approach, it shows how he has taken in both the European and Yoruba cultures with respect. Even when Jane is shocked and screams Olunde, he does not raise his voice and keeps his poise and composure in tact. There is still a sense of respect for his originated culture that he left. The conversation with Jane proves that his reverence for both of the cultures has great value to him. This courtesy constantly remains throughout the play which gives the reader a better sense of who Olunde is. Following this conversation with Jane, the topic switches to World War II and certain situations that occurred. Jane tells the story of the ship’s captain playing a significant role in saving hundreds of people. While Jane has a negative connotation on the story, Olunde finds it quite the opposite. When Jane gives her comment about the story she finds it morbid while Olunde states, “I don’t find it morbid at all. I find it rather inspiring. It is an affirmative commentary on life”.

Olundes outlook on life is quite different than Jane’s by him seeing the captain of the ship as a heroic icon. Since he was raised as the king’s horseman son, he has always been surrounded by and understood the concept of self-sacrifice. He has been brought up to know that giving up oneself for the greater good of others is an honorable and required deed. Olundes positive reactions to Jane’s story may influence the reader that he also has a strong idea and sense about how important self-sacrifice is in those situations of saving others. In the same conversation, Jane’s reaction to life was completely different from Olundes, “Nonsense. Life should never be thrown deliberately away”. Their opinions on the value of self-sacrifice differ even though they are both European cultured. The origins of a person play an important factor on not only the outlook on life but also the value of an individual’s life as well. No matter how far Olunde traveled, there is still a great sense of pride and reverence to the Yoruba culture. This is evident in his protection against the way Jane perceives the egungun rituals and eventually leading to his suicide. The value of the ritual and symbolism of the horseman’s death plays a huge role to Olunde. He has grown up to know that self-sacrifice is the most honorable act a man can perform, so his father’s resilience to death may have caused extreme shock. Elesin describes his epiphany to his bride as he is eye to eye with death, “For I confess to you, daughter, my weakness came not merely from the abomination of the white man who came violently into my fading presence, there was also a weight of longing on my earth-held limbs”. Because Elesin could not perform this ritual, Olundes death suggests that he performed it out of sacrifice in order to not only save the honor and regulation of the Yoruba culture, but also because he could not stand the failure and shame of his father. Despite Olunde being separated from his family and native people, this sacrifice shows that he would rather die than continue to live with the dishonor and humiliation that Elesin brought.

Traditional values and a sense of duty are keen to respecting the Yoruba culture. It is engraved into each person and taken very seriously no matter how far you venture, as seen in Olunde. Even though Olunde comes back showing European mannerisms, characteristics, and education, he still represents his origin nature with pride. Soyinka does not stereotype Olunde as the person to come back with a snobby outlook on the people he once left. Instead, he still takes great honor in his father’s death by coming home and eventually fulfilling it himself. The respect and honor that someone grew up with is still carried on with them for the rest of their life.

13 January 2020
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