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Death and the King's Horseman Digital Study Guide





Death and the King's Horseman
By Wole Soyinka
Directed by Tawiah M'Carthy

House Program for Death and the King's Horseman

Grade Recommendation 9+

Content Advisory

This play deals with the harms of colonialism and oppression. It contains discriminatory language. A major topic within the play is ritual suicide.

Although set in what is now called Nigeria during the second world war, this play is based on a real incident that took place in the Yoruba town of Oyo in 1946.


In the marketplace of a Yoruba community in colonial-era Nigeria, Elesin Oba engages in good-natured banter with his Olohun-iyo, or Praise-Singer - a musician and poet whose role it is to laud important people - alongside other members of the community, as he celebrates his last day in the world. It is a momentous day for Elesin: his Alafin, or king, died thirty days ago,  and tradition demands that Elesin, whose name reflects his rank as Chief Horseman, now give his life in order that he can guide the spirit of the Alafin in the afterlife. 

Though Elesin has always enjoyed the pleasures of this world, he professes himself eager to join the world of the spirits and ancestors. Nevertheless, he has come to the marketplace to revel for one last time in the adulation of the women there. He recites the "Not-I Bird" story, a poetic ode that illustrates the magnitude of death, and declares that he is not afraid to die - his "whole life has been spent in blessings" in preparation for this task. Suddenly, his eye is caught by a beautiful girl. Even though she is already betrothed to the son of Iyaloja, the Mother of the Market, Elesin insists on taking her as his bride that night before fulfilling his duty that will ensure the welfare of the Yoruba community.

Meanwhile, British District Officer Simon Pilkings and his wife, Jane, are about to attend a fancy-dress ball wearing Egúngún - carefully-prepared Yoruba regalia that a spirit medium wears on specific days, thus enabling an ancestor's spirit's physical presence. Word arrives of Elesin's imminent ritual death and Pilkings orders Elesin's arrest. However, his officers encounter resistance from the women of the marketplace. Pilkings then intervenes personally, interrupting the ritual to have Elesin dragged away in handcuffs - and thereby provoking a tragic turn of events.

Curriculum Connections

Global Competencies:

  • Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking, Creativity, Learning to Learn/Self-Awareness

Grades 7-8 

  • The Arts
  • Canadian and World Studies
  • English

 Grades 11-12

  • Social Sciences and Humanities


  • Ceremony (Sacred and Secular) 
  • Colonialism, Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Oppression 
  • The Complexity and Conflicts of Identity 
  • Cultural Interpretation and Preservation
  • Culture as a Way of Life
  • Duty and Responsibility (Collective and Individual)
  • Death and Ritual: A Metaphysical Understanding of Death
  • Family Dynamics and Inherited Roles
  • Language and Culture, Language and Life/Death
  • Names and Their Significance
  • Transition and Cycles of Life/Death
  • Willpower and Desire
  • Yoruba Religion and Worldview



  • The playwright, Wole Soyinka, has specifically stated that this play is not about a "clash of cultures." Why do you think he said this so explicitly?
  • How do we define the idea of death through sacrifice in different religious, political and sociological practices? For example, people who give their lives in war. How do we criminalize death and how do we accept death in different socio-political services?
  • What becomes of people caught between cultures through education, religion and political factions? 
  • What is a cultural practice? How does cultural practice inform our definition of humanity from a spiritual, political and sociological perspective?
  • How do we decide which practices to accept or to question? What kinds of tensions emerge when we compare cultural practices and their validity?


  • What are some more accurate ways to describe the conflict in this play (rather than "clash of cultures")? In a colonial context, do cultures interact on equal ground?
  • What is the significance of interruption of the planned ritual? In your opinion, does the ending of the play rectify this interruption?
  • Several characters in this play do not fit into clear cultural division. How does this impact their identities and how the other characters in the play view them?
  • What do you notice about the agency of the women in this play? How are they able to influence events?
  • What does this play tell us about how human beings understand and engage with the reality of death and dying?
  • What can we learn from someone who has had Western education giving his life for ritualistic purposed? When looking at the play, we could view Olunde as a figurehead caught between two cultures. Therefore, what did his sacrifice mean?
  • What make the play moving?


Objective: This exercise invites students to familiarize themselves with the Dùndún or, talking drum and its role in Yoruba culture.

