The Countess Cathleen

by William Butler Yeats

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

 Published in 1892 and first performed in 1899, the short-form verse drama The Countess Cathleen by the Irish dramatist, poet, and politician William Butler Yeats tells a story of famine, sin, and the resiliency of the virtuous. Written in blank verse, the five-scene play describes how illness, death, and devilish beings have descended upon an estate in the Irish countryside to torment the struggling peasants who live and toil there. The titular character, Countess Cathleen, owns the estate, and her return home ignites the story’s events. 

The play opens in the home of a struggling Irish family as Mary and her fourteen-year-old son, Tieg, wait for her husband, Shemus, to return home, hopefully bearing the fruits of a successful hunting trip. Mary bemoans their empty cabinets and barren shelves, worrying aloud at her husband’s prolonged absence. As she wrings her hands, Shemus returns home empty-handed, telling his family that there is no food to be found; even the beggars turned him away. Shemus continues, extolling his anger at their circumstances and at God, who will neither answer their prayers nor lessen their suffering.

  Shortly after, Countess Cathleen, accompanied by her maid, Oona, and musician, Aleel, visits and explains that she is returning to her estate after some time away. She listens to Shemus and Tieg’s tale of woe and hunger; once they tell her of their circumstances, she empties her purse into their waiting hands. She leaves, and the pair gripe about the few coins they received. In anger, Shemus calls to the woods, welcoming any who will come—human or otherwise—to sit by their fire and eat their final hen in exchange for a handsome sum. 

To his surprise, two merchants walk through the open door and agree to his terms. What they wish to purchase, however, is more than simple hospitality: they are demons disguised as men and in the market for souls. Shemus and Tieg are ecstatic over the treasure trove of gold offered to them, and they readily agree to the deal; Mary, a devout, superstitious woman, begs them otherwise, but her words have little sway over either husband and son. She faints in horror, and Shemus and Tieg leave to tell the other villagers about the merchants’ deal. 

Scene two returns to Countess Cathleen, who has only just arrived home. As she speaks with her steward about the state of affairs on her estate, Shemus and Tieg appear, wild-eyed and out of breath, and tell her and her companions about the deal they made. The Countess is distraught and decides to end her constituents' misery by selling her castles, pastures, and lands. She requests that her steward purchase massive volumes of oxen and grain to feed the peasants in hopes of deterring them from selling their souls. 

Now inside the castle, scene three briefly details the unrequited love affair between Cathleen and Aleel, who begs Cathleen to leave with him. Aleel explains that he dreamed about her death and knows that her death is imminent and can only be avoided by leaving. She tearfully declines, explaining that she has obligations to her people and cannot abandon them. The musician departs, leaving Cathleen alone. During their conversation, the two merchants—who fear the effects that Cathleen’s beneficence might have on their sales—sneak into her estate, steal her money, and trick her into believing that the messenger sent to purchase the oxen died, and the ships carrying grain sank. All her efforts seem to be for naught, so she sinks into despair. 

Scene four is brief but emotional. A pair of peasants discuss gold, guessing how it might...

(This entire section contains 871 words.)

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look and feel; neither, throughout their impoverished lives, has even seen gold, let alone owned it, and the allure of the merchants’ offer clarifies even further. In the fifth and final scene, the focus returns to Shemus’s house. Mary, who maintained her values throughout, died of starvation. Shemus keeps her body in their living room, using her death as an example to the many peasants who come to sell their souls to the merchants. His house has become an auction house, as peasants arrive one after another to offer their souls to the merchants in exchange for variable prices. 

The merchants purchase soul after soul until Cathleen arrives; she tells the merchants that she is willing to sell her soul for 500,000 crowns on the condition that the merchants return the peasants' souls. They readily agree, and the deal is struck, despite Aleel’s attempt to forestall it. Heartbroken by the dire straits of her constituents, Cathleen dies. Before she does, she begs Oona to distribute the profits of her sacrifice to suffering peasants. In the immediate wake of her death, the weather is black and grim, punctuated only by booming thunder and flashing lightning; it is, as Aleel says, as if “angels and devils clash.” 

His words prove correct; shortly after, an armor-clad angel descends and tells the cowering peasants that, for her sacrifice, God has accepted Cathleen into heaven. Even though she sold her soul to the devilish merchants, her intentions were pure and virtuous; as such, she was pardoned and saved. The play ends as Oona, stricken with grief, bemoans her lost mistress.