16 Jan Plot Summary and Characters – Death and The King’s Horseman
Death and The King’s Horseman is a play by Wole Soyinka. Read on for more details on the play and the characters.
About the Play
Death and the King’s Horseman is a play by Wole Soyinka, a prolific Nigerian playwright, and poet. Soyinka wrote the play while in a political-motivated exile at Cambridge College, UK. Death and the King’s Horseman is based on a real incident that occurred during the Second World War in pre-colonial Yorubaland, South Western Nigeria.
In the incident, the Oba (king) of a Yoruba community died, and his horseman was to commit ritual suicide to enable the king to ascend afterlife to save the world from collapsing. However, the suicide ritual was interrupted before completion by a white man who misunderstood the intent of the sacrifice, throwing the community into fear of destruction.
Death and the King’s Horseman – Summary
The play starts with the death of a Yoruba King. His horseman, Elesin, is traditionally expected to commit ritual suicide to honor the king. The sacrifice is significant in helping the king ascend to the afterlife without harming his people. The ritual is in alignment with the Yoruba tradition of Oba’s servants having to sacrifice their lives to join the Oba in his afterlife to avert cosmic disruption. Without the sacrifice, the Oba will not ascend to the afterlife and will be stuck on the earth wandering, causing harm to the people and as well stop the universe from spinning.
Elesin, the king’s horseman, is aware of his fate and courageously prepares for his scheduled death. While he readies himself, the Praise-Singer worries about his lack of guts to follow up with the ritual, making Elesin express his readiness to him as he walks into the market where the sacrifice will take place.
In the market, some women prepare an outfit for Elesin, who wishes to taste something pleasurable before he dies heroically. When his eyes caught an adorable girl passing by, he expresses his desire to have her before he dies to the women’s leader, Iyaloja. Unfortunately, the girl is betrothed to Iyaloja’s son, leaving Iyaloja in bewilderment. She quietly repudiates his offer but realizing the magnitude of Elesin’s sacrifice to the entire community, she agrees.
The play takes readers to the British quarter, where a couple, Simon and Jane, are dancing around in costumes. They were preparing for a masquerade party, which will see the presence of the British Prince – a reason Simon didn’t want to miss it. Suddenly, an African staff of the British appears and breaks the news of Elesin’s plan to commit ritual suicide in honor of the king; Simon weighs on foiling the plan.
Because the British Prince will attend the masquerade party, Simon is reluctant to make it to the market. Rather he orders the African staff, Amusa, to arrest Elesin and disrupt the sacrifice. Amusa hurried to the market to disrupt the sacrifice but was chased away by the market women. The sacrifice began by plunging Elesin into a trance. When Simon learned the sacrifice was ongoing, he angrily leaves the masquerade party to arrest Elesin and stop what he perceives as a barbaric act.
In his absence, Olunde appears and has a word with Jane. Olunde lets readers know how Simon’s financial support helped him to move to Britain to study medicine. However, he laments bitterly about how his decision to further his education abroad strained his relationship with his father, Elesin.
The death of the Oba brought Olunde home. Despite his exposure to a perceived advanced culture and world that conflicts with his, Olunde is yet not swayed. When the drum begins to sound from the market, Olunde assumes his father has committed suicide and ascends to the afterlife with the Oba (king). When he learns Elesin failed to complete the sacrifice, he is disappointed and reprimands him harshly for his unwillingness to consummate the sacrifice.
Elesin is handcuffed and taken to the colonial prison. In the prison, Iyaloja taunts Elesin’s unpreparedness and lack of courage to die and journey to the underworld with the king. Elesin nods to her words and blames the appearance of the white man as the actual cause of the failure to complete the sacrifice.
The disappointed Olunde, who just returned from his study in Britain to pay his last respect to the king, decides to die in place of his father, Elesin, to restore dignity to him and save the cosmos from collapse. The community believes the earth will crumble if the servants of the king, including his animals, do not die of their volition and journey with him to another life. So, when the sacrifice was interrupted, the people held their breath till Olunde volunteered to die in his father’s stead.
On hearing Olunde has committed the ritual suicide, Elesin condemns himself and chokes himself to death.
The play is set in pre-colonial Yorubaland during the Second World War and is based on a real-life story of a king’s horseman, Elesin, who was to commit ritual suicide but failed due to the British colonizers interrupting the process. Elesin is the tragic hero of the play – he began as a courageous character, but as the play progressed, he found himself interwoven with earthly things. He was prevented from committing the ritual suicide that could have earned him eternal honor but instead degraded into strangling himself.
How did the Death and the King’s Horseman end?
The play began with the heroic decision of Elesin to commit ritual suicide to enable his journey to the other life with the king and save the planet earth from collapse. Denying the king’s sacrifice would render his spirit restless. His spirit would refuse to leave the earth and could only ascend to the afterlife if the sacrifice is performed the right way. If not, he will end up shaking the world and harming its habitants. When Elesin is already in the mood to die, the white colonizers intervene and halt the sacrifice. Olunde commits suicide in place of Elesin to redeem honor to himself and his household. On hearing this news, Elesin strangles himself in the cage of the colonizers.
