Death And The King Horseman Analysis

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In an interview with The Guardian (2009) Wole Soyinka explained that the motivation behind writing Death and the King’s Horseman was a bust of colonialist, Winston Churchill. To Soyinka, Churchill signified the breaking of the Yoruba culture and traditions. The idea for the play came from an instance during the colonial period in Nigeria, when the British intervened in the traditional suicide of a king’s horseman.
The title itself already makes reference to a Nigerian ritual in which the horseman of a king must kill himself after the death of the king (McNulty, 2011:2). The biggest event of cultural misunderstanding is evident in Act II when the British Officer, Pilkings, orders that Elesin Oba (the horseman) be arrested. Joseph (the stableboy) tells the Pilkingses how it is tradition for the king to be burried a month after his death but, before he can be burried, his dog, his steed and his horseman must die to be able to accompany him to heaven. For long this tradition is questioned and contested by the Pilkingses because how can something like that make sense to anybody? It is only once Olunde shows up in Act IV that the playwright changes the context. Olunde compares the suicide of the horseman to the mass killing of soldiers. He judges the Western customs of war in the same way the Westerners criticized his traditions and people. And when Simon manages to stop Elesin from killing himself, Olunde turns his back on his father at first, after which all the people from the market insults Elesin. His failure in the task is seen as a weak will.
Another custom that is present is when, in Act II, the officer and his wife are getting ready for a ball and Amusa shows up. Amusa refuses to speak to Pilkings because of his costume, a uniform the Yoruban culture believes brings death. He tells Pilkings to put on other clothes as “It is a matter of death. How can a man talk against death to a person in uniform of death?” p25. The British officer cannot understand the “rubbish” because it is not part of his customs. To him it is clothing – a fun outift to wear to the ball with no abilitiy to cause death. But no matter how he tries to explain it, Amusa keeps strong in his belief.
A simple thing to a Westerner, such as a

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