Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 767
King Ethelred, the poignantly idealistic, moralistic king of England. Against the wishes of many of his advisers and all of his family, he has signed a truce with the Danes. The plot turns around his dogged but hopeless attempts to stave off the unraveling of the fragile peace. He is a visionary who uses the peace to try to educate the peasants and equip a ship for a voyage of discovery. His ethical sense is rooted in guilt: The one man he idolized in his youth, his pious stepbrother who was ruling the country, was killed by his mother so that Ethelred could take the throne. Perhaps for this reason, he is almost truculent in his refusal to compromise on ethical questions. As the play proceeds, he becomes more and more isolated from his pragmatic advisers, until he is ready to forfeit his kingdom to maintain his purity.
Edmund, Ethelred’s son. Edmund is intemperately concerned with his own and his country’s honor. Going further than the king’s other advisers, who only offer verbal objections to the truce, the headstrong Edmund physically disrupts the new status quo by destroying the possessions of the Danish king’s daughter, Thulja, and later by murdering four Danish farmers residing in England. His hot temper and facility with insults cause his downfall when his taunting of the Danish ambassador is met with a dagger.
Alfreda, Ethelred’s aged mother. Sharp-tongued, treacherous, and actively evil, she upbraids her son for fearing violence, telling him that keeping a war stirring distracts the populace. She constantly reminds him that his own position was achieved through murder, and it is her murder of Thulja that finally sunders the peace.
Emma, Ethelred’s wife, the daughter of the duke of Normandy. She is almost simpleminded in her virulent hatred of the Danes. Her detestation is based on fear and suspicion, and she has little with which to counter the arguments of her husband except a blind loyalty to the brutal practices of her father. She becomes increasingly estranged from her neglectful spouse as he devotes all of his time to his political preoccupations.
Thulja, the fifteen-year-old daughter of King Sweyn of Denmark. She has been left as a hostage at the English court to ensure that the Danes abide by the peace treaty. She is a babe in the woods, uncomprehending of the intrigues and depressed by the rebuffs she suffers from the “war” party, who consider her an irritating symbol of a dishonorable peace. Her purity and ability to extend uncalculating sympathy make her the only person with whom Ethelred can share his dreams. Her murder in the English court precipitates the sundering of the truce.
The earl of Kent
The earl of Kent, the adviser closest to the king, who is able to see the value of Ethelred’s dreams and argue for them pragmatically. Because he has a fourteen-year-old crippled daughter, he feels sympathy for Thulja. He is too practical to follow the king in his pacifism when he believes that it endangers the country.
The earl of Sussex
The earl of Sussex, the main verbal antagonist of Kent. A blunt, angry leader who proclaims that the only worthy morality stems from the point of a sword. Although as bound by honor as Edmund, he is able to curb his feelings when he finds the majority against him.
The bishop of London
The bishop of London, a temporizer who holds a middle place between Sussex and Kent. At first, he is committed to peace and economic reconstruction, but he begins to balk when the king tampers with church prerogatives.
King Sweyn, the leader of the Danes. Possessor of the superior army, he is willing to abide by the truce to better conditions for his many countrymen who have settled in England. Although he worries about leaving a daughter among the English, he is cunning enough to order her to spy out their forces during her residence.
Thorkill, a Danish emissary sent to England to learn the facts about the murder of four Danish farmers. Although willing to be mollified by a sufficiently searching inquiry, he is bewildered by the unmannerly behavior of Edmund. He is slow to anger but violent when provoked.
Abbot Oswald, the head of a monastery on the Isle of Wight where Ethelred has sought sanctuary from the mounting pressure to declare war. Isolated from the events of the world, he views the power conflicts surrounding the throne with detachment, coupled with an irritating lack of passion.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support