Wole Soyinka: Death and the King's Horseman


Soyinka: Death and the King's Horseman

In his play, Death and the King's Horseman,

Wole Soyinka would have us examine every clash and conflict, save for the
one involving culture. Certainly this may seem the most obvious part of
the play, but we would do the general understanding of Death a disservice
if we ignored one of the central conflicts in the play. Every element of
the play is placed in terms of two extremes, and the cultures must be considered
one of those pairs. Suicide is no exception to this examination; it must
be seen in the conflicting lights that Soyinka gives us: British vs. Yoruban,
physical vs. metaphysical, personal vs. social; and an expression of failure
vs. a form of redemption. In examining how the play divides suicide so
completely through these lenses, we can better understand the actions of

Elesin and Olunde.

In the Yoruban world, it is clear that
everything exists in a large backdrop of history and awareness of the gods
and the universe. While living is a personal experience, everyone is a
fragment of reality. Thus every action has an impact on everything. All

Yorubans and the entire world are interconnected. This is why the community
is so close and so attentive when it comes time for Elesin to follow his
king to the afterworld. Elesin's suicide is a communal act. It affects
everyone, alive or dead, because it has little to do with Elesin personally.

It is not his choice or decision; it is something that will happen. So,
on one hand, suicide is a social act in this play.

However, if we examine the lenses that

Soyinka gives us to see his play, we can see the conflicts develop. In
the Western world, suicide is mainly seen as a personal experience. Although
there is religion - Christianity - there is nothing that ties the death
of one person to another in the supernatural world. If you kill yourself,
that's it. You face God separately from everyone else; your life is viewed
by itself. This is closely connected to the Western belief of free will.

No one forces anyone to commit suicide; the definition tells us that this
is a voluntary situation. So this is clearly the personal part of suicide
that is present in Death. And we can see the line that divides personal
and communal aspects of suicide in the tenuous position of British occupation
of the Yoruba.

But there is still a similarity - suicide
is seen to affect everyone involved. However, there is a stark difference
even in this similarity. The power of suicide on the living is physical
in the Western world, and metaphysical in the Yoruban world. In Britain,
the sadness comes from missing someone who clearly left the world too early
- before God called them. In Africa, the sadness comes from worrying about
the destruction of the universe because tradition has been broken. So we
arrive back where we started; the Yorubans consider everything in terms
of a larger consciousness; Westerns in terms of personal freedom and experience.

When all these ideologies are forced to
coalesce during the colonial occupation, Elesin's situation is bound to
happen. The clash of all these opposing ideas creates the conflict that
makes Death and the King's Horseman. When Elesin's mind is given a taste
of the English belief of free will, he is tempted away from his birth culture.

The idea that the world does not rest on his shoulders, that the afterlife
of the Yoruba might be false, and that he might continue to live until

God chooses to strike him down (and enjoy the splendors of life and sex)
creates a hole in his core beliefs. The taste is too much and too little;
it nags in the back of his mind and eventually causes his downfall at the
time of his expected suicide. Suicide becomes personal, physical, and scary.

And so he runs away recklessly to the Westerners. Yet the fact that Elesin
lives is a failure to the Yorubans and, although a momentary success, eventually
becomes a failure as well to the British. He is forced to make a bad decision
because he does not fully understand the conflicting views on life and
death. British beliefs are barely understood by him, and never closely
scrutinized. And thus ignorance is the real catalyst for Elesin's downfall.

However, as with every pair of opposites,
there is also an enlightened man in Soyinka's work. Olunde is the only
person in the play who seems to fully understand both cultures, and