Themes and Meanings
The title of the play is taken from “The Second Coming” (1922), a poem by W. B. Yeats that reveals the theme of the play: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The play registers a powerful protest against man’s inhumanity to man while suggesting that this inhumanity is inescapable and irrepressible.
The very structure of the piece underlines the inevitability of violence, for it is set on the eve of a new war. When the play moves backward in time to the period of peace, it is with the sure knowledge that this peace will soon end and will lead back into the wars that have been ravaging England for hundreds of years.
The play provides an expression of how fragile peace is. Ronald Ribman points out how many forces are working against peace, how violence and acceptance of violence can corrupt even those who fight hardest for peace and civility, and how in the move toward war the most innocent will be brushed aside and trampled underfoot.
The virulence and depth of the reaction against the treaty with the Danes, nourished by an ignorant racism and a shallow love of glory, indicate that the proponents of peace are a minority and will have to battle against deeply rooted human emotions. Only by creating a temporary, unstable alliance with the Church is Ethelred able to force his family and other nobles to abide by the terms of the truce, and they will do everything they can to undermine it.
The fragility of human virtue is brought home by the way the Church and then Kent abandon Ethelred’s position because it conflicts with tradition or expediency; moreover, Ethelred’s own ascension to the throne came by way of treachery and murder. Though Ethelred attempts to reinstate the gentler times he remembers from his boyhood, in the end he betrays himself by acting violently: His attack on his wife when he can no longer endure her vile remarks leaves the opening for the murder of Thulja.
It is his own surrender to passion, along with the death of the child, that breaks his spirit. Thulja has been the only character that has acted with uncalculating love and unselfishness, worrying even about Edmund though he constantly rebuffed her. In his last speech, Ethelred reveals that he sees in her death the signal for the destruction of everything else he holds dear: scholarship, the beautiful cathedrals of his country, and the farming communities.
The fact that the play is a historical re-creation not only underlines the fatefulness of what is happening—what occurred eight hundred years ago cannot be changed—but also reminds the audience that the time of protracted full-scale wars did indeed come to an end. Though the Italian’s project of a voyage to the unknown is abandoned for the time being, 450 years later such a voyage will be made. In this sense, though Ethelred is doomed as a man out of his time, his ideals are not condemned but only shown as not yet ripe for realization. It may be hoped that as Ethelred was inspired and tutored by the moral heroism of his stepbrother, so others will be inspired by Ethelred’s attempt to establish a better world.