Nietzsche’s ‘Will to Power’ in Death and the King’s Horseman


The play, Death and the King’s Horseman, interpreted on a superficial level, can be summarized as the failure of a horseman (due to alien forces) to follow his King into the afterlife thereby causing the death of his son. However, this ‘reductionist tendency’ would not suffice for Soyinka or the drama which involves more than ‘the colonial factor’ or a clash of culture (Death and the King’s Horseman, 3).  The play, although based on an historical event in Oyo society, transcends into the metaphysical where the Yoruba community and mind is explored beyond what is discernable to the senses. This also treads into the philosophical realm where Soyinka’s work touches on Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” theory which presents a way of looking at the world. Will to power “is psycho-physiological, it is the commanding thought or the drive of the superman (Elesin Oba) to perfect and transcend the self through the possession and exercise of creative power (actions, proverbs, metaphor, dance)” ( This meta-will also aims to achieve the highest possible station in life (through Elesin’s seduction and appeal to status or Pilking’s desire for recognition). Thus, while Death and the King’s Horseman presents conflicting cultures interacting, these conflicts do not produce the problem but accelerate and complicate it. If we are to consider that human behaviour is an expression of will, then the essence of the play can be found in the ‘Will to Power’ which reworks how the readers assign responsibility to a character’s thoughts and actions within his or her distinct community.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory is highly radical and calls into question the structure of human understanding. This, according to philosopher Arthur C. Danto, makes his theory enlightening but “if we have succeeded in understanding it, in our terms, it would automatically follow that we had misunderstood it, for our own terms are suggested to be the wrong ones” (560). Thus, I aim to extract useful points in Nietzsche’s already unsystematic theory and critique those in opposition with a positive construction of will and community. As stated in the introduction of Death and the King’s Horseman, Soyinka’s work draws its principles from the legends of “Ogun, the Yoruba god of war and creativity” as much as from Nietzsche’s “anti-traditional and rebellious philosophy” (viii). The theorist differentiates between what he calls Kraft (Force) and Macht (Power). Macht is the deliberate channeling of Kraft (exercise of strength) for inventive purposes. It stresses ‘self-overcoming’ which is similar to Soyinka’s idea of “self-apprehension”[1] as the “route forward for Nigeria” (194). Within the Yoruba world, there is also force (Ase: Life Force) which is a mix of performative power and wisdom, giving the individual the ability to act and make changes. Like the play, Nietzsche’s theory “necessarily assumes the character of myth[2], these myths were intimately associated with value-judgments which Nietzsche asserted with passion. And it is perhaps these value-judgments more than anything else which have been the source of his great influence” ( It would follow then, that the characters in Death and the King’s Horseman are ideological messengers who not only comment on the colonial incident but human instincts that essentially shape history and culture.

