Death and the King's Horseman

Themes and Motifs

  • Duty[1]
  • Anti-colonialism is considered a theme by some scholars based on aspects of the text, but Soyinka specifically calls the colonial factors "an incident, a catalytic incident merely" in the "Author's Note" prepended to the play.

Yoruba Proverbs

Almost every character in Death and the King's Horseman at some point uses a traditional Yoruba proverb. Through his vast knowledge of Yoruba proverbs, Soyinka is able to endow his play with a strong Yoruba sentiment.

Characters often employ Yoruba proverbs primarily as a means of bolstering their opinions and persuading others to take their point of view.[4]

The Praise-singer gets annoyed with Elesin for his decision to take a new wife and tries to dissuade him:

Because the man approaches a brand-new bride he forgets the long faithful mother of his children.

Similarly, Iyaloja tries to admonish Elesin against his earthly attachments and stay true to the ritual upon which the good of his society depended:

Eating the awusa nut is not so difficult as drinking water afterwards.
Ati je asala [awusa] ko to ati mu omi si i.[6]

Another common way in which Soyinka uses proverbs is with Elesin. Elesin himself uses several proverbs in order to convince his peers that he is going to comply with their ritual and thus join the ancestors in orun:

The kite makes for wide spaces and the wind creeps up behind its tail; can the kite say less than thank you, the quicker the better?
Awodi to'o nre Ibara, efufu ta a n'idi pa o ni Ise kuku ya.[7]
The elephant trails no tethering-rope; that king is not yet crowned who will peg an elephant.
Ajanaku kuro ninn 'mo ri nkan firi, bi a ba ri erin ki a ni a ri erin[7]
The river is never so high that the eyes of a fish are covered.
Odu ki ikun bo eja l'oju[7]

The final way in which proverbs appear in the play is when Iyaloja and the Praise-singer harass Elesin while he is imprisoned for failing to complete his role within the ritual:

What we have no intention of eating should not be held up to the nose.
Ohun ti a ki i je a ki ifif run imu[7]
We said you were the hunter returning home in triumph, a slain buffalo pressing down on his neck; you said wait, I first must turn up this cricket hole with my toes.
A ki i ru eran erin lori ki a maa f'ese wa ire n'ile[8]
The river which fills up before our eyes does not sweep us away in its flood.
Odo ti a t'oju eni kun ki igbe 'ni lo[7]

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