Death and the King’s Horseman

Death and the King’s Horseman Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Wole Soyinka's Death and the King’s Horseman. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Wole Soyinka

Soyinka grew up in British-ruled Nigeria. His family was relatively well off; his father was an Anglican minister and the headmaster of a religious school, which meant the family had access to electricity and radio at home. Soyinka studied in Nigeria at a college affiliated with the University of London and relocated to England after graduation, where he pursued an advanced degree at the University of Leeds. The Lion and the Jewel was his second play, and its success allowed him to move to London. Over the next ten years, Soyinka continued to write plays and edit literary periodicals both in England in Nigeria. In the '60s, Soyinka became involved with politics. He was arrested several times and kept in prison for two years, and one of his books was banned in Nigeria. Soyinka wrote Death and the King's Horseman in 1975 during a time of exile from Nigeria, and it's become one of his most famous works. He has been married three times and has five children.
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Historical Context of Death and the King’s Horseman

The story of Death and the King's Horseman is based on real events that took place in Nigeria in 1946, when the English district commissioner attempted to stop the king's horseman from committing ritual suicide. Several historians have noted, however, that the tradition of the king's horseman following the king to the afterlife isn't actually rooted in religious necessity, and that at the time, the king's horseman not being able to commit suicide wouldn't have rocked the community as much as Elesin's failure does in the play. The egungun costumes that the Pilkingses wear are part of the Yoruba religious tradition. The costumes are worn so that the wearer can channel ancestors; this is why Amusa insists that he's actually looking at the dead when he looks at the costumes.

Other Books Related to Death and the King’s Horseman

Many of Wole Soyinka's plays and novels consider similar themes as Death and the King's Horseman, in particular the difficult relationship between traditional Nigerian culture and Western modernization. His other works include his early play The Lion and the Jewel, his novel Season of Anomy, and the memoir Aké: The Years of Childhood. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is another well-known Nigerian novelist who considers the intersections between traditional Nigerian culture and western influence, though in a later time period in Nigerian history. The play Oba Wàjà, which was written by Duro Ladipo and published in the Yoruba language, deals with the same historical event as Death and the King's Horseman.
Key Facts about Death and the King’s Horseman
  • Full Title: Death and the King's Horseman
  • When Written: 1973-74
  • Where Written: Cambridge, England
  • When Published: 1975
  • Literary Period: Postcolonial African Diaspora
  • Genre: Drama, Tragedy
  • Setting: Oyo, Nigeria; sometime during World War Two
  • Climax: Elesin commits suicide
  • Antagonist: Simon Pilkings and the British; Colonialism
  • Point of View: Theater

Extra Credit for Death and the King’s Horseman

Poems from Prison. Soyinka has been critical of corruption in government for much of his life, though he became far more active in his criticisms in the mid-1960s. During his first imprisonment, Soyinka wrote a number of poems and notes on tissue paper criticizing the Nigerian government.

Egungun. The egungun costumes like those the Pilkingses wear are an essential element of the Yoruba religious tradition. The garment covers the wearer completely, and the layers of cloth that make up the garment represent the spirit world and the world of the living. The more elaborate and expensive the cloth is, the wealthier and more powerful the family and the ancestor are.