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...
(The entire section is 767 words.)