Death and the King's Horseman

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Death and the King's Horseman
Written by Wole Soyinka
Characters Elesin
Simon Pilkings
Jane Pilkings
Date premiered March 1, 1975 (1975-03-01)
Place premiered Vivian Beaumont Theater
Original language English
Setting Nigeria, 1946

Death and the King's Horseman is a play by Wole Soyinka based on a real incident that took place in Nigeria during British colonial rule: the horseman of an important chief was prevented from committing ritual suicide by the colonial authorities.[1] In addition to the British intervention, Soyinka calls the horseman's own conviction toward suicide into question, posing a problem that throws off the community's balance.


Death and The King's Horseman builds upon the true story to focus on the character of Elesin, the King's Horseman of the title. According to Yoruba tradition, the death of a chief must be followed by the ritual suicide of the chief's horseman, because the horseman's spirit is essential to helping the chief's spirit ascend to the afterlife. Otherwise, the chief's spirit will wander the earth and bring harm to the Yoruba people. The first half of the play documents the process of this ritual, with the potent, life-loving figure Elesin living out his final day in celebration before the ritual process begins. At the last minute the local British colonial ruler, Simon Pilkings, intervenes, the suicide being viewed as barbaric and illegal by the British authorities.

In the play, the result for the community is catastrophic, as the breaking of the ritual means the disruption of the cosmic order of the universe and thus the well-being and future of the collectivity is in doubt. The community blames Elesin as much as Pilkings, accusing him of being too attached to the earth to fulfill his spiritual obligations. Events lead to tragedy when Elesin's son, Olunde, who has returned to Nigeria from studying medicine in Europe, takes on the responsibility of his father and commits ritual suicide in his place so as to restore the honour of his family and the order of the universe. Consequently, Elesin kills himself, condemning his soul to a degraded existence in the next world. In addition, the dialogue of the native suggests that this may have been insufficient and that the world is now "adrift in the void".

Another Nigerian playwright, Duro Ladipo, had already written a play in the Yoruba language based on this incident, called Oba waja (The King is Dead).[2]

Themes and Motifs[edit]

  • Duty[1]
  • Anti-colonialism is considered a theme by some scholars based on aspects of the text, but Soyinka specifically calls the colonial factors "an incident, a catalytic incident merely" in the "Author's Note" prepended to the play.

Yoruba Proverbs[edit]

Almost every character in Death and the King's Horseman at some point uses a traditional Yoruba proverb. Through his vast knowledge of Yoruba proverbs, Soyinka is able to endow his play with a strong Yoruba sentiment.

Characters often employ Yoruba proverbs primarily as a means of bolstering their opinions and persuading others to take their point of view.[3]

The Praise-singer gets annoyed with Elesin for his decision to take a new wife and tries to dissuade him:

Because the man approaches a brand-new bride he forgets the long faithful mother of his children.

Similarly, Iyaloja tries to admonish Elesin against his earthly attachments and stay true to the ritual upon which the good of his society depended:

Eating the awusa nut is not so difficult as drinking water afterwards.
Ati je asala [awusa] ko to ati mu omi si i.[5]

Another common way in which Soyinka uses proverbs is with Elesin. Elesin himself uses several proverbs in order to convince his peers that he is going to comply with their ritual and thus join the ancestors in orun:

The kite makes for wide spaces and the wind creeps up behind its tail; can the kite say less than thank you, the quicker the better?
Awodi to'o nre Ibara, efufu ta a n'idi pa o ni Ise kuku ya.[6]
The elephant trails no tethering-rope; that king is not yet crowned who will peg an elephant.
Ajanaku kuro ninn 'mo ri nkan firi, bi a ba ri erin ki a ni a ri erin[6]
The river is never so high that the eyes of a fish are covered.
Odu ki ikun bo eja l'oju[6]

The final way in which proverbs appear in the play is when Iyaloja and the Praise-singer harass Elesin while he is imprisoned for failing to complete his role within the ritual:

What we have no intention of eating should not be held up to the nose.
Ohun ti a ki i je a ki ifif run imu[6]
We said you were the hunter returning home in triumph, a slain buffalo pressing down on his neck; you said wait, I first must turn up this cricket hole with my toes.
A ki i ru eran erin lori ki a maa f'ese wa ire n'ile[7]
The river which fills up before our eyes does not sweep us away in its flood.
Odo ti a t'oju eni kun ki igbe 'ni lo[6]


Written in five scenes, it is performed without interruption.[8] "The play is seldom performed outside of Africa. Soyinka himself has directed important American productions, in Chicago in 1979 and at Lincoln Center in New York in 1987, but these productions were more admired than loved. Although respected by critics, Soyinka’s plays are challenging for Westerners to perform and to understand, and they have not been popular successes."[1]

The play was performed at London's Royal National Theatre beginning in April 2009, directed by Rufus Norris, with choreography by Javier de Frutos and starring Lucian Msamati. It was also performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival from February 14 to July 5, 2009.[9] The play was also staged by the St. Louis Black Repertory Theater February 2008, directed by Olusegun Ojewuyi, who also was dramaturge for the Oregon Shakespeare's production. A Yoruba translation Iku Olokun Esin was also performed at the National Theater, Lagos Nigeria, directed by Olusegun Ojewuyi (thus making him the first and only director to have staged the play in both English and in Yoruba – the language and culture of the play.


Death and The King's Horseman "forge[s] out of this story a metaphor not just for the whole history of Africa and its collision with colonial Europe but a profound meditation on the nature of man, . . . the relationship of life with death and the power of religion, ritual and spirituality in human existence."[10] It is probably Soyinka's greatest work for the theatre and remains one of his most universal and accessible dramatic statements.[citation needed]

One of the play's interpretive problems is Elesin's attempt to commit suicide. As Soyinka conceals the moment when Elesin is interrupted, we do not know whether the interruption prevented his follow through, whether he could not bring himself to commit the act, or whether he just did not know how to perform it. He himself gives conflicting explanations, at one time telling his bride that his attraction to her made him long to stay in the world a while longer ("...perhaps your warmth and youth brought new insights of this world to me and turned my feet leaden on this side of the abyss"), while a few moments later telling the village matriarch that he thought the white man's intervention "might be the hand of the gods".[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Gale (January 2006). Marie Rose Napierkowski, ed. "Death and the King's Horseman: Introduction. Drama for Students.". eNotes (Detroit) 10. Retrieved 2009-01-23. 
  2. ^ Soyinka, Wole (2002). Death and the king's horseman. W.W. Norton. p. 5. ISBN 0-393-32299-8. 
  3. ^ Richards, David. Death and the King's Horseman and the Masks of Language. Excerpt from: Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King's Horseman: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton & Company, 2003. © Norton & Company. Pp196-207.
  4. ^ (id. at 201)
  5. ^ (id. at 201)
  6. ^ a b c d e (id. at 202)
  7. ^ (id. at 202
  8. ^ "The Literary Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2009-06-17. 
  9. ^ "Death and the King's Horseman". Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Ashland, OR. 2009. Retrieved 12 May 2011. 
  10. ^ "Death and the King's Horseman". 3RC: 3rd Row Center. St. Louis, MO. 2008. Retrieved 12 May 2011. 
  11. ^ Both passages come from Act 5.

External links[edit]