Wole Soyinka: Death and the King's Horseman

Joe Masters

In his play, Death and the King's Horseman, Wole Soyinka would have us examine every clash and conflict, save for the one involving culture. Certainly this may seem the most obvious part of the play, but we would do the general understanding of Death a disservice if we ignored one of the central conflicts in the play. Every element of the play is placed in terms of two extremes, and the cultures must be considered one of those pairs. Suicide is no exception to this examination; it must be seen in the conflicting lights that Soyinka gives us: British vs. Yoruban, physical vs. metaphysical, personal vs. social; and an expression of failure vs. a form of redemption. In examining how the play divides suicide so completely through these lenses, we can better understand the actions of Elesin and Olunde.

In the Yoruban world, it is clear that everything exists in a large backdrop of history and awareness of the gods and the universe. While living is a personal experience, everyone is a fragment of reality. Thus every action has an impact on everything. All Yorubans and the entire world are interconnected. This is why the community is so close and so attentive when it comes time for Elesin to follow his king to the afterworld. Elesin's suicide is a communal act. It affects everyone, alive or dead, because it has little to do with Elesin personally. It is not his choice or decision; it is something that will happen. So, on one hand, suicide is a social act in this play.

However, if we examine the lenses that Soyinka gives us to see his play, we can see the conflicts develop. In the Western world, suicide is mainly seen as a personal experience. Although there is religion - Christianity - there is nothing that ties the death of one person to another in the supernatural world. If you kill yourself, that's it. You face God separately from everyone else; your life is viewed by itself. This is closely connected to the Western belief of free will. No one forces anyone to commit suicide; the definition tells us that this is a voluntary situation. So this is clearly the personal part of suicide that is present in Death. And we can see the line that divides personal and communal aspects of suicide in the tenuous position of British occupation of the Yoruba.

But there is still a similarity - suicide is seen to affect everyone involved. However, there is a stark difference even in this similarity. The power of suicide on the living is physical in the Western world, and metaphysical in the Yoruban world. In Britain, the sadness comes from missing someone who clearly left the world too early - before God called them. In Africa, the sadness comes from worrying about the destruction of the universe because tradition has been broken. So we arrive back where we started; the Yorubans consider everything in terms of a larger consciousness; Westerns in terms of personal freedom and experience.

When all these ideologies are forced to coalesce during the colonial occupation, Elesin's situation is bound to happen. The clash of all these opposing ideas creates the conflict that makes Death and the King's Horseman. When Elesin's mind is given a taste of the English belief of free will, he is tempted away from his birth culture. The idea that the world does not rest on his shoulders, that the afterlife of the Yoruba might be false, and that he might continue to live until God chooses to strike him down (and enjoy the splendors of life and sex) creates a hole in his core beliefs. The taste is too much and too little; it nags in the back of his mind and eventually causes his downfall at the time of his expected suicide. Suicide becomes personal, physical, and scary. And so he runs away recklessly to the Westerners. Yet the fact that Elesin lives is a failure to the Yorubans and, although a momentary success, eventually becomes a failure as well to the British. He is forced to make a bad decision because he does not fully understand the conflicting views on life and death. British beliefs are barely understood by him, and never closely scrutinized. And thus ignorance is the real catalyst