Death and the King's Horseman

Death and the King's Horseman Study Guide

Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman is perhaps the Nobel-Prize-winning playwright's greatest and most enduring work. Published in 1975, the work is often studied and performed in colleges and universities, as well as staged worldwide.

Soyinka began writing the play when he was a fellow at Cambridge in the early 1970s. He based it off real events in Oyo, an ancient Yoruba city of Nigeria, in 1946. It is five acts, and is to be performed without an intermission.

Critics celebrate the play for its critical stance on imperialism, the insights into Yoruba religion and ritual, the range of characterization, and the accomplished prose. Some critics simplistically label the work a "clash of cultures" but Soyinka himself refuted that notion in the prologue to the play, calling that idea "facile" and "prejudicial", and claiming that it "presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter."

A writer for The Guardian interviewed Soyinka recently, and offered insights into the writer's mindset when he composed the play: "He was not an angry man when he wrote the play, [Soyinka] says, only irritated, in much the same way that he was irritated by that bust of Churchill on a Cambridge staircase. What he hoped to do was find an objective authorial stance and get inside the mind of his characters. More important than depicting cultural oppositions was his desire to create a space where cultures could come to a greater mutual understanding."