Examination of Death and the King’s Horseman Book by Wole Soyinka
UNDERSTANDING WOLE SOYINKA’S “DEATH AND THE KING’S HORSEMAN”
An issue worth noting in Wole Soyinkas Death and the Kings Horseman involves his prefatory remarks and the impact they have on the meaning of the story. While Soyinka, in his preface, forcefully rails against readers who would make his play into a portrayal of “culture clash”, actual reading of the story does draw significant attention to cultural tension. More specifically, the portions of the play dealing with culture raise interesting ideas about understanding and respect. Fueling a dilemma, Soyinka directs readers to instead see the plays “threnodic essence”, dealing with Elesin and the natives perceptions of death and transition into death – which makes up the other significant portion of the play. The questions that result are whether the reader should ignore the “culture clash” tendencies of the play, instead focusing solely on the “threnodic essence,” and consequently, if ignoring the “culture clash” means its themes of understanding and respect have no worth or value in the play. However, the problem can be reconciled and the two apparently contrasting interpretations of the story can be integrated through a linking theme of understanding. A theme investigating human understanding is found running through both the central “threnodic” and the “culture-clash” themes, unifying them and allowing them to coexist. Ultimately, this underlying theme of the play shows how all humans struggle with understanding – both with each other and with death.
First, the theme of understanding is explored throughout sections of the play involving the English colonists and their cultural tension (to avoid using the word “clash” which Soyinka believes mistakenly assumes an equality of cultures) with the native Yoruba people. In Act 2, the District Officer, Pilkings, and his wife, Jane, first confront the theme of understanding when they dress up for a ball wearing native death costumes. They see no problem with it, but Mr. Pilkings employee, Amusa, a native policeman, is frightened by them wearing the costumes, believing it to be bad for people to touch this cloth of death. “I think youve shocked his big pagan heart bless him,” Jane says in reaction (pg 24). Their Christian background, which doesnt include knowledge of Nigerian spiritual life, has not prepared the Pilkings to understand, in Mr. Pilkings words, “any mumbo-jumbo” (pg 24). Although this situation could be looked at on the surface as “clash of cultures,” a deeper conflict, involving understanding and respect relating to each other and to death, is also present.
Later in the play, illustrating the lack of understanding the Pilkings continue to harbor, Jane, who is still wearing the costume, meets with Elesins European educated son, Olunde. “I have now spent four years among your people,” Olunde says. “I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand” (pg 50). Jane is angry with his view, but they continue to visit. Jane brings up the story of a ship captain who sacrificed himself for the lives of many others. Olunde views the captains act of dying for others – which ironically parallels Elesins death ritual – as admirable, but Jane fails to understand how it could be admirable. Olunde is frustrated at her inability to try to understand or at least to respect that someone else might have a different view of death from her own. You (Western people) believe that everything which appears to make sense was learnt from you,” he says (pg 53). This scene seems well suited to a “clash of cultures” interpretation, but looking past the context of culture as Soyinka wishes, it can also be seen as an examination of the basic human understanding of death, and the roadblocks humans encounter – both cultural (in Janes case) and spiritual (in the case of Elesin and the natives). We are shown that it is almost impossible for Jane, as a human, to understand and respect these ideas which she has been conditioned against.
At the end of the story, when Mr. Pilkings is talking with Elesin in the cell, the theme of understanding is once more brought out. “You dont quite understand it all but you know that tonight is when what ought to be must be brought about,” Elesin tells Mr. Pilkings (pg 62). In this sentence, Elesin alludes to both his death ritual and the cultural gap, uniting the threnodic and cultural themes into one of understanding. Finally, Olunde, talking with Pilkings – who he thinks has just come from witnessing Elesins death – sums up a main aspect of the theme of understanding which relates to both cultural differences and death, saying, “you must know by now there are things you cannot understand – or help” (pg 58).
But the play is not completely – in fact it is only in small part – just a struggle of understanding for the colonists. The larger struggle is inside the minds of Elesin and the Yoruba people as they try to understand death and the transition into death. In the first scene, this is especially apparent as Elesin prepares for death and the Praise-singer spouts a flood of questions aimed at finding answers to the mystery of death. “There is only one world to the spirit of our race,” the Praise-singer says. “If that world leaves its course and smashes on boulders of the great void, whose world will give us shelter?” (pg 11) Here he is trying to gain understanding about what would happen if Elesin isnt successful in carrying out his death ritual. He struggles to know what their fate would be. Later, as Elesin is further into his transition into death, the Praise-singer asks him questions about what he is experiencing, hoping to gain an understanding. “Is there now a streak of light at the end of the passage, a light I dare not look upon?” he asks. “Does it reveal whose voices we often heard, whose touches we often felt, whose wisdoms come suddenly into the mind when the wisest have shaken their heads and murmured; It cannot be done?” (pg 44) He continues, “Your eyelids are glazed like a courtesans, is it that you see the dark groom and master of life?” (pg 44 – 45) In these passages, the Praise-singer represents our “human” questions, and he hopes Elesin, in his half-earthly, half-heavenly state, will help him to understand. But Elesin can not answer him, and all remains a mystery.
Near the end of the story, the theme of understanding again shows through when Elesin is pondering his failure to fulfill the death ritual. “I need understanding. Even I need to understand,” he says (pg 69). He laments his weakness but also his lack of understanding that led to his failure. “My will was squelched in the spittle of an alien race, and all because I had committed this blasphemy of thoughtthat there might be the hand of the gods in a strangers intervention,” he says (pg 69). He realizes that his failure was tied to a misunderstanding, believing that perhaps the intervention of the colonists was the work of the gods. He is frustrated at his weakness and the catastrophe that came to be as a result. Soon after this realization, Iyaloja reinforces the theme of understanding while arguing with Pilkings. “Child,” she says, “I have not come to help your understanding. [Points to Elesin] This is the man whose weakened understanding holds us in bondage to you” (pg 71). The play ends sadly, with Iyaloja reminding Elesins new bride to “forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn” (pg 76). Neither an understanding of people nor death has been reached, but considerable examination and contemplation has occurred – and that is the point. As Iyaloja suggests, we can only concentrate on the future and continue trying to understand our world and the world beyond life.
Death and the Kings Horseman is an intensely complex play which undoubtedly examines many themes. However, an examination of human understanding permeates most every scene and situation and plays a role in most every other theme in the play – especially themes concerning cultural relations and death. Although Soyinka tries to discount completely the presence of a “culture clash,” this is a case where the authors intent is not the same as what actually presents itself in the play. By renaming cultural themes as themes involving understanding, it is possible to incorporate the cultural themes into the play without disturbing or drawing too much attention away from the threnodic theme Soyinka promotes. And, in fact, incorporating culture only adds extra richness and complexity to the play and to the theme of understanding.
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