Soyinka’s play, Death and the King’s Horseman, is about a man who does not fulfill a tradition that has been carried on throughout his culture. When the King’s chief horseman, Elesin, does not complete his ritual suicide so that he can accompany the dead King to the other side, he breaks a tradition that has, for years, brought together the living and the dead. The tradition of the Yoruba culture is based on the position of the King and its passing down from father to son, as well as the same with the King’s horseman.
Olunde, the oldest son of Elesin, knows this tradition and as soon as the King’s death is revealed, he is aware that his father will die a month later. When this does happen, Olunde is obligated to bury his father and then take over his role as the King’s horseman. The end of the play takes a turn when Olunde dies because his father has not succeeded is this tradition; no son is left behind to carry it out. This tradition has been broken and therefore it cannot be performed anymore. Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman presumably takes place in a world where males take control and women play a minor part in their central tradition. I do believe that an in-depth look at the women characters in Death and the King’s Horseman can show different ways of thinking about power, influence, and responsibility.
There are many occurrences in the play in which you can tell how Elesin feels toward the women in his culture. For instance, in Act one, Elesin comes marching into the market and speaks about how all the women love him. The Praise-Singer then remembers the time Elesin was caught with his sister-in-law, ‘‘but I was only prostrating myself to her as becomes a grateful in-law” (Soyinka, pg. 14). In the same Act, Elesin becomes distracted by an object off-stage which is revealed later as a young woman who Elesin admires and must have. Another instance occurs in Act 3, when Elesin comes out of the wedding chamber with the stained sheet that shows the bride was a virgin and did not dishonor him. Lastly, in Act five, when Elesin is in the jail cell and Jane Pilkings tries to talk to Elesin about why her husband did what he did, Elesin is extremely impolite and basically shuns her from the whole thing, ‘‘That is my wife sitting down there. You notice how still and silent she sits? My business is with your husband” (Soyinka, pg. 54). Through these passages, we can understand that Elesin has a very important position in carrying out his tradition and he definitely does not see any influence in woman to help him. However, the women in the play seem to be in touch more with the spirit world than the men.
Iyaloja, the Mother of the market, is the leader of all the women. In Death and the King’s Horseman, even Elesin shows Iyaloja her respect. Iyaloja is more insightful than Elesin. She sees the risk in Elesin’s request to marry and take the brides virginity and she warns him to be careful, “be sure the seed you leave attracts no curse” (Soyinka, pg. 18). Iyaloja also sees that the child between Elesin and the bride will be “the elusive being of passage” (Soyinka, pg. 17). However, Elesin, being the way that he is, does not listen to Iyaloja the same way that he does not want to hear Jane Pilkings.
The women in this play appear to be more sensible compared to the male that they would be equal to, if rank mattered. Iyaloja is the leader of the women and is wiser than Elesin, the King’s horseman. In Act three, the women of the market make fun of Amusa and his constables, although police officers are higher in authority, “[with a sudden movement they snatch the batons of the two constables. They begin to hem them in.] ‘What next? We have your batons? What next? What are you going to do?’ [with equally swift movements they knock off their hats] ‘Move if you dare. We have your hats. What will you do about it? Didn’t the white man teach you to take off your hats before women?” (Soyinka, pgs. 29-30). The voices speaking are the characters labeled ‘girls’ therefore, the reader can presume that she is younger and still had that power to make the authority figure run off. Also, between Jane and Simon Pilkings, Jane is more alert and responsive to people’s feelings then her husband Simon.