Materials:  The article "How Does the East African Talking Drum Accurately Mimic Human Speech? from Smithsonian Magazine and its accompanying video, writing materials, black/white board or chalk/markers.


  1. Play the video imbedded in the article for the students.
  2. After watching it together, ask the students: "What did you notice?"
  3. On the board together, write down what students share (i.e. details about the drums, the drummers, what they are hearing - sounds or rhythms).
  4. Once that list is complied, give students a few minutes to read the article.
  5. Divide the students into groups to discuss the following questions:
    • What kinds of communication are talking drums used for in Yoruba communities? 
    • What do you think the researchers mean when they say there is a "thin boundary between music and speech"?
    • Using the information in the article, how would your group define "speech surrogacy"?

Debriefing Questions

How do you think the talking drum might help an audience understand Death an the King's Horseman


This season, Sara Uwadiae, the costume designer for Death and The King's Horseman, travelled to Nigeria to source textiles, hats and other clothing to build the costumes for the show. In 2003, Roger Kirk did the same thing with a trip to Thailand to source fabric for The King and I. As he wrote in the house program for that year, "I had the masks and headgear made specifically for the Stratford production by a man who runs a Thai dance theatre troupe, and I got most of the fabrics in Bangkok." (Stratford Festival Program, As Quoted: Costume Designer Roger Kirk, The King and I, 2003. Quoted from an interview with Sharon Malvern).

Costume cutter Carol A. Miller working on Tuptim's Presentation Costume for The King and I, 2003.

Costume cutter Carol A. Miller working on Tuptim's Presentation Costume for The King and I, 2003. Photograph by Richard Bain.

Anne Marie Ramos as Tuptim and Charles Azulay as Lun Tha in The King and I, 2003.

Anne Marie Ramos as Tuptim and Charles Azulay as Lun Tha in The King and I, 2003. Directed by Susan H. Schulman. Set design by Debra Hanson. Costume design by Roger Kirk. Lighting design by Kevin Fraser. Sound design by Peter McBoyle. Musical direction by Berthold Carrière. Photograph by Michael Cooper.GPO_2003_009_0078

The King and I

Wayne Sujo as Prince Chulalongkorn in The King and I, 2003. Directed by Susan H. Schulman. Set design by Debra Hanson. Costume design by Roger Kirk. Lighting design by Kevin Fraser. Sound design by Peter McBoyle. Musical direction by Berthold Carrière. Photograph by Michael Cooper.GPO_2003_009_0099

The Stratford Festival's Archives maintains, conserves and protects records about the Festival and makes those materials available to people around the world. Their collection contains material ranging from 1952 right up to the present and includes administrative documents, production records, photographs, design artwork, scores, audio-visual recordings, promotional materials, costumes, props, set decorations and much more. These materials are collected and preserved with the aim of documenting the history of the Festival, preserving the page-to-stage process, and capturing the creative processes involved in numerous other activities that contribute to the Festival each season.  

In addition to visiting the Archives in person, you can explore a selection of their holdings via their online catalogue.



Trailer - Death and the King's Horseman

House Program - Death and the King's Horseman

Study Guide PDF - Death and the King's Horseman

CBC Ideas Podcast Around the World in 80 Plays: Death and the King's Horseman

CBC Online Article: In Death and the King's Horseman, sacred tradition and colonialism come to a head in Nigeria

Studs Tekle Radio Archive: Wole Soyinka discusses the play "Death and the King's Horseman" 11 October 1979

Wole Soyinka entry in American Academy of Achievement

Booking Information: Tickets, Workshops, Chats and Tours

Student Matinées

You may book any available date, but selected student matinée performances for this show are at 2 p.m. on the following dates:

  • Wednesday, September 28th
  • Thursday, September 29th
  • Thursday, October 6th
  • Friday, October 7th
  • Friday, October 21st

Workshops, Chats and Tours

Pre or Post-Show Workshops, Chats and Tours (virtual, onsite or at your school/centre) can be booked by calling the Box Office at 1.800.567.1600.




Tools for teachers include Prologues, Study Guides and Stratford Shorts.       



Special thanks to Mũkonzi Mũsyoki, Assistant Director of Death and the King's Horseman, for his collaboration on this Study Guide.