Wole Soyinka: Death And The King’s Horseman Essay, Research Paper
In his play, Death and the King’s Horseman, Wole Soyinka would have us examine every clash and conflict, save for the one involving culture. Certainly this may seem the most obvious part of the play, but we would do the general understanding of Death a disservice if we ignored one of the central conflicts in the play. Every element of the play is placed in terms of two extremes, and the cultures must be considered one of those pairs. Suicide is no exception to this examination; it must be seen in the conflicting lights that Soyinka gives us: British vs. Yoruban, physical vs. metaphysical, personal vs. social; and an expression of failure vs. a form of redemption. In examining how the play divides suicide so completely through these lenses, we can better understand the actions of Elesin and Olunde.In the Yoruban world, it is clear that everything exists in a large backdrop of history and awareness of the gods and the universe. While living is a personal experience, everyone is a fragment of reality. Thus every action has an impact on everything. All Yorubans and the entire world are interconnected. This is why the community is so close and so attentive when it comes time for Elesin to follow his king to the afterworld. Elesin’s suicide is a communal act. It affects everyone, alive or dead, because it has little to do with Elesin personally. It is not his choice or decision; it is something that will happen. So, on one hand, suicide is a social act in this play.However, if we examine the lenses that Soyinka gives us to see his play, we can see the conflicts develop. In the Western world, suicide is mainly seen as a personal experience. Although there is religion – Christianity – there is nothing that ties the death of one person to another in the supernatural world. If you kill yourself, that’s it. You face God separately from everyone else; your life is viewed by itself. This is closely connected to the Western belief of free will. No one forces anyone to commit suicide; the definition tells us that this is a voluntary situation. So this is clearly the personal part of suicide that is present in Death. And we can see the line that divides personal and communal aspects of suicide in the tenuous position of British occupation of the Yoruba.But there is still a similarity – suicide is seen to affect everyone involved. However, there is a stark difference even in this similarity. The power of suicide on the living is physical in the Western world, and metaphysical in the Yoruban world. In Britain, the sadness comes from missing someone who clearly left the world too early – before God called them. In Africa, the sadness comes from worrying about the destruction of the universe because tradition has been broken. So we arrive back where we started; the Yorubans consider everything in terms of a larger consciousness; Westerns in terms of personal freedom and experience. When all these ideologies are forced to coalesce during the colonial occupation, Elesin’s situation is bound to happen. The clash of all these opposing ideas creates the conflict that makes Death and the King’s Horseman. When Elesin’s mind is given a taste of the English belief of free will, he is tempted away from his birth culture. The idea that the world does not rest on his shoulders, that the afterlife of the Yoruba might be false, and that he might continue to live until God chooses to strike him down (and enjoy the splendors of life and sex) creates a hole in his core beliefs. The taste is too much and too little; it nags in the back of his mind and eventually causes his downfall at the time of his expected suicide. Suicide becomes personal, physical, and scary. And so he runs away recklessly to the Westerners. Yet the fact that Elesin lives is a failure to the Yorubans and, although a momentary success, eventually becomes a failure as well to the British. He is forced to make a bad decision because he does not fully understand the conflicting views on life and death. British beliefs are barely understood by him, and never closely scrutinized. And thus ignorance is the real catalyst for Elesin’s downfall.However, as with every pair of opposites, there is also an enlightened man in Soyinka’s work. Olunde is the only person in the play who seems to fully understand both cultures, and see the many open conflicts that are created by the colonial presence. And this knowledge gives Elesin the ability to redeem his culture, and perhaps even the British themselves.For any action to be a redemptive act, it can only come after a failure. Its purpose is to rectify and make amends for that failure. As to be expected, the redemptions and failures are different depending on which side you choose to look at them. In fact, the idea of redemption and failure is itself a pair of opposing views with which to view the rest of the play. A failure for the British is redemption for the Yoruban, and vice versa. The differences and parallels are almost absolute, and all of them define the action of the play.Elesin’s inability to commit suicide in the hint of the lure of British beliefs is a resounding failure for the Yoruban culture. The actual act of suicide itself will never be a failure for the natives, whereas suicide is always considered a failure in the Western world. People commit suicide as a result of a failure to cope with the world in the West. In the native culture, it is the opposite. Elesin refuses commit suicide because he cannot cope with the world in Africa. So certainly when Elesin finally hangs himself in jail, the British take it as a failure; but so do the Yorubans. Do not think that this is a strong similarity, though. It is a standard failure to cope to the British; it is too little, too late for the Yoruban. Because the concern is metaphysical, and everyone is connected, the timing must coincide with the world for Elesin’s people. For the British, it is still a physical and personal experience. Time and space depend on the individual, and thus suicide cannot accomplish anything but personal end. There is never a reason for suicide in Western society, so it is useless and futile.However, there is a still a redemptive side to suicide. For the Yoruba, Olunde steps into his place at the right time to attempt to redeem their metaphysical world. By pouring his life into his father’s role, he appeases the world and sends a horseman after the King. At the same time, suicide can be a redemptive situation in Western society, but it must be framed physically, not metaphysically. Perhaps the best example of this is the one given by Soyinka in the middle of the play: if a man kills himself to save others (in this case a captain destroying a ship), he is a hero. Thus suicide can be redemptive for both cultures. Olunde is able to redeem the Yoruba because he can see every lens presented by Soyinka. Through his education, the taste his father received of British culture is well developed in him. He understands the British virtues of free will and personal space, and he understands the problems as his father did not. The Western world does not know its beliefs as reality; they remain beliefs. So Olunde can compare and does what his father could not – think through both, and understand that his world is the controlling factor. The metaphysical world of the Yoruba overpowers anything supernatural in the Western world, and this is clearly why Olunde chooses suicide over running away. He still believes in the cosmic significance of the death of the king’s horseman.It seems that physically and personally, in the British world, Olunde’s death is a tragedy. He studied medicine and was enlightened by British standards, and could have helped the Yorubans with the Westerners immensely. The loss of Olunde is horrible because he could have done so much. Yet, in a way not dissimilar to Romeo and Juliet, the suicide creates much-needed awareness about the tragedies that can result when power is wielded unthinkingly by the British. The future is still extremely uncertain – as they wait for the unborn – but certainly Pilkings has been forced to understand his own ignorance the powers of the Yoruba by the end of the play. This does not mean he will change, but without Olunde’s – the enlightened native – suicide, there would be no chance for understanding. So, in an odd way, Olunde’s suicide redeems the physical British world by creating better awareness of the problems of colonial occupation. At the end of Death and the King’s Horseman, instead of presenting another pair of opposing views, Soyinka chooses to give us uncertainty. We don’t know if the Yoruban culture will be repaired, or if the British will begin to realize the importance of the native culture. This is left deliberately vague, because if it were certain one way or the other, we would all be forced to come to the same conclusion about the actions in the play. If the child is born, and Pilkings becomes a benevolent lawmaker, then it is clear that Olunde died for a just cause. If, on the other hand, the child dies, and the British crush all signs of Yoruban culture, it is clearly the suicide of the first Western-educated Yoruban that contributed significantly to the beginning of the end. Because we don’t know the end, we are forced to compare the consequences and benefits of suicide in light of opposing views.