Read Death and the King's Horseman by Wole Soyinka Free Online
Book Title: Death and the King's Horseman|
The author of the book: Wole Soyinka
Edition: W. W. Norton & Company
Date of issue: November 5th 2002
ISBN 13: 9780393977615
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 617 KB
City - Country: No data
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Reader ratings: 4.9
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What a delight to read a play again, after quite a while!
Death and the King's Horseman is a classical tragedy, with a distinct dramatic event that triggers the plot. Set in colonial Nigeria, the external conflict circles around the two different value systems of British administrators and local dignitaries. However, Wole Soyinka himself insists in an interview accompanying the play that the setting is secondary, and the individuals are at the centre of attention. The drama could unfold without the intrusion of the British Empire, as it is human, not cultural, in essence.
According to Yoruba belief, the King's horseman has to commit ritual suicide after the king has died, in order to guide the king properly to the next world. In exchange for this community duty, he lives a life of luxury and privilege. Elesin, the main character, however, is prevented from doing his duty during the burial rites for the deceased king, partly because the British administration intervenes, but mostly because he himself hesitates and has a moment of weakness.
His estranged son, who returns from studies in England, commits suicide in his place to restore order in the community, while Elesin kills himself in shame.
So far so good, a classical antigonesque plot: ancient rites versus new government, common laws versus religious duties, family members in disgrace that need to be restored to the way of the ancestors, bravery and cowardice, ... I see many parallel storylines between Sophocles' famous play set in Ancient Greece and Wole Soyinka's modern African version.
The characters have strengths and weaknesses, they all have a point, even though some characters come across as more sympathetic than others. They are fully fleshed out, complete human beings, not stereotypes.
Even the British administration is shown from various angles, demonstrating different levels of understanding. Wole Soyinka makes a clear statement against black and white characters, who are either completely right or wrong. He argues that it depends on his own mood how he judges his own main character, as he can see the actions from different perspectives. This clearly brings Antigone in Sophocles' interpretation to mind. Creon and Antigone are both given the opportunity to develop their thoughts, and both could possibly have acted differently and been justified to do so.
The most interesting character, in my opinion, is Olunde, the Horseman's son, who has spent four years in England to train as a doctor, and who comes back with the idea that he wants to support his old Yoruba tradition. My favourite part of the play is his dialogue with Jane, the most nuanced British character, who tries to understand at least partially how the Yoruba think:
"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."
This strikes me as the most significant difference between the British colonisers and the educated Yoruba: while Olunde has spent his four years trying to see and grasp the British way of life so that he will be able to judge it according to his own knowledge and convictions, the Pilkings and their friends remain childishly ignorant of the real life of the people they claim to rule and educate. They challenge deeply rooted fears and beliefs and cause harm, even within their own community, because they don't understand, and therefore do not respect the thoughts of the people with whom they share their space.
It made me think of society in Europe in the 18th century, when Kant proclaimed that enlightenment was man's release from self-incurred tutelage.
The British colonisers' refusal to make use of knowledge and understanding weakens them, and Elesin's refusal to think things through to the bitter end and see the ultimate consequences of his choices triggers his disgrace and painful, late death.
Olunde symbolises practical reasoning and ability to see which actions lead to specific results. His choices are enlightened, he acts with responsibility and awareness. The message of the play seems to be that each human being will face the consequences of his or her actions, and that childish refusal to see beyond the surface will lead to destructive events.
I thoroughly enjoyed this African take on classical drama, and Wole Soyinka clearly demonstrates his own rootedness both in Western and Yoruba tradition. The paly ends on a hopeful note, with the strong Yoruba woman Iyaloja in charge of the closing remarks:
"Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn."
Outlook on the future. That is a modern take on tragedy.
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Read information about the authorAwarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature for his work that "in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence."
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