Many critics have voiced their opinions of the message behind Wole Soyinka’s “Death and the King’s Horseman.” It is presented that even though Soyinka’s work is filled with lyrical grace, beauty, and depth, it attempts to, according to Biodun Jeyifo, make us accept Soyinka’s revolutionary worldview. Adebayo Williams, on the other hand, tends to disagree: “By counterposing the notion of honor in ancient Yoruba kingdom […] against the cynical presumptions and calculations of the colonial officials, Soyinka exposes the absurdity inherent in all assumptions of cultural superiority” (Williams 188). Williams, who is exploring the role that ritual plays within the play, argues that Soyinka is attempting to disable the idea of cultural superiority. I tend to agree with this notion more so than others because of not only the actual contrasting beliefs presented within the story, but also because of the language change within the first 2 acts. A new way of presenting dialogue becomes evident because of the way characters interact; within the first act, the dialogue between Elesin and others (including the telling of the story of the Not-I bird) is very lyrical and metric, as opposed to the interrupting and fast-paced nature of the dialogue in act ii.
Within Williams’ response to Soyinka’s “Death and the King’s Horseman,” elements of race analysis appear when discussing the role of Elesin: “In ‘Death and the King’s Horseman,’ then, the playwright is an unabashed horseman (“Elesin” in the Yoruba language) of a besieged culture, fighting a desperate battle against the cultural ‘other’” (Williams 194). Here, Williams establishes the dynamic of “us” and “them,” where the Yoruba represent the “us” and the invading, opposing British represent “them.” Such an analysis proves to be very relevant because of how Williams views the role of the ritual within the play. This is best seen with the character of Olunde, according to Williams, because he has to step up and take the place of his father, Elesin, who is a “critically misendowed character” (Williams 190). By Olunde being an educated character, his death becomes yet another multi-leveled symbolic act that deals with cultural and racial superiority that is present throughout the play.