While Death and the King's Horseman isn't overtly about relationships between men and women, observing the way that all the play's women act and are treated by the men around them offers extensive insight into how women function in Yoruba society and English colonial society alike. In both cultures, women are treated as keepers of culture and as the interpreters of their own cultures for others, suggesting that while women in the play may not have power in the contemporary Western sense of the word, their power lies in translating the meaning and significance of events for others and upholding social order. In theory, at least, women reap the benefits of these actions when the men around them behave appropriately and honor them for their work.
As the only named Yoruba woman in the play, Iyaloja, the mother of the market, is a compelling and powerful character simply by virtue of who she is. She's the only woman willing to question Elesin's intentions to his face when he asks to marry the young woman, and she's the most vocal critic of his choice to marry right before his death. In these situations, Iyaloja reveals that her role in Yoruba society is to ensure that things proceed smoothly and as they should per tradition. It's worth remembering that according to Yoruba religious beliefs, Iyaloja—as well as everyone else in society, women and men alike—benefits from men like Elesin doing what they're supposed to do. While the reader/audience is never told exactly what happens if Elesin fails in his task, it's made abundantly clear that it will negatively affect everyone, both in the land of the living and in the land of the dead. In this way, Iyaloja is working to make sure that everyone benefits and everyone follows the rules, even someone as powerful as Elesin.
The girls who turn Amusa away from the market when he first tries to arrest Elesin perform a similar function. Though unnamed, they nonetheless stop Amusa from ruining an important ritual and distracting Elesin even further from his important task of dying later. They also taunt Amusa for abandoning Yoruba beliefs and choosing to serve the English—in other words, for exiting their society. In this way, the Yoruba female characters demonstrate that their true loyalty is to their belief system and their culture. Anyone who stands in their way, no matter how powerful or what religion they are, will be condemned and dismissed—as evidenced most poignantly when Iyaloja brutally insults Elesin for failing to die and in doing so, dooming the Yoruba people to a horrendous, if undescribed, fate.
Jane Pilkings performs some of the same roles that the Yoruba women do, though the way that her husband treats her suggests that she has nowhere near as much power in her marriage as the Yoruba women do in their society. Jane mostly functions as a fumbling and poorly informed interpreter of Yoruba culture for Pilkings. Though she doesn't understand it, she takes Amusa's unwillingness to look at her and Pilkings in the egungun costumes seriously and attempts to make Pilkings behave respectfully and with more understanding in his interaction with Amusa. In this case, however, Jane has very little power to actually influence her husband's behavior. Pilkings does eventually dismiss Amusa for the night, but he does so out of exasperation and tells Jane that she's just as silly for taking Amusa seriously as Amusa is for taking offense in the first place. While Elesin teases the women and makes sure that he gets his way in whatever he wants, unlike Pilkings, he at least takes Iyaloja's concerns seriously.
Jane also facilitates for the audience a conversation with Olunde that reveals some of the cultural beliefs of the Yoruba people. Importantly, Jane wants to understand, which is more than can be said for Pilkings, but she nevertheless fails to either understand why Elesin must die or pass on information to Pilkings that might make him understand why he shouldn't intervene. However unsuccessful Jane might be in creating any meaningful action or change within the play, the questions that she asks do allow the audience insight into what's going on and why—which, in turn, encourages the reader/audience to see Jane and Pilkings as antagonists, not righteous fighters for a good cause. Put another way, though female characters as a group don't necessarily enjoy any power that comes through action, their power is in what they say and what they can do with their words: unlike the male characters, they can help others understand. Given that all the male characters are unsuccessful in carrying out their goals—Pilkings doesn't stop Elesin from killing himself; Elesin cannot kill himself in the proper manner; and Olunde can't go on to be a doctor or the king’s horseman—the play elevates the power of speech and communication over action, and suggests that it's only thanks to those who play an interpretive role that society will function properly.
Women and Power ThemeTracker
Women and Power Quotes in Death and the King’s Horseman
Praise-Singer: They love to spoil you but beware. The hands of women also weaken the unwary.
Elesin: This night I'll lay my head upon their lap and go to sleep. This night I'll touch feet with their feet in a dance that is no longer of this earth. But the smell of their flesh, their sweat, the smell of indigo on their cloth, this is the last air I wish to breathe as I go to meet my great forebears.
Jane: Simon, you really must watch your language. Bastard isn't just a simple swear-word in these parts, you know.
Pilkings: Look, just when did you become a social anthropologist, that's what I'd like to know.
Jane: I'm not claiming to know anything. I just happen to have overheard quarrels among the servants. That's how I know they consider it a smear.
Amusa: The chief who call himself Elesin Oba.
Woman: You ignorant man. It is not he who calls himself Elesin Oba, it is his blood that says it. As it called out to his father before him and will to his son after him. And that is in spite of everything your white man can do.
- One might even say, difficult?
- Indeed one might be tempted to say, difficult.
- But you do manage to cope?
- Yes indeed I do. I have a rather faithful ox called Amusa.
- He's loyal?
- Lay down his life for you what?
- Without a moment's thought.
- Had one like that once. Trust him with my life.
- Mostly of course they are liars.
- Never known a native to tell the truth.
Then tell him to leave this market. This is the home of our mothers. We don't want the eater of white left-overs at the feast their hands have prepared.
Our marriage is not yet wholly fulfilled. When earth and passage wed, the consummation is complete only when there are grains of earth on the eyelids of passage. Stay by me till then. My faithful drummers, do me your last service. This is where I have chosen to do my leave-taking, in this heart of life, this hive which contains the swarm of the world in its small compass. This is where I have known love and laughter away from the palace.
Olunde (mildly): And that is the good cause for which you desecrate an ancestral mask?
Jane: Oh, so you are shocked after all. How disappointing.
Olunde: No I am not shocked Mrs. Pilkings. You forget that I have now spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand.
Olunde: I don't find it morbid at all. I find it rather inspiring. It is an affirmative commentary on life.
Jane: What is?
Olunde: The captain's self-sacrifice.
Jane: Nonsense. Life should never be thrown deliberately away.
Olunde: And the innocent people round the harbour?
Jane: Oh, how does anyone know? The whole thing was probably exaggerated anyway.
Olunde: That was a risk the captain couldn't take.
Elesin: Go to the gates, ghostly one. Whatever you find there, bring it to me.
Iyaloja: Not yet. It drags behind me on the slow, weary feet of women. Slow as it is, Elesin, it has long overtaken you. It rides ahead of your laggard will.
No child, it is what you brought to be, you who play with strangers' lives, who even usurp the vestments of our dead, yet believe that the stain of death will not cling to you. The gods demanded only the old expired plantain but you cut down the sap-laden shoot to feed your pride. There is your board, filled to overflowing. Feast on it.