Death and the King's Horseman

Death and the King's Horseman Themes


Sacrifice is a central component of the ritual. Only through Elesin sacrificing himself can the ritual be completed. Of course, Elesin cannot complete this successfully, due to both external and internal circumstances. It is Olunde who makes the ultimate sacrifice by taking his own life so he can fulfill the Yoruba ritual. This foreshadowed in the conversation regarding self-sacrifice between Olunde and Jane, who have very different ideas about the nature of this act. Jane finds the captain's sacrifice distasteful, but Olunde views it as a life-affirming and heroic act.


The central ritual of the text -- the king's horseman dying so he can join his master in the afterlife -- is a fascinating component of Yoruba society, but also functions here as a dying country's last gasp in the face of colonial control and oppression. The ritual is important to the Nigerians in all times and places, but there is special import here in that its success or failure seems to say a lot about the status of resistance to the colonizers. When Elesin is prevented from carrying it out, their world seems pushed off its axis; their traditions and beliefs are deeply wounded. The colonizers, to put it simply, have won. Even though Olunde completes the ritual for his father, there is a sense that there is no going back; this culture's way of life is effectively over.


European imperialism/colonialism is ever-present in the text, lurking heavily in the background of all the events. The English presence in Nigeria is by now well established, but is still rife with instability and conflict. The central events of the text are meant to symbolize the larger conflict: Nigerians do not welcome this foreign regime and prefer to conduct their own affairs, no matter how odd and "uncivilized" they seem to the English, but the English believe their role their is positive and necessary, for while they are not only growing rich from their colonial empire, they are supposedly bringing light and progress to the benighted people of Nigeria.


Elesin and Pilkings represent two differing views on duty, which they both claim to prize highly. Elesin's duty is to perform the sacred ritual that he was meant to. It means dying for his people, and dying in the appropriate fashion. Pilkings's duty is to enforce the laws of the English colonial empire in Africa, which means not allowing the supposedly "barbaric" customs like the king's horseman ritual to continue. He believes he is doing something positive by preventing this ritual; he is saving Elesin's life as well as not allowing the colony to remain uncivilized. Unfortunately, the duties of both men conflict mightily with each other, and this conflict leads to the tragedies of the last act of the play.

Music, Dance, and Poetry

Music, dance, and poetry are featured throughout the text. For the Nigerians, they are fundamentally important parts of the ritual. They can tell stories, induce trances and meditation and reverie, bring about transformation and change, and overall, demonstrate great power and importance. The ritual needs these elements to survive. The Europeans also have music and dance, but they do not possess the same influence. The music is restrained, the dancing stilted. The European dance/music is also sullying through its existence in Nigeria, where it does not belong. It is alien, just as the Pilkings's wearing the egungun costumes is an alien act.

Life and Death

Life and death, and the relationship between the two, permeate the text. The entire ritual is concerned with the passage from one state into anther, and Elesin's great failure is that he cannot properly make that journey. For those of the Yoruba ritual, death is merely another state in which one can exist, and are cycles interwoven with each other. The Europeans are also concerned with life and death, but their perspective on it is different: life is sacred, death is frightening and has no greater significance other than it must come eventually -- but through God's timing, not man's.


Although it does not play as major a role as the other themes, gender nevertheless is an important component of the text. Soyinka has several things to say about gender. On the one hand, the women and girls of the marketplace, particularly Iyaloja, seem to have a great deal of power: their voices are loud and forceful. However, the Bride is completely mute and is more or less an object that is given to Elesin to appease him. She is a cipher who demonstrates how little power Nigerian women can possess. Jane, on the other hand, who represents European women, may seem to have a bit more power than her Nigerian counterparts, as she is able to talk freely with her husband about their various affairs and role in the colony. She does not hesitate to offer her opinion; however, Pilkings's responses to such utterances are telling. He often puts her down and yells at her, revealing his misogyny. Jane may be loud, as Elesin notes, but that is where her voice stops.