In Act 2, Jane and her husband are dancing around in their egungun costumes and Amusa comes in and feels awkward toward them (“the egungun costume is a long grass robe and a wooden mask representing the face or head of an animal that the re-incarnated spirits of the ancestors wear” [Soyinka, pg. 20]). Simon doesn’t really seem to care that Amusa is bothered by these costumes, but Jane senses Amusa’s distress and tries to find out more about why it bothers him. She even asks her husband to remove the clothing. Also, she understands that Simon has made fun of holy water and has offended Joseph (the houseboy). Jane does not value Roman Catholicism, but when she realizes Joseph’s angry she tells Simon to apologize because she does not want to lose her houseboy, “Calling holy water nonsense to our Joseph is really like insulting the Virgin Mary before a Roman Catholic. He’s going to hand in his notice tomorrow you mark my word” (Soyinka, pg. 24). After Jane tells Simon that he has offended the house boy, on the next page Simon apologizes for saying what he said, “[between gritted teeth] Er..forget what I said just now. The holy water is not nonsense. I was talking nonsense” (Soyinka, pg. 25). By Simon saying this through ‘gritted teeth,’ the reader can understand that he did not really want to apologize, but he did it anyway because of what his wife said. On the next page, Jane almost puts Simon in his place when he complains about what he did. Jane asks him how Amusa took the apology and Simon goes on to say, “Who the hell gives a damn? I had a sudden vision of our Reverend Macfarlane drafting another letter of complaint to the resident about my unchristian language toward his parishioners. I wanted to make sure that Joseph didn’t ‘lose’ my note on the way. He looked sufficiently full of holy crusade to do such thing.” (Soyinka, pg. 26). And then Jane comes right back at him saying, “If you’ve finished exaggerating, come and have something to eat” (Soyinka, pg. 26). Simon might be the Colonial District Officer and makes decisions that are important for his town, but through these passages, the reader can infer that Jane has a slight power over her husband that he cannot control. Also, Jane appears to be easier to talk to, according to Olunde. “I need your help Mrs. Pilkings. I’ve always found you somewhat more understanding than your husband” (Soyinka, pg. 42). Reading on in Act four, the audience understands that Jane does not understand Olunde’s reaction to his father’s death when she yells and calls him vulgar names. Unlike Simon, who does not care to learn anymore about the Yoruba culture because they are under his administration, Jane asks Olunde to explain what is going on. ‘‘Your calm acceptance for instance, can you explain that? It was so unnatural. I don’t understand it at all. I feel a need to understand all I can. I feel it has to do with the many things we don’t really grasp about your people” (Soyinka, pg 46). Jane wants to learn more about this tradition so she can understand why they do it.
Aside from Elesin having the responsibility of continuing out the tradition of following the King, Iyaloja has to make a sacrifice of her own, but she has no problem completing it, unlike Elesin. This shows Iyaloja’s loyalty and her responsibility in her culture. Iyaloja’s son is to marry the bride that Elesin has chosen (the object off-stage). She let’s this happen so that Elesin can have his request for his last day. When this first happens, Iyaloja is very upset with this decision, but she does not want to speak up because Elesin is supposed to make a sacrifice for her so she feels she should make the same for him. She does not want to “burden him with knowledge that will sour his wish and lay regrets on the last moments of his mind” (Soyinka, pg. 16).
The importances of these sacrifices are of the same significance and there is proof in the play that tells us so. In the beginning, the Praise-singer is commending Elesin for the way he is following through with his duty and the tradition, telling him, “Our world was never wrenched from its true course,” and “the world was never tilted from its groove, it shall not be in yours” (Soyinka, pg. 6). The Praise-singer is basically telling Elesin that this tradition has lived on for generations and if he breaks this tradition that he is of extreme failure to the culture. When Iyaloja has to make her decision of letting her son’s bride marry Elesin, the other women try to make her refuse Elesin’s request and Iyaloja states “don’t set this world adrift of your own time; would you rather it was my hand sacrilege wrenched it loose?” (Soyinka, pg. 16). The wrong action on Elesin or Iyaloja’s part will have an extreme consequence.
The young bride that Elesin chooses also has an important task to fulfill and she also completes it, unlike Elesin. Throughout the play, the bride keeps to herself and does not speak. Her thoughts are never considered and we have no way of knowing how she feels about being with Elesin or how she truly feels about the man that she was supposed to marry (Iyaloja’s son). When the women return with the bride after getting her ready in the chamber, Elesin’s face “[glows with pleasure]” (Soyinka, pg. 18), but it is never mention how the bride feels or what her face looks like. Is she glowing with pleasure? Or is she miserable and wants to be with the one she really loves? Regardless of this, the bride marries Elesin and lets him taker her virginity. After, the bride comes out of the wedding chamber and is standing “[shyly by her husband’s side]” (Soyinka, pg. 32). When Elesin is imprisoned, his bride is “[seated on the ground to one side, her eyes perpetually bent to the ground]” (Soyinka, pg. 50). When Elesin speaks to his wife about how she took away his duty, she does not interfere or say anything back to him. Also, when Jane tries to speak to Elesin, he tells her that his bride knows not to interfere with the man’s problems. This is almost like the bride is a prisoner too, but when Elesin dies, the bride “walks calmly into the cell and closes Elesin’s eyes. She then pours some earth over each eyelid and comes out again” (Soyinka, pg. 63). The bride, throughout the play, does not show any feeling or emotion to what is happening. She knows that she has a duty and she takes full responsibility for it. Without speaking or showing this emotion, she just performs her duty.
The women in Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman are passive when it comes to the men, but they have proven to be responsible, strong, and will carry out the future in the play. At the end, Elesin and his son Olunde are dead, and Simon will have to take the blame for it when everyone finds out what happened. The men have caused all the big problems in this play. The beginning of the play is all about the power a man has, Elesin flaunting through the market. At the end of the play, the women (Iyaloja and the bride) are focused on the future, what it holds, and how to carry out their culture. “Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.” (Soyinka, pg. 63).
Soyina, Wole.Death and the King’s Horseman.New York, NY:W.W. Norton and Company, 2003.