Language and Tone Mark Shift in Act II of Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman

Many aspects of Soyinka’s use of language made the dialogue in Act I flow like a song. This may have been a result of the frequent use of call and response, but the dialogue between the characters seemed natural and suggested a sense of community and understanding amongst the people.  Perhaps the use of natural and flowing language in Act I is why the beginning of Act II comes as such a shock.  Not only is Act II in a completely different setting, the District Officer’s bungalow, but there is also a major shift in language and tone.  From Act I to Act II, the tone changes from relaxed to rigid and the language shifts from natural to choppy.

Pilkings and Jane’s language is extremely formal and in some instances very fake.  What I mean by “fake” is that Pilkings’ and Jane’s language seems rehearsed and rigid.  Small talk and useless bits of information become prevalent and at some points I felt that Jane was talking simply to hear her own voice.  She makes obvious comments like, “He is dead earnest too Simon.  I think you’ll have to handle this delicately” (19).  And when her comments are not pointless, they are condescending.  The way that Soyinka forms these statements makes it seem as if Jane does not know that she is being condescending—it is simply the way she thinks.  She says of Amusa, “I think you’ve shocked his big pagan heart bless him,” (19) as if he were some poor little animal.  Pilkings’ language also suggests that he has been taught to believe that he is infinitely more important than the native people he has been assigned to look after.  He says, “If they want to throw themselves off the top of a cliff or poison themselves for the sake of some barbaric custom what is that to me?” (25).  Pilkings’ language illustrates his greed and superior attitude.

On the other hand, Amusa and Joseph speak with incorrect grammar that makes them appear uneducated and below Pilkings and Jane.  This is apparent when Amusa addresses Pilkings, “I beg you sir, what you think you do with that dress? It belong to dead cult, not for human being” (19).  Although English is not his native language, this broken English makes him seem incompetent.  Here, the language sets a major distinction between the Europeans and the Yorubans.

The shift in language between Act I and Act II also signals a shift in tone.  Pilkings’ and Jane’s tone is arrogant to say the least and the condescending manner in which they address Amusa and Joseph creates a barrier that was not present before.  In Act I, each character respected what the other was saying and this created a sense of unity and understanding.  Pilkings and Jane address Amusa and Joseph as if they are of another breed, which creates a barrier between the Europeans and the Yoruban people.  We see this when Pilkings forgets Joseph is even in the room until Joseph asks if he can leave.  Pilkings says, “What? Oh, you can go.  Forgot you were still there” (23).  To the Europeans, the Yoruban people are simply servants and lesser beings.

In conclusion, the shift in language and tone in Act II creates a major barrier between the Europeans and Yorubans.  The unity and sense of community present in Act I is no longer present and it becomes clear that there are more problems than just Elesin having to will himself to die.  This clash of cultures is already proving to be an issue that will undoubtedly present more problems later in the play.

-Jessie Krebs


About Jessie Krebs

Jessie Krebs graduated from the University of Richmond in May 2014. Her personal accomplishments include winning multiple belly-flop competitions and mastering a grandma voice she uses for all her imitations. She currently resides in Baltimore, Maryland where she is a self-appointed Citizen On Patrol.
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