The result for the tribe is catastrophic, as the breaking of the ritual means the disruption of the cosmic order of the universe and thus the wellbeing and future of the tribe is in doubt. As the action unfolds the tribe blames Elesin as much as Pilkings, accusing him of being too attached to the earth to fulfil his spiritual obligations. Events lead to tragedy when Elesin's son, Olunde, who has returned to Nigeria from studying medicine in Europe, takes on the responsibility of his father and commits ritual suicide in his place so as to restore the honour of his family and the order of the universe. Faced with the consequences of his actions, Elesin kills himself, condemning his soul to a degraded existence in the next world.
Written with an extraordinary and almost mystical sense of what it is to be a human being, Death and The King's Horseman forges out of this story a metaphor not just for the whole history of Africa and its collision with colonial Europe but a profound meditation on the nature of man, the relationship of life with death and the power of religion, ritual and spirituality in human existence. A masterpiece of late twentieth century drama of any nationality or culture, it is probably Soyinka's greatest work for the theatre and remains one of his most universal and accessible dramatic statements.
One of the play's interesting interpretive problems is Elesin's attempt to commit death. As Soyinka conceals the moment when Elesin is interrupted, we do not know whether the interruption prevented his follow through, whether he could not bring himself to commit the act, or whether he just did not know how to perform it.