The Yoruban village of Oyo is presented as a place which values communal wholeness, particularly the marketplace which is a site of kinship and a focalized center to the Otherworld. The Mother of the market, Iyaloja and the praise singers will be responsible for ushering Elesin Oba into the world of his ancestors where he will accompany his dead King, which is his cultural role. However, Elesin is sidetracked by his desire for fine clothes, wine and a beautiful girl betrothed to Iyaloja’s son. He even becomes irritated when they remind him of his impending death. Thus, his subsequent arrest by the District Officer, Simon Pilkings, can be said to be an external factor for his failure. It is apparent that his will power is not colossal; his egoistic intentions hindered his divine journey. Yet, Eldred Jones makes us aware that “when confronted with the ultimate sacrifice, the human will is apt to flinch…self-sacrifice is no mere mechanical ritual” (152).  Similarly, if Nietzsche had critiqued the play, he would have noted how unreasoned it would be to expect a human being to carry out altruistic actions. He would state how the “selfless” ritual Elesin will undergo progresses from a conceited drive, that is, from the will to power. As Olunde tells Jane, his sacrifice guarantees that he would have “peace of mind [and the] honour and veneration of his own people” (43). I understand what he is trying to say because at some point in time we have all done a good deed but have we ever questioned what motivates it? Perhaps to feel good about ourselves or to make peace with God; at any rate, the will to power comes through. However, this will to power does not have to be exclusively self-fulfilling which I would term a primary-egoism[3]; this force would only destroy society and what Soyinka sees as the well-being of man. Elesin confirms this assumption when he displays selfish-egoism with his material and sexual desires. It is not obvious that he does so because of what Nietzsche labels as a ‘disguised form of the will to power’. This means that the will appears to stem from something else, such as the dying wish of an honorable, self-sacrificing man, when it really originates from Elesin’s instinct to possess the flesh and the glory. Iyaloja reluctantly but finally agrees to grant Elesin this. Friedrich calls this disguised form of will: enrollment. This form involves compliance and praise to those in power in order to secure a certain degree of control over them. The Yorubans had to makes themselves indispensable to their superiors in order to coerce them into gratitude. Sending the Horseman into the afterlife in a bitter state might cause him to curse the living community of Orun. With the acquisition of his bride, it is hoped that Elesin will fulfill his duty for the sake of the spirited and civic-enrolled[4] society.

When the moment of reckoning comes, Elesin blames his failure on the “alien hand [which] pollutes the sources of will” (56). Yet, it is his own weakness which weighed down his “earth-held limbs” making it harder to “lift” his “feet” before the “white ghost entered and all was defiled” (209).  It is even said by Nietzsche that the will to power is stronger than the will to survive. Olunde says the white races’ “greatest art is the art of survival” (43). Thus, Pilkings creative force only understands the will to life which sees being as a necessity that people naturally uphold or enforce on others as their civilized duty. However, the willing of a “monitored dissolution almost anesthetic in essence”[5] to be forever remembered in the worlds one synchronized is the “deepest protection the mind can conceive” (43). Thus, it is the stronger will, so how could Pilkings’ weaker will cause Elesin to fail? It is Elesin himself who “squelched” his own will by seeing Pilking’s intervention as a dilatory blessing from the gods. Hence, no matter what another does, your conviction is your will. D.S Izevbaye recalls how this colonial blame is the popular explanation for social change in Africa which prevents true self-reflection about what truly prompts the erosion of African culture. This is not to assume that a traditional Africa exists to go back to as Soyinka’s play is not an accurate depiction of Oyo society in any event. Regardless, his work offers insight as to how accusing others for the situation that one initiates is nothing more than the act of searching for a scapegoat.

Additionally, if one notes the theatrical production of Death and the King’s Horseman, then it is evident that the cyclical dance of the women around Elesin was broken when, unresponsive to them and declining in will to rejoin harmony, he lustfully eyes the Bride. The circle is symbolic of the Yoruba cosmos where the past is a reachable pool and exemplary guide for the present. It is believed that persons live, die and are reborn with every individual emerging from the gods or their ancestors. Everyone is seen as important in helping the community function with the “recognition of the uniqueness and autonomy of the ase of persons” (73). It is similar to the concept of ‘Eternal Recurrence’ in a Will to Power where Nietzsche considers existence to be an ongoing struggle of one will against other wills. It would be possible to claim that these wills operate in equilibrium where individual forces can resist, relate and/or come to an arrangement (union power) such as the Yoruban community.

