Death and the King's Horseman

Death and the King's Horseman Summary and Analysis of Act III


The front of a stall in the marketplace is covered with rich cloths. The women are agitated. Amusa and his two constables have their batons out and try to use them to push past the women, who hold firm. The women begin to tease Amusa, calling him a eunuch and telling him to go back to the white man who sent him

Amusa protests that he will come back with weapons, and tries to talk over their jeers. The women say their husband and father will prove himself stronger than the white man’s government tonight.

Iyaloja arrives and Amusa appeals to her. He says he is going to arrest Elesin for criminal intent, and that the women need to stop obstructing him. Iyaloja replies that this is merely a wedding. Amusa is frustrated with the insults lobbied at him.

Several younger girls break through and start threatening Amusa that he no longer knows his mother or the ways of the marketplace. They knock off the men’s hats, and then begin to pretend to be Englishmen, mimicking their accents, affectations, and sentiments. At the end, one calls out “Sergeant!” and Amusa actually snaps to attention. The girls collapse in hysterics.

Amusa is enraged and Iyaloja gently cautions the girls. Finally, Amusa and his men leave, promising to come back.

The women and girls begin dancing and singing. Elesin, wearing only a white wrapper, emerges, holding a white folded velvet cloth. He hands it slowly to Iyaloja and says it represents the “union of life and seeds of passage” (40). He listens and says it is nearly time to go.

The Bride also emerges, Elesin says their consummation is not quite done, and she must stay by him until he passes on. He then praises the marketplace.

He listens again, and hears that the King’s dog and the King’s horse are being killed before him. His eyes cloud and he smiles faintly. He says his spirit is eager and he is ready. He seems in a state of semi-hypnosis. He asks the mothers to let him dance into his next passage. His own dance now becomes solemn and slow.

The praise-singer joins him and asks if Elesin can hear his voice. Elesin replies, faintly, that he can. The praise-singer continues to speak to Elesin to make him ready. Elesin says, “I have freed myself of earth and now it’s getting dark. Strange voices guide my feet” (43). He appears in a deeper trance.

Iyaloja speaks of death and its different types –Elesin “dies the unknowable death of death…” (43). The praise-singer tells Elesin he cannot sense his body anymore and that he has gone ahead of the world.

Elesin is far into his trance. The praise-singer continues to speak to him of the sounds he might hear and the sight of light at the end of the passage. He asks if he sees the “dark groom and master of life” (45).

The praise-singer is overcome with emotion. Elesin dances on, heavily.


Act III in many respects is akin to Act I, as the ritual continues with all of its theatricality and traditional Yoruba references and folk sayings, but here the outside forces of colonial authority permeate the bubble of the marketplace. First Amusa and the constables come close to disrupting the ritual but are momentarily staved off by the women and girls, and then, as we learn in the subsequent act, actually do return and arrest Elesin before he can die (although this happens offstage).

Important to note before continuing on to discuss the ritual is the stature of the women and girls in this act. They are very powerful and assertive here, keeping Amusa and the constables at bay with both their bodies and their taunts. In particular, their aping of English accents and verbal/behavioral tics is one of the most satisfying moments of the play. Even though they are not ultimately successful in preventing Elesin’s imprisonment, through their taunts they are able to demonstrate their power and wit. Interestingly enough, their boldness and loudness is in striking contrast to that of the Bride, who is mute not just in this act but in the entire play. It seems as if this particular woman’s vital life force has been sacrificed for the desires and whims of Elesin.

The rest of the act concerns Elesin’s putative carrying out of the ritual. He proclaims his success at consummating the marriage, and that the fruit of their union “is intermingled with the promise of future life. All is prepared” (40). He speaks of how eager his spirit is to move on, and asks rhetorically, “Do you know friends, the horse is born to this one destiny, to bear the burden that is man upon its back” (41). The praise-singer and Elesin engage in the same call-and-response, and Elesin sinks deeper and deeper into his trance. It seems as if the ritual will be fulfilled; critic Jasbir Jain writes, “It is a shamanistic act and symbolizes total withdrawal at a moment of total involvement. This, at one level, is the true ending in which the initial ritual designed to emphasize both will and order is enacted.”

This ritual is, of course, the main concern of the text. Scholar Adebayo Williams offers interesting insights into its function in a critical article on the text. He begins by noting how ritual is not something that is much practiced or understood in the Western world, particularly in the modern age. Rituals are meant to satiate human needs and desires, and even though it seems harsh, human sacrifice is sometimes a part of that. In Death and the King's Horseman, "the crisis in the play stems from an acute political and psychological threat to the ritual of human sacrifice." Pilkings, as a representative of the external force, is not saving Elesin's life and reinforcing civilization; rather, he is pulling at the threads of a culture he knows little about.

The place and moment in time –Nigeria, in the twilight of the colonial empire –is an important one, for this ritual is more important than ever to the native peoples. And as Soyinka based this on real events, "[the play] represents an attempt to confront on a creative level the arrogance and cultural chauvinism of Western imperialism" as it attempts to remake Nigerian society in its own (deeply flawed and very different) image.

Soyinka attempts to depict just how important it is that Elesin carry out the ritual, and how devastating it is when he cannot do so. Williams's analysis reveals how Elesin, however, is not a particularly inspiring figure and how the Nigerians, infiltrated so completely by the Europeans and their "various fetishes of political authority and cultural power" can now "only produce an Elesin, a pathetic but ultimately subversive caricature of his illustrious forbearers." Williams sees Elesin as weak, posturing, histrionic, and prideful, and argues that this is indeed because of the long history of imperialism in Nigeria that renders the country's great men impotent.