Death and the King's Horseman

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


Elesin is chained up in a prison cell. His bride sits mutely outside the cell. Pilkings come in and observes the prisoner. He muses that Elesin seems fascinated by the moon. Elesin replies to the "ghostly one" that he is indeed. Pilkings thinks the night is peaceful but Elesin counters that it is not: Pilkings shattered the peace forever and destroyed, not saved, Elesin's life.

Pilkings retorts that he was doing his duty, but Elesin sees that they have a very different understanding of duty. Elesin ruminates that he is no longer mad at Pilkings and wonders if this is part of some larger plan. Perhaps Pilkings meant to push the world off course. What is most tragic is how the roles of father and son are reversed. For Elesin, though, he is proud that he truly has a son; he knows Olunde will avenge his shame.

Pilkings shrugs and relays Olunde's words that as he cannot judge his father, he cannot despise him. Pilkings also adds that he advised Olunde to return to England. Elesin sighs that this might be best because he lost his father's place of honor.

After a moment Pilkings asks Elesin about the contradictions of his own race, as with the send-off Elesin was receiving. Before the chief can answer, running feet are heard. Pilkings leaves to join Jane. Elesin turns to his bride and speaks of blame. He says he blamed the white man, then his gods, and wants to blame her, but he knows that she was more than a desire of the flesh, and that she was "the final gift of the living to their emissary to the land of the ancestors" (65).

Jane and Pilkings return, arguing about her possible interference. It seems Iyaloja is here, and Pilkings is reluctant to let her visit. As Pilkings goes to let her in, Elesin comments that his own wife is silent and Jane is too talkative.

Pilkings orders Elesin not to try anything funny, and the chief sighs that there is no point and that his honor is entirely gone.

Iyaloja begins to speak angrily to the chastened chief, becoming more incensed when she sees the Bride there. Elesin tries to defend himself, saying she saw what happened when the shadow of the stranger fell upon him and how his power was gone when the iron touched his wrists. Iyaloja speaks only of the betrayal, and how he led them on as a leader. She says several times that she came with a burden. She alludes to a reversal of the cycle of their being. Once, she steps beyond the line drawn by Pilkings and is accosted by a guard. Pilkings tells her she better leave.

Iyaloja speaks abstrusely, which annoys Pilkings. She tells him she is not there to help him understand, and speaks more of burdens and asks him to release the King so he can ride homeward by himself.

The Aide-de-Camp runs in and says a group of women and a few men are coming up the hill. Pilkings is worried and frustrated, especially as he thinks Olunde might be involved. Jane says her husband should trust Olunde. He tells Bob to let them in and have Olunde be ready to leave for England. When he comments that he will shoot if they make trouble, Iyaloja sighs, "to prevent one death you will actually make other deaths? Ah, great is the wisdom of the white race" (73).

The women come in, carrying a longish object covered in cloth. They set it down. Elesin begs to be let out because he has a duty to fulfill but Pilkings refuses. Elesin says he must speak softly and secretly.

The Praise-singer, who is also there, intones words about the journey to come and tells Elesin to whisper to his shadow.

The object is revealed as the body of Olunde. Iyaloja says he intervened so honor would not fly away, and the son is now the father. The Praise-Singer criticizes Elesin for sitting on the side while the evil ones pushed the world off its course.

Elesin is fixated on his son. Suddenly he strangles himself with the chain before anyone can intervene. Iyaloja rebukes the white men for trying to stop him, commenting that he has finally gone on even though it is so late.

Pilkings asks if this is what she wanted and she says no, but he brought it to be. When Pilkings reaches to close Elesin's eyes she yells at him to stop treating him like "pauper's carrion" (76), and the Bride steps in to do it.

Iyaloja and the Bride leave. The women sway and the dirge is louder.


The play ends with two stunning, and perhaps surprising to some readers/audiences, events –Olunde’s suicide to complete the ritual, and Elesin’s suicide to attempt atonement for his failure. There are three important parts of this last act, which include the conversation between Pilkings and Elesin, Iyaloja’s chastising of Elesin, and the final moments of the play, in which Olunde’s body is revealed, Elesin kills himself, and Iyaloja chastises Pilkings.

The conversation between Elesin and Pilkings is illuminating, as it offers insights into Elesin’s character and failure, as well as the differences between the two men. The main point of difference is duty, which Elesin believes was tied to his role in the ritual and Pilkings believed was tied to his role as a colonial administrator.

Elesin’s failure, which is absolute, occupies the thoughts of many critics, who try to explain why this occurred as it did. Elesin himself wanders through various avenues of blame, telling his Bride he blamed the white man, his gods, and her, before he considered his own role: “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” (65). Indeed, many critics point to Elesin’s own ties to the sublunary world as evidence for why the failure occurs. Tanure Ojaide writes, “Elesin’s failure is not refusing to die, but not dying at the appropriate moment. It is a ritual and there is a time for everything. However, Elesin delays and provides the opportunity for his arrest and the excuse not to die.” Wole Ogundele adds something to this, though, writing, “the play as a whole is more concerned with the inevitability of [Elesin’s] failure –plus its causes and effects –than with finding a villain."

Olunde’s decision to commit suicide to fulfill the ritual has also provided much fodder for discussion. Tanure Ojaide writes, “Generally, the Yoruba are absorptive and borrow from other cultures what can strengthen theirs. Olunde’s stay in England and his medical training only convinced him more about his father’s responsibility of self-sacrifice”; clearly, he attained a greater “faith in his culture and people.”

One critic, Adebayo Williams, deals with criticism of the suicide part of the ritual, positing if Olunde’s suicide meant that he “succumbed to the whims of a reactionary culture and a flagrantly feudalistic ethos. Indeed, for critics of this persuasion, there may be something paradoxically progressive in Elesin’s refusal to honor his oath.” He concludes, “Yet despite the enormous integrity of Olunde’s self-sacrifice, it is difficult to identify the point at which his role as a cultural hero ends and where his role as the rearguard defender of a backward-looking political order prevails. But Soyinka does not leave us in doubt as to his conviction that, if suicide is the ultimate option available to African revolutionary intelligentsia in the struggle for a cultural revalidation of the continent, it must be embraced without flinching.”

Iyaloja's harsh words to Elesin seem to be both warranted and unwarranted. Ogundele does not let her and the others off the hook, writing, "Yet to ask how Elesin came under the delusion of total power and freedom, to the point where he wreaks so much havoc on himself and his community, is to implicate that community as well as its ethos which sanctions certain forms of morally ambiguous actions in its leaders. If Elesin is guilty of self-indulgence, then the community indulged him." Elesin can be blamed, certainly, but given the situation brought about by colonialism, it seems unfair to have him shoulder all of it.

Elesin's own suicide ends the play, and Iyaloja has the last word against Pilkings. It is an imperfect and no doubt fleeting moment of power for her as the representative of the community, but it is something.