The European state can be defined as an arrangement of central wills upholding colonial intervention which pins Simon Pilkings and Jane Pilkings into what Nietzsche calls the British ideology of ‘what is good is what is “normal/natural/conventional”. It fuels their defense of the ‘civilized’ against the ‘barbaric’. As the Resident tells Simon, “if [the British] let these little things slip past [them], where would the empire be?” (38). It is this instinct that weakens their power to comprehend what is not in the will of their society to understand. Simon Pilkings only roams into a crisis that was already underway with Elesin trying to will himself to understand the Yoruba worldview. This was paradoxically easier for Amusa whose “conceptual universe still remains deeply tied to traditional Yoruba culture” even though his job requires “colonial modernity” (George, 213). Similarly, Olunde’s knowledge acts as a tool of power that enables him to defend tradition, questioning Mrs. Pilking’s power of habit (Eurocentric norms) which she initially resists. In assigning ‘decadence’ to the Masque, his linguistic Will repels the pigeonhole language of the West with its own force – which neutralizes it. On the other hand, Amusa and Joseph (the houseboy) are bound by the institutional power that Simon exercises. In some ways, they too engage in disguised forms of will in order to secure economic gain and recognition. This is in contrast to the school girls that Amusa and his constables try to bully.  They are able to access Simon’s power more so as they are educated. Yet, as Olakunle George notes, they use this education as a force which mimics the colonial (216). If Elesin’s blaming of the White man can be taken as a valid excuse, then the school girls’ will to defend the honour of their community is stronger than his. Even with prolonged knowledge of European culture, they did not submit to foreign logic.

Before Elesin’s histrionic decline, he was able to employ the power of language, music and dance matured by what Nietzsche calls his Becoming (what all his will in life lead him to).  According to Nietzsche, “words are ‘seductions’ within the process of self-mastery and self-overcoming” (24). His proverbs and riddles are strategies of persuasion in the Will to Power dynamic which delays death and allows him to marry his bride. Thus, his song about the Not-I-Bird proclaims his dedication and trustworthiness through a willful, stirring argument symbolic of his appetite for life. Here, his “egocentricity soars” as he strives to become chief over all space and to spread his force (will to power) beyond “the natural world, beyond the world of men, beyond the gods” (Richards, 197). With a loss of will which is the force of energy and creativity in a human, Elesin is no longer superman but a degraded man, ironically defeated by his own master morality[6] which causes him to doubt the rite of passage. Yet, Elesin’s “cynical preoccupation with pleasure and the spoils of office” or skepticism about “the credibility of his destiny….is not unrelated to the fact that the hegemony of Oyo empire had long ago been fissured by internal contradictions as well as the antagonistic logic supplied by the conquering invaders” (Williams, 190). He is the latter weak willed product of an enfeebled communal will. Elesin’s psychic considerations weaken his resolve once more as he realizes the inequities in his culture: the ruling ‘blood’ is tasked with mustering the ultimate will to die. Unable to embrace this, his personality changes and he no longer possesses the vitality of language, filled with rich imagery and metaphor. Iyaloja, on the other hand, still retains dialectical force with her pertinent proverbs. It seems as if the will of the community reinforced the Horseman’s link to the Yoruba mindset. It is like the myth of Ogun which David Richards mentions, as like the god, Elesin, “having made the world by his creative ritual acts…unmakes it” in a performance of caustic will (206).

The related circumstances would cause Nietzsche to term the Oyo society as a ‘life denying place’ as change is not embraced and in the will to power, change is unceasing in the world. The community did not welcome Elesin’s change in will which symbolizes the change of African society. In not summoning the will to complete his role, his son Olunde, takes the rein and sacrifices himself to make up for the loss of honour. This is not the order of the Yoruban ritual as the will to power has been inverted from the parent stalk to the sap. Elesin would therefore only eat the left overs of the other world. (68) His suicide thereafter can be defined as the will to access personal release from pain but Nietzsche would label it as the social instinct working to destroy the superman. This is because “communal order and communal will are inextricable elements in the Elesin tragedy, which not only reflects but amplify his own failure of will” (157). Elesin represents the will of the community and as such must value the whole against the one. Many critics agree, however, that the metaphysical Yoruban kingdom is patriarchal and feudalistic which makes many readers less remorseful about its deferral at the hands of Elesin. Biodun Jefiyo asks for a better pre-colonial representation of Africa that does not negatively suppress the instincts of the individual to acquire power (“more egalitarian”[7]), thus, everyone has the potential to move above the level of the ‘herd’[8]. Yet, this is not a cry for outright individualism which European hegemonic society encouraged, thus, leading to the invasion and enslavement of Africans in the first place. This is why the machinery of the community is still needed to keep the will to power in productive form. It is true that defiant wills can often be chastised for the “morale of the nation” (44). Afterall, before Iyaloja visits Elesin in lock up, Simon asks him for his word of honour.  According to the Nietzche’s theory, honour is an acknowledgement of the similar and equal in power. It is a form of social will founded on the willingness and aptitude of ranked people (Officer and Horseman) to use force to live up to the role society has bestowed upon them. But in the case of Elesin, he ironically points out that something about society’s habitualness is in need of change. It is good enough that humans can acquire rank and recognition but leaving the will unrestrained and self-centered could lead society into a state of anarchy with fractured relationships. This is why the literal Oyo society preaches caution, composure, patience and respect as the will of others is never certain.

