In the play Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka, Elesin shapes his identity in many different ways. Soyinka calls into question issues of nobility and doing what is best for the greater good, as well as honor and the influence women have over men. The play opens with Elisen, the horseman of the king, returning to the market to enjoy his last day of life before he sacrifices himself. Right from the opening scene, Soyinka emphasizes the perception that though a man is judged based on his honor and position, which comprise his identity, women have the power to distract men from their ultimate goals and lead to their downfall.
One’s duty or role in society dictates his or her destiny and how they are viewed by others. Upon Elesin’s return, the Praise-Singer notes that “a man is either born to his art or he isn’t” (5). This statement implies that one’s position in society indicates how much one is admired by its other inhabitants. Also, the blunt tone of this statement indicates that there is not much room for movement within this societal hierarchy. One is given or earns a position, and is expected to fulfill the duties it entails. Elesin Oba is scheduled to voluntarily sacrifice his life because it is customary for the King’s horseman to do so after the death of the King. Thus, Elesin’s fate is determined by his position within society. On this day before Elesin’s death, “the women will cover [him] in damask and alari,” (5) two very elaborate and expensive cloth materials, as a sign of adoration. The other members of society have a great amount of respect for Elesin as this is considered an extremely honorable death. Elesin knows this is the case, and takes great pride in the attention he gets for being the king’s horseman.
A man’s honor and dignity are also key factors in determining one’s identity, especially for Elesin. Upon discussing Elesin’s impending fate, Elesin says, “My fame, my honour are legacies to the living” (6). The Praise-Singer responds by saying that Elesin’s legacy will be passed down to future generations and never be forgotten. The fact that he will be remembered and revered by many for his honorable sacrifice well into the future is a huge incentive for Elesin to go through with the death ritual. The importance of honor and nobility in one’s identity is further emphasized when Elesin notes that “life is honour. It ends when honour ends” (11). According to Elesin, life has no meaning if one does not maintain his honor, nobility, and dignity by executing all areas of his position. Thus, how well one meets the expectations of his duty also heavily influences Elesin’s perception of his own identity. Soyinka, however, calls into question the role women play in a man’s ability to perform his tasks.
Women are viewed as a gender which men crave, but of which they should also be wary. Elesin announces that he plans to marry a beautiful girl that evening and spend his last day alive with her to consummate their marriage. Upon hearing this plan, the Praise-Singer is quick to warn Elesin that women “love to spoil you but beware. The hands of women also weaken the unwary” (6). The Praise-Singer is implying that Elesin may not want to proceed with the ritualistic sacrificing of his life if he marries this woman. Elesin’s eyes are also described as “restless” when associated with women, and Iyaloja even warns him not to make any rash last-minute decisions to jeopardize his honor. This sacrifice is of huge importance to the good of the people, and they recognize the “world is in [his] hands” (13). Thus, Elesin’s attraction to these women elevates the chances that the honorable sacrifice will not go as planned. Consequently, Elesin’s own honor and the well-being of the community would cease to exist, leaving him hated and robbing him of the identity he has cultivated for himself.
Elesin’s identity is derived from his position as the king’s horseman, the respect of the people, and his honor and legacy. However, Soyinka creates a sense of foreboding in this first section despite the generally upbeat tone. The myriad of warnings from various characters creates the feeling that something might happen to prevent Elesin from sacrificing his life. Based on the subject matter of these warnings, one might predict that a woman will interfere with his plans, causing him to lose his honor, dignity, and identity.
– Cassaundra Fincke