In the play Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka, the author uses the representation of woman as the defenders of the Yoruba tradition. Soyinka tells us in this “Author’s note” that the play is based on an incident in Nigeria in 1949. In Yoruba tradition, it is the sacrifice of the king’s horseman that plays the essential role in bringing good fortune onto the community. While these leaders of the Yoruba culture are predominantly male, the role of the Yoruba woman as both defender and keeper of these traditions are of equal importance. The representation of men and women in Death and the King’s Horseman, demonstrates that nationalism is a gendered construct; in which the women are the stability in masculine nationalism. The characters Iyaloja, the daughters of the market, and the virgin bride play a role in persevering the Yoruba tradition from the colonizer, and also the males in their village.
In the play the “mother of the marketplace”, Iyaloja, serves as a matriarchal figure of great importance in preserving the Yoruba traditions. The function of the “market place” serves as the site where cultural traditions are performed. In the first act, Elesin Oba, his praise singer accompanies the king’s horseman, to the market place. As Elesin observes the market women closing their stalls, “ This market is my roost. When I come among the woman I am a chicken with a thousand mothers. I become a monarch whose palace is built on tenderness and beauty” (). It is here that Elesin intends to die and join the spirit of the king, who has fulfilled his obligation to the community by giving his spirit to the ancestors. Iyaloja is willing to sacrifice her own beliefs and betray family members in order to do what is best for the community. She explains to the woman in the market that the sacrifice to “give” her future daughter-in-law to Elesin is for the greater good of the whole instead of her son. When being questioned on the effects it would have on her son she states, “ My son’s wish is mine. I did the asking for him, the lost can be
remedied (13). This gesture by Iyaloja demonstrates the un-selfish sacrifices Yoruba woman go through in order to keep tradition and unite a community even under colonial rule. In the play the reader see’s Iyaloja’s efforts to stop the “white man” from stripping away the culture tradition of the Yoruba community.
The next generation of Yoruba women is slip between the daughters of the market women and the young bride, who differ in their social positions. The bride in the play has no name and never speaks. She thus represents the unchanging and pure tradition of which the Yoruba women stand for. The bride is modest, obedient, and self-efficient. Elesin refers to her as “little mother”. In the final act the audience witnesses the bride weep while, “the girl takes up a little earth, walks over calmly into the cell and closes Elesin’s eyes. She then pours some earth over each eyelid. . .(52). While the reader is left to...