Adebayo Williams claims in his criticism of Soyinka’s Death and The King’s Horseman that Elesin’s suicide is expected to induce esteem for his besieged culture, causing his role in the story to take on a major historical and political burden. Williams explores the historical and political implications of Elesin’s suicide by exposing the universal fear of death that undermines both classes and cultures. Williams’ ultimately claims that Olunde, Elesin’s son, becomes “the ideological spokesman for the playwright, who is obviously in profound sympathy with the young man’s aspirations.”(190) I believe by showing that death is universal and that Elesin’s ritual is transforms death into an ally of the rulers, Williams is entitled to his claim that the political unconscious behind Elesin’s ritual is the “ideological apparatus of the state,” that it is beneficial for the entire society.
Williams first establishes that “[d]eath become the distinguished scourge and ultimate terror of the ruling class: unconquerable…,” (192) constructing the significance of Elesin’s ritual for the upper class. Williams then shows how Elesin’s honoring of the kings through suicide is socially symbolic and important. Williams claims that Elesin’s role is a “socially symbolic act insofar as it negotiates the painful reality of death for the ruling class,”(193) that according to Althusser is an insidious strategy of survival for the rulers. Then Williams show that death transverses class lines by stating that “it is not just the dominant class that fears death.”(193) This supports Williams’ claim that Althusser is right insofar as this particular maneuver (Elesin’s ritual) is an essential mystification, ultimately beneficial to the entire society. Like Williams states, Elesin’s consciousness has been shaped by his material and political circumstances. Because he is hesitant to embrace his role and accompany the king in death Elesin demonstrates the material and political circumstances that cause him to value his life. However, like Williams, I believe that the ritual that honors the ruling class is ultimately beneficial for the entire society because of the political unconscious underlying it. Williams claims it is a “necessary” mystification that strengthens the culture and society as a whole. Thus, while the playwright is sympathetic towards the aspirations of the Olunde, I believe that he is as sympathetic to Elesin. Because Elesin enjoys a good life as a horseman to the king, his material circumstances, his sacrifice for the benefit of the entire culture is sympathized throughout the text. Because death is a supra-class phenomenon, the cultural implications of Elesin’s ritual are greater than the political ones. Thus, while I agree with Williams that the ritual is a socially symbolic act insofar as it negotiates the reality of death for the ruling class, I believe that benefit for the entire culture is more valued in the play. Further, because of the emphasis on Elesin’s necessary sacrifice, I believe that the playwright is as sympathetic toward Elesin as he is towards the aspiration of Olunde.