Death and the King's Horseman

Death and the King's Horseman Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Why does Elesin fail to complete ritual suicide?

    There are many reasons why Elesin does not complete the ritual. First, he does not actually seem prepared to die. He very much enjoys the things of this world -- music, women, food, adoration. He is reluctant to leave it and allows himself to be beguiled by the Bride instead of proceeding onward to death. Second, Pilkings interferes because he is carrying out his version of duty. He does not want the embarrassment of this ritual proceeding under his nose. Third, which is related to the second point, imperialism as a whole created this situation in which the Nigerian people's religion came under attack from the English colonial administrators for being "barbaric" and backwards. The English are much more powerful and are in charge, and seek to rout out rituals such as this. Elesin seems to have been doomed from the start.

  2. 2

    What is the role of Iyaloja in the thematic structure of the story??

    Iyaloja is the mother of the marketplace. She speaks for the women and girls, which are an important component of the community. She must approve and affirm Elesin's journey from life to death. Initially, she is very supportive of him and gives in to his demands for the Bride, but after he lets the community down by failing the ritual, viciously turns against him. She reminds him of just how wrenching his failure was, and how destabilizing it was to their community. At the end of the text she takes Olunde's place as the representative of the Nigerian culture to the English, speaking coolly and wisely to Pilkings and Jane, and refusing to allow them to strip even more dignity and autonomy away from an already-languishing people.

  3. 3

    Why doesn’t Wole Soyinka want us to read the work as a “clash of cultures"?

    In his preface Soyinka comments that he does not want the reader/audience to see this work as about a "clash of cultures," which he finds reductive. He believes that this phase makes it seem like the indigenous people and the alien people are on the same footing while they are both occupying the indigenous people's territory. Rather, the alien people are the aggressors and offenders, and they have no right to be there. In the play, then, there is not simply a clash between English society and mores and those of Nigeria; rather, the English are fundamentally wrong in being there in the first place and intervening in the affairs of the Nigerians.

  4. 4

    Why does Olunde take on his father’s role in the ritual?

    It may surprise some readers that Olunde commits suicide in place of his father, but it makes sense given the young man's love for his home country, his wisdom and perspicacity, and his respect for the rituals of his people. His disgust with his father is also a clue, as it is clear Olunde now sees that he has no father since Elesin has forfeited that role. Olunde knows that his people will be devastated if he does not do his allotted part of the ritual, and he cannot bring further shame on them. He is intelligent and worldly enough to know that this moment matters -the English cannot have their victory, and his family and community cannot bear the burden of disgrace.

  5. 5

    How does Olunde feel about his time spent in Europe?

    Olunde loves and respects his home country of Nigeria and is remarkably clear-sighted about the tragedies of imperialism, but that does not mean he gleaned nothing from his time in Europe. In fact, while he was there he was able to develop a greater appreciation for the responsibility of self-sacrifice. Hearing about the captain's blowing up his ship to save lives and his experience in the hospitals of England during his medical training make him aware of English bravery and reinforce his understanding that the community is important and one must be willing to die to preserve it. Of course, he also learns more about the English character that is disreputable and dishonorable, such as their lack of humility and rapacious survival instinct, but comes away from his time there with positive lessons as well.

  6. 6

    What are the tone and style of the work?

    Soyinka's tone varies throughout the text. In the first and third acts, it is musical, reverential, mystical, and poetic. In acts two and four it is ironic, as the focus turns to the English. In the fifth act there is a mixture of those, as well as being mournful. Soyinka's style also varies. In acts one and three, it is lush, theatrical, and full of proverbs and songs and verse. In acts two and four, he turns to prose to impress upon the reader the mundanity, bureaucracy, and foolishness of the English colonial administrators. In act five, it is like a tragedy, as all the major players come together and the conflicts of the work are addressed. It is formal, but contains some proverbs and poetry through Iyaloja and the praise-singer.

  7. 7

    What is the significance of the moon in the text?

    Elesin exhibits a fascination with the moon multiple times in the play. It represents the cycles of life and death, and as critic Jasbir Jain quotes another critic, Mircea Eliade, brings together "such heterogeneous things as: birth, becoming, death, and resurrection; the waters, plants, women, fecundity and immortality" and reveals "above all, death is not final, that it is always followed by a new birth." Elesin's staring up at the moon, then, when he is in his jail cell, suggests he is aware of his jarring failure but desires to once again be part of the cycles of nature.

  8. 8

    Is the play a tragedy?

    The play does seem to posses the elements of Aristotelian tragedy -a flawed hero sees a reversal in his circumstances, the audience is moved to catharsis, the plot is unified and there is a single theme. Elesin's connection to the world and his latent reluctance to leave it is his tragic flaw, but tragedy also comes from his interaction with the outside world. Jasbir Jain writes, "What arouses pity and fear is the contrast between the manner of death Elesin had been preparing for all his adult life and the actual manner of his death, in the necessity of his death even when it has lost its initial purpose." There is also tragedy in Olunde having to supercede his father to carry out the ritual, especially as in African cultures the son should bury his father and not the opposite.

  9. 9

    How is the play rooted in history?

    The play is based off of real events that took place in 1946. It is set during WWII, though, and possesses many historical elements of that conflict, including the actual Prince's visit to Nigeria during the war. The larger colonial context is important as well, for that history completes dictates the way the events in the story pan out. Soyinka's goal here, then, was to use one example of a conflict between Nigerian and English societies as a symbol for the larger conflict that imperialism created. In his forward he states that he does not want it to be merely a retelling of one incident, but that "the confrontation in the play is largely metaphysical, contained in the human vehicle which is Elesin and the universe of the Yoruba mind..."

  10. 10

    Is Jane a sympathetic character? Why or why not?

    Jane does not have the gravitas of Olunde or Iyaloja, but she is still worth regarding. She comes across as a little naive and annoying, especially when she is speaking with Olunde about the ritual, the captain, and general differences between Nigeria and England. She also seems to want to meddle in affairs she should not, and holds many of the same "civilizing" viewpoints of her husband and English peers. However, what makes Jane more sympathetic is that she actually wants to understand where Olunde is coming from. She has an outburst, yes, but calms herself, apologizes, and asks for help understanding. She does not possess the same cruel, callous racism as her husband, and gives the natives much more credit than he does. Overall, her humanity is much more visible, and one believes that with more exposure to people like Olunde and less to people like her husband and the aide-de-camp, her tolerance and empathy would increase.