Power Without Power

In the final act of Death and the King’s Horseman there exists an interesting distribution of power among the various characters and groups. Those who think they are in power are frequently not, and those who are not usually in power often are shown to lose what they once had.

The first display of such abnormal power distribution occurs between Pilkings and Elesin. Pilkings considers himself to be in control of the situation, but clearly has little actual control, but instead only has power in the form of artificial and material methods. Elesin clearly speaks in a dominant voice, informing Pilkings’ of how greatly he misunderstood the culture and how little control Pilkings’ should have over such an event. Elesin continuously contradicts everything Pilkings’ says, and since the discussion is about Elesin’s culture he is more or less placed in the right. While up to this point in the play there has been conflict between the foreigners and the natives, this is the first time that Pilkings’ has been directly confronted by any of the native citizens. “Yes white man, I am sure you advised it. You advise all our lives, though on the authority of what gods, I do not know.”(52) Here Elesin speaks with blatant hostility of exactly how they perceive the invaders interference with their lives. While Elesin’s culture is dependent on what their traditions and religion says, Pilkings’ acts without religion or tradition, and instead simply makes decisions based on what his culture says thinking it is his own decision.

This power difference is emphasized most in the action of the final scene. With Elesin’s final actions he takes the power away from the English completely. The decisions made by the English about the culture were deemed largely irrelevant by his actions; their attempts to keep him alive and prevent him from completing the ceremony could not be prevented, he was in the end the one in control of his decision. While they had interfered in the original attempt, Elesin is implied throughout the play to be hesitant about his death and to subconsciously have used Pilkings as an escape, basically invalidating Pilkings’ involvement. His final action emphasizes this possibility, in turn invalidating most of the English actions throughout the play, implying that their involvement has little impact, if any.

The entire play England claims control, claims understanding, and claims to be benefiting the natives. With this last act all of these are invalidated. While England acts like they are in control, with guards, rules, and weapons, they don’t have any actual control over the people. While they think they understand the natives, they are informed endlessly they do not, and they simply can’t understand the importance of this event. Finally, they are informed by Iyaloja of how much help they’ve been: “Why do you strain yourself? Why do you labour at tasks for which no one, not even the man lying there, would give you thanks? He is gone at last into the passage but oh, how late it all is. His son will feast on the mat and throw him bones. The passage is clogged with droppings from the King’s stallion; he will arrive all stained in dung.”(62) They are still trying to do something no one wants them to do, they are still trying to “help” these natives. Instead, though, they have done nothing but harm the society and ruin Elesin’s afterlife.

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