As The Ceremony of Innocence opens, a procession of chanting monks crosses the stage, which represents a monastery. It is Christmas Day, 1013. In a few minutes, the serenity is broken by a loud knocking and the entrance of three leading characters—nobles Kent and Sussex and an English bishop, who have come to seek audience with King Ethelred. For reasons yet to be determined, the king has isolated himself in this out-of-the-way religious institution on the Isle of Wight, while his presence is urgently needed on the English mainland: An invasion by the Danes is expected within the week.
As the emissaries wait for the abbot, sharp words are exchanged, and their disparate characters are delineated. The impetuous, soldierly Sussex complains of the trouble they are taking and states that he can defend his own shire without the king’s help. The more diplomatic but equally acerbic Kent calls him a fool for thinking he can best the Danes without the king’s army. The bishop temporizes between the two.
When the abbot appears, they urge him to bring the king to meet them. The scene shifts to the king’s cell, where the abbot urges Ethelred to see his visitors. The king, however, is lost in melancholy reflections and, when told that the men have pressing business, replies in a way that foretells the movement of the play: “The world moves forward day by day while time moves backward memory by memory through me.”
The story now returns to the previous winter at King Ethelred’s castle, where a truce is being negotiated with King Sweyn of the Danes. The bulk of the play, then, will be reminiscences of the previous year which will gradually explain the abrupt retirement of Ethelred from the court and his attitude of unrelieved pessimism. In exchange for money, King Sweyn has agreed to cease his depredations against England and as surety will leave his fifteen-year-old daughter Thulja with the English. Although Kent and the churchmen support the plan, many voices are raised against it. Sussex finds it a blot on England’s honor to pay tribute to outlaws. Ethelred’s family also abhors the idea. His wife, Queen Emma, considers the Danes animals who should be tied to stakes and burned like candles, while his mother Alfreda believes that war is necessary to keep the restive populace occupied. In the king’s argument with his mother, dynastic history and one reason for Ethelred’s love of peace are discussed. While still a boy, Ethelred had worshiped his otherworldly, impractical stepbrother, King Edward, a saintly man who was unsuspecting enough to be murdered by Ethelred’s mother in a plot to advance her son to the throne. Ethelred’s life has been tortured by the knowledge that he gained power through the murder of the one person he had admired....
(The entire section is 1141 words.)