Mixed Signals

The entire first act of Death and King’s Horseman centers on Elesin’s witty banter and preparations for both his death and marriage.  He is to be married as a celebration and yet he will be killed the same night because it is his duty to the late king.  Although Elesin seems to outwardly embrace this custom and his death, the fact that he is also preparing to be married does not support his eagerness.

Marriage is a time of beginnings and a way to start a new chapter in one’s life.  Elesin is getting married to a young woman from his village.  This would suggest that he wants to create a life with her and possibly have children, create a home, and share the rest of their lives together.  However, the usual goals of marriage do not apply for Elesin because he is going to be killed as soon as the wedding is over (or at least very shortly after).  He seems to be alright with this order of events as he sings and laughs.  He even talks about how he wants to spend his last moments, claiming “This night I’ll lay my head upon their lap and go to sleep.  This night I’ll touch feet with their feet in a dance that is no longer of this earth.  But the smell of their flesh, their sweat, the smell of indigo on their clothes, this is the last air I wish to breathe as I go to meet my forebears” (6).  In this quote, he is describing both the sensual relations he hopes to have as well as the way he will end his life – two very different ideas intertwined out of necessity in his situation.   Elesin seems completely at peace with his impending death, but how can this be true if he is going through with a wedding?  If he were truly comfortable with moving on to the next life in honor of his king, he would be tying up loose ends and saying goodbyes, not preparing for marriage.  This plan gives a whole new time frame to “Til death do us part,” but more importantly, it seems like a form of denial rather than an acceptance of death.

This idea that Elesin is in denial is further explored in his recital of the story about the “Not-I bird.”  The fact that the bird denies his coming death, playfully singing “Not I” mirrors Elesin’s attitude.  He sings of how “Death came calling” and then asks “Did you hear it?” to which the farmer, the hunter, the courtesan, his kinsman Ikawomi, and the courier all respond “Not I” (7-8).  Elesin’s telling of this tale may suggest that he too wishes he did not hear death calling and could respond with the care-free although perhaps naïve answer of “Not I.”  The fact that Elesin is not as eager to greet death as he acts is expected.  We are meant to embrace life and want to live as long as possible, but for Elesin, this is not an option, resulting in mixed emotions as he wants to honor his king but continue to live his life as well.

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