In Act I of “Death and the King’s Horseman,” the audience is introduced to Elesin, horseman of the late king, who now must will himself to die in honor of the death of the king. Reading about a ritual such as this was hard to comprehend at first. In Western cultures, I feel as if it is almost more honorable to continue living after your close friend – as Elesin refers to the King – passes away. We commend others who pick their lives up and keep going after a time a great grieving. However, here, it seems that Elesin’s culture has bound his role of horseman so closely to the King, that he cannot keep living after the king has died.
My interpretation of Elesin is that he is proud to be in the honorable role of the King’s horseman, and that he understands the respect he will gain after he commits the ceremonial suicide. But I do not believe that he is as confident and fearless as he portrays himself to be. Throughout the first act, Elesin and the Praise-Singer go back and forth using sayings, proverbs, and riddles. The Praise-Singer seems to serve as a sounding board for Elesin to bounce his thoughts off of. The riddles that Elesin speaks with are a form of denial of the future he knows he cannot avoid. On page 11, the Praise-Singer scolds Elesin, saying, “When time is short, we do not spend it prolonging the riddle. … Speak now in plain words” (Soyinka 11). The Praise-Singer has lost patience with Elesin’s riddles, and says that “time is short.” However, in this case, the Praise-Singer has not simply become impatient. Elesin literally has little time left on the earth, and there is no use in beating around the bush, ignoring the fact that his death is upon them.
While Elesin uses riddles and confusing words to deny his death at times, he also speaks with over-confident language. On page 10, Elesin says, “I am master of my fate. When the hour comes watch me dance along the narrowing path glazed by the soles of my great precursors. My soul is eager. I shall not turn aside” (10). Speaking to the intimacy of his relationship with the King, he says, “When friendship summons is when the true comrade goes” (10). Despite the women of the town constantly questioning his proposed actions, Elesin stays strong – at least in his words – telling them he knows what he is doing is right, and that “life has an end” and life is honour” (11). It is as if part of Elesin knows that dying and following your King into the afterlife is honorable, but the rest of him has no desire to die and leave the earth. This is seen when he demands to marry the young girl. He knows that he is dying very soon, and as soon as he dies, the fact that he was married for one day will not matter. This decision leaves the reader thinking that maybe Elesin will not go through with the suicide after all. Elesin must will himself to die, and at this point in the play, it does not appear that he has the will to die. He remains wrapped up in the temporary pleasures of this earth.