In the play Death and the King’s Horseman, Wole Soyinka allows death to function outside of the people in the play and work as a character of its own. This is seen in the title of the play. It is not The Death of the King’s Horseman or The King’s Horseman and his Death. The title reads “death” as a separate character from “the King’s Horseman.” The most important role of death in the play is in fact not that of the King’s Horseman, but rather the way death functions in both societies.
In the Yoruban culture, death is not something that is feared. It moves you past the earthly confines of the body and moves your soul to a better place. Death also functions as a means to achieve honor in the society. Elesin’s death would affirm that he lived dutifully and would save his people. When he fails to die and shatters his chances of attaining this honorable status, it is his son Olunde who steps up and fulfills what his father could not. Death is not something that either man fears, but rather something that should bring honor.
When Elesin kills himself at the end of the play, death functions in a different way. It is an escape. He has nothing left to live for and has shamed himself by not dying when he was meant to. He swiftly kills himself, without thought, which reflects his connection to the Yoruba culture’s idea of death. In the final line of the play, Iyaloja says, “Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn” (63). She emphasizes the insignificance of death in the society, but also acknowledges its role. It is responsible for making the unborn, the future, attainable. Olunde’s death shows the honor and importance of dying in the culture, while Elesin’s death shows the shame that comes from not doing what is necessary for the future.
Death functions in different way for the European society. The people feel like death should never be a choice, but life should be cherished. The have a much stronger connection to their earthly selves than the Yoruba people. This is seen when Jane says, “Life should never be thrown deliberately away” (42). She is justifying why Elesin should be stopped, but at the same time, she is showing a great hypocrisy in the European culture. Stopping Elesin’s death is vital to them, but they are so willing to kill other people to prevent it. Iyaloja asks Pilkings, “To prevent one death you will actually make other deaths?” (59). This underlines the need for control of the Europeans. They have no problem killing someone, but to let them kill themselves is seen as wrong. This role of death contrast with the Yoruba idea.
This European mentality persists is our society today. Suicide is seen as the ultimate sin, but wars continue to result in casualty after casualty. Perhaps dying for a cause is what justifies death. In this case, Olunde’s death should been seen as admirable. Olunde is dying to save his people and to restore honor. It is then important to ask if the Europeans are justified in causing deaths to maintain in power. Are those justified deaths? The motivation and rationale for death is subjective and complex. There is not universal answer, but rather different classifications based on cultural norms in a society. This is why Soyinka uses death in complex ways and allows it to function outside of the characters and take on a role of its own.