The play ends in a way which suggests that there is hope for the community. Iyaloja tells the bride to “forget the dead. Forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn” (76). Elesin’s failing will does not seem to represent the irredeemable failing will of the people. Will Power, like a battery’s energy, is not shared even if it can be united for strength. It is up to every human then to negotiate between his values and society’s values for a better future.

In conclusion, Death and the King’s Horseman is not so much about an ostensive clash of culture but about the network of metaphysical human wills that affect culture and fates. It is about the questioning of the extent to which we allow alien hands to “bore away the mind and muscle of the race” (6).  Life as Will to Power in the play is fundamentally an act of understanding, a placing of perspectives, a theorizing of values which produce horizons. In the end, communal and individual will can only thrive if it is engaged in the preservation and enhancement of itself and others.



[1] Self-understanding/ introspection

[2] As agreed by Henry Louis Gates Jr pg 156

[3] A will that can buoy other wills while improving itself but refuses to. Unlike Nietzsche, I consider this a weaker will as one’s force is only exerted upon oneself.

[4] Communal will.

[5] Said by Olakunle George “Cultural Ciriticism in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman” pg 208

[6] Nietzsche defines the person with master morality as a superman, the ‘noble man’ who only sees himself as the measure of all things. Slave morality (oddly enough) is linked to the masses that seek the good of the community. He calls for a revaluation of these wills which I think would enable the balancing of self and communal will (Median morality).

[7] Extracted from page 171 in “Ideology and Tragedy”.

[8] What Nietzsche calls the community.

Works Cited

Arthur C. Danto. “Nietzsche” in A Critical History of Western Philosophy. Ed D.J. O’Connor. Free Press, 1985.

Gates, Henry. “Being, the Will, and the Semantics of Death” Harvard Educational Review 51. No 1. Feb 1981

George, Okalunle. “Tragedy, Mimicry and “The African World.” Cultural Criticism in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. Representations 67. University of California, 1999.

Izebaye, D.S. “Mediation in Soyinka” Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka. Ed. James Gibbs. London Heinemann, 1980.

Jefiyo, Biodun. “Ideology and Tragedy.” The Truthful Lie: Essays in a Sociology of African Drama. London: New Beacon, 1985.

Jones, Eldred. “Death and the King’s Horseman” The Writing of Wole Soyinka. Third Edition. Heinemann, 1988

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Ed. Walter Kaufman. Vintage, 1968.

“Nietzsche Philosophy”. Caroll Education. Web. 11 March 2015.


Richards, David. “Death and the King’s Horseman and the Mask of Language.” Masks of Difference: Cultural Representations in Literature, Anthropology, and Art. Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman. Ed. Simon Gikandi. New York: W.W Norton & Company Inc, 2003.

“Will to Power” Merriam Webster. Web 12 March 2015.


“Wille Zu Macht” Narkhive. Web. 13 March 2015.