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The Importance of Individual Duty – Death and the King’s Horseman

Rights and Duties are an integral part of everyone’s life. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, for this world to go on if we do not assume our rights and duties. As Nelson Rockefeller said, I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation, every possession, a duty. Everyone in this world has some duty to perform, ranging from the head of the country to run the county to a common man to earn bread for his household. Wole Soyinka in his play Death and the King’s horseman shows the commitment of the characters towards their duties and the conflicts that arise when they try to fulfill their duties.

Wole Soyinka shows Elesin as a person who enjoys a luxurious life of rich food and fine clothing, the rewards of a man of his position. He enjoys all the fame thinking of it as his right of being a king’s horseman who after the death of the king will accompany him to the after world. In return for these rights, Elesin has to perform his religious duty, towards his king, of committing the ritual suicide after the death of the king. But the human nature of self-interest and selfishness overrides his duties after the death of the king. ‘A weight of longing on my (his) earth-held limbs’’ (1010) that is, because of the worldly pleasures, he betrays his master by not having the will to commit the ritual suicide. And thus, Elesin gives in to the temptation of having his life prolonged so that he can enjoy the company of his new bride. On the one hand, Wole presents a character like Elesin, who refuses to fulfil his duty for fulfilling his earthly desires. On the other hand, there is Amusa, who being a Yoruban himself, is “a police officer in the service of his majesty’s government” (984).

Amusa’s religious duty is to let the ritual take place as it has been since centuries, but his duty towards the British Government is exactly opposite to his religious duty. Being a police officer, he has to stop the suicide ritual to protect the British law. Amusa is one of those people who keep their duty to the British ahead of their duty to the religion. The extent to which Amusa is conditioned to obeying the British orders is clearly seen when the marketplace women speak in the formal English accent, his mind takes it as his superiors’ orders and replies ‘‘Yessir’’(993).

Amusa reports to Simon Pilkings, who is a British officer keen to fulfil his duties. Simon always believes he is ‘‘trying to do for you (Yorubans). ”, “For your people (Yorubans)’’ (1001). Thus, when he hears about the suicide ritual that he considers “barbaric”, he quickly orders to arrest Elesin and keep peace while the prince is visiting his colony. Soyinka presents another character called Iyaloja, who is the mother of the marketplace and a symbol of the African traditions, values and power. Despite of her duty towards her family, especially her son, she focuses on her duty towards her religion.

When Elesin points out towards her To-Be-Daughter-In-Law, she tries to convince him by telling him that ‘‘she is (already) betrothed’’; ‘‘even those who leave town to make a new dwelling elsewhere like to be remembered by what they leave behind’’, and he is ‘‘not one who eats and leaves nothing on his plate for children’’(981). But as George Bernard Shaw said, ‘‘When a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty. ’’ In the same manner, Elesin says that it is his duty to die without ‘‘burdens of waste and longing’’ (982).

Therefore, Iyaloja hands down her ruling believing that the curses of those on the “other side” are much greater than the curses of her own son. And thus starts preparing for Elesin’s wedding and death. Olunde, who is Elesin’s son, is a great example of love and respect to one’s traditions and values. When he finds out about King’s death, following the rituals, he comes after a month to bury his father. Considering it as his duty towards his religion, he does not allow the love for his father come in the way of the love for his religion.

But when he finds out about his father’s failure to fulfil his duties towards the king, he decides to commit suicide in place of his father to lead the king in the after world and save the universe from the brutal damage that his father brought. Wole Soyinka has artistically presented the duties that different people need to fulfill in this play. But apart from assuming their single duties, there are characters which come across the conflicts in their duties: they stand on a two-way road to decide whether they should fulfill their duty towards their families or towards their religion.

For example, Iyaloja has a conflict whether she should protest Elesin’s demand for her To-Be-Daughter-In-Law or let the ritual go without any hindrance. Amusa has a conflict to perform the duty towards the Britain officials or let the ceremony go without informing his supervisors. Olunde has a conflict to save his father and his love towards his father or let him perform his duty towards the king and bury his father. Wole presents us with yet another type of conflict which is between the duties of different people.

For example, Elesin’s duty is to die, but Amusa’s and Simon’s duty is to not let him die. Thus, in Death and The King’s Horseman, we see various kinds of conflicts that people encounter and how they try to solve them. While there are conflicts of duties among so many people, there is bound to be some harm to someone. The outcomes that these conflicts bring are not always likeable. We see how Iyaloja has to give up her To-Be-Daughter-In-Law, how Amusa has to face the shame in front of his tribe, and how Olunde has to give his life to save his family’s honour and to fulfill his father’s duty.

Elesin has a conflict whether he should have a long life accompanying his new bride or to die and save the peace of the universe. He chooses to live and enjoy the worldly pleasures. But as Joseph Newton said, ‘‘A duty dodged is like a debt unpaid; it is only deferred, and we must come back and settle the account at last’’, Elesin has to repay the debt of betraying his master and the universe by losing his honour, his son’s life and his own life without his will.

Thus, Wole points out how a person’s decision to assume his/her duty can lead to various outcomes. Keeping in view different sides of human nature, Wole shows in Death and The King’s Horseman the concept of individual duty, how a person deals with internal as well as external dilemmas while assuming his/her duties, how he/she decides what to give preference to, and how to decide which duty to perform.

He also gives us a lesson as to how as human beings, we should solve the dilemmas we are faced with in our daily lives and consider in advance what the outcomes will be if we take even a single wrong decision. Works Cited Soyinka, Wole. “Death and the King’s Horseman. ” 1975. The Longman Anthology World Literature. Ed. David Damrosch and David L. Pike. Vol. F. Newyork: Longman, 2004. . Print

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