Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s essay on Soyinka’s “Death and the King’s Horseman” is a very interesting read because it keeps going back to the idea that Soyinka’s play is rooted to the Greek tragedy. Gates describes the play’s structure as “classically Greek” (155) and claims the “adaptation of a historical action at a royal court was compellingly Shakespearean. This, I thought, was a great tragedy” (155).
Elesin’s tragedy is quite Greek if one were to think about it. There is an issue at hand, pleasing the gods and keeping up with customs is necessary, there is an ultimatum, and then people die in an extremely dramatic way. The play pretty much follows this pattern.
Gates describes the characterization of Elesin as classically Greek too because the play “records the reciprocal relationship between his character and his fate” (157). Essentially, Gates is saying that Elesin’s weakness is not in his lack of respect or through evil-doings, but in his complete “error of judgment” (157). Due to Elesin’s love for life and the earth, this ultimate love becomes his death when his son, hoping to save the tribe’s future fortunes, kills himself in place of his father. This becomes the death of Elesin as he commits suicide with the chains. That is the perfect Greek ending – a loved one dies because of the other loved one’s actions and then the second loved one kills themselves.
Gates even states that the “antiphonal structure of the Greek tragedy is also perhaps the most fundamental African aesthetic value, and is used as the play’s internal structuring mechanism” (161).