Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman is, in essence, a contemplation of the nature of intelligence and maturity, and its lack of connection to the idea of a classical education. Soyinka uses characters from Europe and Africa to draw a contrast between types of intelligences, and force the reader to consider the idea that a typical, European education does not necessarily warrant meaningful, real-world intellectualism. Although this idea is a constant thread from the beginning of the play to its end, the theme becomes most prominent in Act 5. The hierarchy established by the conversations between Elesin, Pilkings, and Iyaloja serve to create a dynamic of intellectual inequality, with Iyaloja as the most mature and worldly and Pilkings as the most naïve and ignorant, with Elesin fitting squarely in between the two. Both Pilkings and, to some extent Elesin, are blinded by their own arrogance. Ironically, Iyaloja, who is technically the least powerful of the three characters, comes across as the wisest.
Act 5 opens with a debate between Elesin and Pilkings concerning the nature of duty. In this conversation, it feels as though Elesin has a deeper understanding of the extent of the wrongdoings committed by Pilkings. Regardless of Elesin’s poetic explanation of the nature in which he was wronged, Pilkings shrugs it him by saying that they simply “see [their] dut[ies] differently” (Soyinka, 51). Stubbornly, Pilkings insists that he has no regrets. His inferiority to Elesin is manifested in the form of his stubborn ignorance, and the reader is left with the distinct impression that the two of them are on different planes of wisdom, regardless of whether or not the reader identifies with the accuracy of Elesin’s beliefs. Whether or not Elesin’s tribe is doomed, it is almost impossible to argue against the statement that Pilkings messed around in business he should never have been involved in.
After Soyinka builds up Elesin’s maturity, he tears it down again in a conversation with Iyaloja. Iyaloja berates Elesin for failing the community, and for convincing his tribe that he could completely a duty that he could not. Elesin does not protest, and barely protests as she mocks his false grandeur and reminds him of her various unheeded warnings.
The effect that this passage creates is a change in the way the reader views Elesin. Although events in Act 1 (such as his stubborn insistence on laying with his mysterious bride) gave hints of Elesin’s arrogance and naievete, this is the first time in the play in which his flaws are clearly, and almost inarguably, laid out before him. Iyaloja saw this coming and warned Elesin against it, and her wisdom and foresight are more prominent than Elesin.
Soyinka is clearly making a statement about a lapse between power and maturity. Pilkings is the most powerful character in this conversation. He was able to imprison Elesin and disrupt the community’s most important religious tradition. He is also, however, the most ignorant. His European education and official denotation of power do not reflect a level of maturity or intelligence. Elesin, the most powerful and commonly worshipped member of his tribe, is exposed as a false hero who uses a mask of arrogance to conceal his lack of ability to perform the task required of him. He was unable to foresee the fact that he would fail, thereby dooming his community to years of suffering. Iyaloja, who is subordinate to both Elesin and Pilkings, seems to be the only character with her wits about her. She foresaw and warned against the events that took place, accurately picks apart Elesin’s mistakes, and talks to Pilkings as if he is beneath her, evening referring to him as a child on page 48.
Soyinka wants to make it clear to the reader that those who holds positions of power, regardless of their credentials, are not always the ones most suited for those positions. Elesin and Pilkings egos were both falsely inflated by their surrounding circumstances, and in the end, both make irrevocable mistakes and cause an untold amount of suffering. Soyinka urges the reader to consider the nature of intelligence and maturity, and contemplate the idea that those qualities may be created in as straight forward a fashion as is generally imagined.
– Matt Pura