Death and the King's Horseman

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


Elesin and his drummers and praise-singers enter the market. The vendors are packing up their stalls and getting ready to go home.

The praise-singer asks Elesin why he moves with such haste, and asks him if since he is going to meet his bride, if he has forgotten the mother of his children. Elesin laughs and says he must see his women because he has neglected them. The praise-singer wonders if there will be anyone like himself on the other side. Elesin urges him to remain at his side while they are in this world.

The praise-singer calls out that Elesin's name will "be like the sweet berry" and the "world will never spit it out" (10). Elesin tells him to come along to visit his women, and that he looks forward to smelling them and feeling them. The praise-singer sings of the time when white slavers came and took the best of their race –the "mind and muscle of tour race" (10). Despite this, he sings, "our world was never wrenched from its true course" (10). Elesin says the world will not leave its course during his time.

Elesin begins to speak of the "Not-I bird". First, he starts to dance, and the drummer plays along. He chants the story in an easy, amiable manner. While he speaks the women, including Iyaloja, arrive. In Elesin's story death comes calling, and the farmer, the hunter, the courtesan, and others say "Not I" when death seeks them. The refrain is even heard among the beasts of the forest, and among the gods themselves. But when that same Not-I bird comes to Elesin, he is not afraid and rolls out his welcome mat. The bird flies away and will not be heard in his lifetime. Elesin concludes, "My rein is loosened. I am master of my Fate" (14). He will not turn aside or delay.

The women ask if anything will hold him back and he says no, that he goes to keep his friend and master company. They did great things together, but now, as Elesin explains, "Life has an end. A life that will outlive fame and friendship begs another name" (15). Because life is honor, it ends when honor does.

When the women say they know him for a man of honor, Elesin suddenly gets angry. The women whisper and ask why he is offended. Iyaloja, the mother of the marketplace, asks what they did wrong. Elesin asks them if his body looks like a vagrant's. Iyaloja replies that she is confused. The praise-singer steps in and warns him gently that when the child is remorseful, the strictest father relents.

Elesin points to his ungainly clothes and laughs, and the women realize he was joking and needs his rich attire. Iyaloja dances around him, pleased that he forgave them. He is attired in elegant clothing while the women sing about meeting him in the great market.

Elesin, dressed in finery, states that the world is good and the women tell him they know he will leave it as such. He knows he will follow the umbilical cord of the world to its origin, and will find his roots.

He glimpses a beautiful girl, and stops to ask if he is still in the market he knows and loves. Confused, the praise-singer tells him of course he is, and that it is still his voice, not that of some acolyte in heaven. Elesin continues to muse, saying his whole life he has always had whatever he wanted, especially with women. The praise-singer replies that no one doubts his reputation.

Elesin turns to Iyaloja and asks about the woman he saw, waxing poetic on her beauty. Iyaloja replies that she is betrothed. Elesin is annoyed and wonders why she said that. Quickly, the woman says she did not mean to offend him. She just does not see the need to ruin another's happiness. The women ask what is going on and realize that the man the girl is betrothed to is her own son. She decides not to make things difficult for Elesin as he travels to the next world, however, and turns back to him to tell him he will not be burdened as he journeys on.

She tells him it is good that "your last strength be ploughed back into the womb that gave you being" (22). Elesin is pleased, chiding her that her eyes were clouded at first. She agrees but says the fruit of this union will be of both worlds. She then warns him to make sure he goes through with his sacrifice, and he is a bit piqued.

She prepares to leave to get his bridal chamber ready, and adds that "these same hands will lay your shrouds" (23), to which Elesin asks, annoyed, if she has to be so blunt.

The bride is led in and kneels before Elesin.


Act I of the play is justly celebrated, but is often confusing for readers if they have no prior knowledge of the text or Yoruba religious and social rituals. The ritualistic language and referents are complex, with the praise-singer and Elesin’s exchanges offering particular stumbling blocks for comprehension. Nevertheless, the basic outline of the plot becomes clear –the King has died, and Elesin, a local chief and the horseman of the King, is supposed to die after him to join him in the afterlife. He does not just kill himself right away, however (in fact, as the young houseboy Joseph puts it, he is just supposed to die), but along the way also passes through engagements with the local women in the marketplace, expressions of his own lack of fear and his willingness to keep the world on course by fulfilling his duty, and song and dance with the praise-singer.

As scholar Jasbir Jain explains, even among a play “suffused by the purely dramatic: ritual, song, storytelling, masque, mimicry, and dance” and full of spectacle and color, “the first act is wholly ritualistic.” There is ritual not only in Elesin’s preparation to join the King, but also in his rather sudden choice to add marriage and consummation to his pre-death activities. This marriage, this union of life, is a metaphor for Elesin achieving union with the King in the afterlife. As Jain comments, “Death and life have established a cyclical unity, and the physical union with the new bride is only a prelude to the union of life with death which is referred to as the brand new bride.”

The fact that all of this comes together in the marketplace, a metaphor for life and the afterlife, is significant. Elesin came to bid farewell to the women, proclaiming, “This market is my roost. When I come among the women I am a chicken with a hundred mothers” (10). The marketplace is full of life and vitality, just like the powerful, zesty, and sensuous Elesin. Elesin exhibits a great deal of confidence and pride, and the reader/audience is left marveling at the man’s power and ability to welcome his own death. The entire story of the “Not-I” bird serves as a reminder that while most human beings are afraid of death, Elesin welcomes it. He proclaims, “My rein is loosened. I am master of my fate” (14).

While, as Jain notes, “the picture that emerges at the end of the first act is not one of fear, but one of strength and harmony,” there is still a bit of subtle foreshadowing that indicates all may not pan out as the players anticipate. Elesin’s apparent acceptance of his imminent death is somewhat belied by his zeal for life. He seems just a little too happy to be surrounded by admirers; his life seems to have been an unblemished series of events and it is possible to read beneath his protestations of being ready to meet his fate that he would prefer to stay alive. The best evidence for Elesin’s ambivalence comes in how easily he is swayed by the (future) Bride, who is not supposed to be part of the ritual at all. He notices a pretty woman and must have her, even though this is not part of the ritual and she is betrothed to someone else.

In fact, Iyaloja, for all of her fervent support of Elesin at this point in the play, counsels him: “When the moment comes, don’t let the food turn to rodents’ droppings in their mouth. Don’t let them taste the ashes of the world when they step out at dawn to breathe the morning dew” (22) and “The swallow is never seen to peck holes in its nest when it is time to move with the season. There are always throngs of humanity behind the leave-taker” (23). Her words are transparent enough that Elesin takes offense at them, telling her after she counsels him to be wary of his seed being cursed, “You really mistake my person Iyaloja” (23). As critic Wole Ogundele writes, “the moral complexion of [Elesin’s] character changes: what before was heroic self-assertiveness now becomes irresponsible self-indulgence, with catastrophic consequences for all.”