Death and the King’s Horseman – Characters
He’s the protagonist of the play and equally the horseman. Elesin begins as a courageous character who is determined to save the cosmos from sudden collapse by committing ritual suicide to enable his journey to the afterlife with the Oba (king) and save the universe from plunging into chaos. He was given a month to prepare; he exploited the remaining time of his life enjoying life’s goodies, ranging from food to women.
Elesin had many wives and children; Olunde was one of his sons. Because of the sacrifice, he was to make, the market women made the finest outfits for him. On one occasion with Iyaloja, Elesin requests Iyaloja connect him with a beautiful girl that walks past them for sexual pleasure. Iyaloja downplays his offer because the girl was betrothed to her son; however, she eventually agrees to mend the heaviness of Elesin’s sacrifice for the village.
Elesin is a playful and storytelling character; his change of mind comes as he decides to marry the girl betrothed to Iyaloja’s son – and this connotes his egoistic nature.
Iyaloja and Olunde are disappointed in him over his unwillingness to commit ritual suicide before the intervention of Simon Pilkings. Olunde, in fury, commits suicide in place of his father to return honor to him and save the planet earth from collapsing. On hearing about the death of his son, Olunde, and the cause, Elesin chokes himself to death with the chain binding him in prison.
The leader of the market women, Iyaloja, maintains an intimate relationship with Praise-Singer with whom she serves as a moral guide to Elesin. Iyaloja makes it her duty to ensure Elesin lives his best life within the month he’s given to prepare to die. She persuades the market women to make adorable clothes for Elesin and feed him with the sweetest foods. She began to question Elesin’s preparedness to die when he expressed his wish to marry the young girl a few hours before the sacrifice, the girl betrothed to her son, and whom Elesin has demanded Iyaloja convince to have sex with him earlier on.
After the unsuccessful sacrifice, Iyaloja castigates and curses Elesin’s attachment to earthly things, which she thinks makes his mind shaky for death, even death needed to save the king and the earth. Iyaloja, in the last scene, commands the market women to carry the dead Olunde wrapped in a large cloth to the prison where Elesin is locked up in a chain.
Grounded in Yoruba proverbs, Iyaloja talks Elesin into strangling himself and thereafter, blamed Simon Pilkings as the cause of the catastrophe that befell the village. Iyaloja proves she’s progressive-minded when she turns to the young girl and tells her to worry less about the dead but to worry about the yet-to-born baby.
Husband to Jane and the colonial officer in Oyo, Simon is a selfish character who has no regard for the people under him (both white and African) and the Yoruba tradition. He degrades the Yoruba tradition and on one occasion seizes the egungun (masquerade) and wears it later to the party a prince from Britain will attend.
Despite degrading the tradition and seeing the masquerade as evil, a reason he seized it, Simon still doesn’t see any bad in wearing the masquerade.
He’s inherently cruel and proves it in his relationship with his wife, Jane, who often offends him by reminding him of the significance of the egungun and other traditional stuff to his subjects and demands he treats them with respect.
Simon’s desire to stop Elesin from committing suicide stems from his Christian belief.
Simon’s wife, Jane, is more sensitive to African tradition and always provokes her husband when telling him to respect the African tradition a bit. Jane supports her husband fully in carrying out his duty of governing the Africans and sometimes walks in his shoe. Like Simon, Jane harbors Christian values and sees wrongs in Africans sacrificing themselves to gods.
Although she’s more considerate of African culture than Simon, Jane still thinks Africans and their cultures are primitive and believe in the illusion of whites being superior and that white civilization transcends other civilizations in the world. From her conversation with Olunde, we learn why Olunde is not bothered about his father’s death and the reasons for other important things that have unfolded in the play.
He’s the first son of Elesin and will succeed him as the next Oba’s horseman. Olunde returned from Britain to honour his father upon learning of the king had died. Four years ago, before the Oba died, Simon Pilkings smuggled him to Britain to study medicine against the will of Elesin, Olunde’s father. His plan to further his education abroad strained his relationship with his father.
As an African-bred who has lived in Britain, Olunde is in a better position to keep his African tradition and that of the British at a poise. He now understands why the whites raise their shoulders and think they’re overly superior to Africans.
While speaking with Jane, he stresses why the ritual sacrifice is important in the culture of Yoruba and compares the suicide to the captain who crashes his ship to save passengers. Learning of his father’s failure to complete the sacrifice, he renounces him and taunts him before committing the ritual suicide on his behalf to bring honor back to his family.
An African, who worked for the British – His task is to police his fellow African people. Amusa was recently converted to Muslim, although his connection with the African tradition was not severed as a result of his conversion. He resents seeing Simon and Jane disrespecting the egungun by wearing it all around. Amusa, moreover, takes no pride in using his position to humiliate the villagers.
He serves as Elesin’s moral guide and forever praises him even in his death. When Elesin plans to marry in the course of the sacrifice, he noodles the possibility of Elesin derailing from the paths of the sacrifice.
The Young Girl
She’s Elesin’s bride-to-be. Elesin developed an interest in her when she walked past him and Iyaloja. He requested Iyaloja to connect him with her for sex.