Clash of the Cultures in Wole Soyinka’s Play Death and the King’s Horseman

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Wole Soyinka’s play, Death and the King’s Horseman, proposes a plethora of different outlooks on different cultures, presented by the characters and actions displayed. The moral of the story helps us truly understand the differences between two very contrasting cultures, and how the misunderstandings lead to the fact that we need to understand and be open-minded about those different around us.We are clearly introduced to the cultural circumstances given in Wole Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horseman highlights a culture clash as a result of colonialism. This exposes the risk of ethnocentrism by the colonists, meaning the judgement of the Yoruba culture by comparing it to the values and standards of their own European culture and tradition. Protagonist Elesin Oba is expected to commit ritual suicide in mourning, because his king has died and been buried.

Tradition demands that he, too, must die and join his king in the afterlife. However, because their location was in the midst of experiencing colonialism and the integration of settlers, the traditions are often questioned by local Europeans. The British authorities heard about the ritual planned and decided that it is not something that should take place by their standards. They resolve to stop him and overstep any cultural or religious boundaries there might have been between the British and Yoruban.

The culture clash results in Elesin Oba surviving his expected death when he should not have, and his community is infuriated by the disrespectful incompletion of their traditional rituals. Alongside that, even Jane Pilkings, wife of one of the Europeans that attempts to prevent Elesin’s death, reassesses the weight of their traditions. She asks Elesin’s son, Olunde, why he seems so indifferent about his father’s planned death. Her questioning provides an image that she thinks of their custom as being barbaric and brutal. She supports her husband’s efforts to halt the death of Elesin because death is such a fright and unusual thing to voluntarily do. Though she supports her husband, she is much more aware of the fragile cultural circumstances and differences between the culture of Elesin’s and her own.

This shows that the cultural differences are very heavy and can result in one sabotaging traditions of another.Death and the King’s Horseman takes place in an ancient Yoruba city or kingdom in Nigeria, called Oyo. It is based on a true story that happened in Oyo, 1946. The British neighbors clearly did not understand or bother to appreciate the culture of the indigenous Yoruba, and ended up trying to pick at these traditions in order to try and spread their own vision of what they perceive as ‘right’ or ‘proper’. The play trades off perspectives between the market and British-ruled locations. The market is mainly where the Yoruba celebrate their traditions, while the British locations like the “Residency” and the Pilkingses’ bungalow are more where it has adapted to the culture of the British. This is how the play is structured to decipher the tension between the two completely contrast worlds and how they are divided. Some major characters named in the play include: Elesin Oba, Simon Pilkings and his wife Jane Pilkings. Elesin Oba is introduced to be the main protagonist in this play, which basically revolves around his preparations for suicide to join his late king. Elesin is first shown to be very popular with the ladies, but he does have sons, specifically an estranged son named Olunde.

Elesin is estranged from his son because Olunde wanted to go to England for medical school, which Elesin disapproved on behalf of family traditions and expectations. Olunde ended up being able to go after receiving help from a local British district officer, Simon Pilkings. Because Olunde did not listen to his father and broke his family’s customs, he was disowned. Simon Pilkings, the district officer, works to maintain British law, which is what lead him to interfere with Elesin’s ritual suicide. He did not understand the meaning behind Elesin’s suicide, and did not seem to care to consider the importance of the ritual in Elesin’s culture. Simon does this for his own culture, to not make his people uncomfortable or uneasy. Of course, Simon seems to have good but blindsided intentions in his actions. He is completely unable and/or unwilling to understand the culture of the indigenous Yoruba, but does not want to upset anyone else.

Another example of this is when Simon helps Olunde go to England for medical school. He thought he was helping the future of a young man, when in reality he was letting Olunde break family customs and therefore was the reason for Olunde’s disownment. The thoughts of Simon Pilkings differs greatly from that of his wife’s. Jane Pilkings is the local district manager. Like Simon, Jane also means well but is a little more willing and understanding of the Yoruba culture and traditions. She actually makes effort to understand and learn about their lifestyle, and seems to try to transfer some of that knowledge to her husband. She also shows an interest in the customs of the indigenous people. For example, upon the return of Olunde, Jane talks to him to deeply learn more about the ritual in which Elesin was supposed to commit suicide, and the reasons for it. Political implications in the play show the local British authorities trying, yet failing to manipulate the Yoruba culture for their own political interests. It is heavily implied that the British tried to sway their own lifestyle unto the indigenous. Upon failure of this, some may commit suicide as a form of escapism or as a coping mechanism for their failures.

However, in Yoruba culture, death is less scary and less of a ‘no other option’, but more something that is to be embraced as correct, in certain times. This also leads to lessons that the Death of the King’s Horseman teaches its readers. It prompts readers with questions like, “When is it okay to die? Is there ever a right time to die?” The whole plot of the play revolved around the difference in Yoruba and British perceptions of death, and how it affects both communities. This is also known to be a culture clash, and has an extremely strong presence throughout the whole play.

However, author Wole Soyinka has made it clear that we should not necessarily understand his play to be simply a clash between cultures, but that we learn from it and recognize the differences between them. The differences that exist between the British colonists and the Yoruban indigenous people highlight the importance in preserving the differences in culture.


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