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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 353

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W.B. Yeats's The Countess Cathleen is a drama written in blank verse that takes place across five scenes.

The protagonist is, as the title would suggest, the Countess Cathleen. Cathleen is an altruistic and good-hearted woman who is distressed at the suffering that has been inflicted upon her tenant farmers by a famine that has struck Ireland. As a result, she determines that she must sell her soul to the Devil in order to feed them.

Mary is a peasant woman of about forty years of age. She is pictured grinding corn at the beginning of the play; she is very concerned that something supernatural is afoot and is bringing about the family's misfortune. She is grateful to the Countess for her charity, scolds her husband and son for their ingratitude, and, in the end, refuses help that has come through tainted interactions with the supernatural. She dies of starvation.

Teig is Mary's son, aged about fourteen.

Shemus is Mary's husband. He is so impoverished and in need that he has been reduced to begging but is unable even to secure money by that means to feed his family. He feels that Cathleen's charity is insufficient and is ungrateful; he and his sons foolishly call upon the creatures in the woods to enter their house.

When Cathleen comes to the family's house in the woods, finding them very hungry, she gives them money. She also tells them that if they come to her house the next day, she will give them more. Cathleen has given them all she has, but she feels as if she owes them still more, as she is so moved by their plight. At the end of the story, having attempted to barter her soul for the sold souls of her foolish tenants, she dies but is redeemed as having been a good person.

Aleel is a traveling poet who serves Cathleen and offers her support.

Oona tries to prevent Cathleen from being taken advantage of by her tenants. At the end of the story, she is left desolate and suicidal because Cathleen has been taken from her.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757

Countess Cathleen

Countess Cathleen, an Irish noblewoman who has been away from home for many years. In a time of famine, she has returned to her castle, seeking shelter within its walls from the evils of the outer world. Her desire to retreat is undermined by repeated encounters with the starving peasantry, whose pleas for assistance cause her to empty her purse before she can rediscover the lost way to her castle. She resists the urging of her poet-lover Aleel to retreat yet further, embracing instead her duty to her dependents. Concluding that no place is safe from the world, she vows to open her castle to those in need and to empty her treasury to supply them with food. When even this plan is foiled by the theft of her treasury, she is tempted to personal despair but continues to assert publicly that God will provide. Her sense of duty ultimately brings her to imperil her own soul by offering it to the devils in exchange for money enough to feed the poor and the return of all the souls previously purchased; her Christlike acceptance of responsibility for the sins of others results in a similarly Christlike ascent into heaven.


Aleel, the poet-lover of the Countess Cathleen, who accompanies her to lighten her burden with his music and his stories of fairyland. He is fiercely protective of her, quarreling with Oona and nearly fighting with Shemus when they interrupt his efforts to distract Cathleen. His most successful effort tells the story of a mortal who died from unrequited love for the queen of the fairies; now, he says, she weeps not because she has realized his love too late, but because he was so unimportant that she no longer remembers his name. This is Aleel’s fear for himself, and it seems to come true when Cathleen dismisses him from her company to find the peace he urges for her. He wanders the woods forlorn, freely offering his soul to the devils because it can do him no good, but he is refused because he already has given his soul away. As a poet, Aleel experiences numerous visions of a higher reality. Even though he is at heart a pagan, he is granted a final transcendent vision of the battle between angels and demons and of Cathleen’s ascent into heaven.


Oona, Cathleen’s childhood nurse and adult companion. She shares Aleel’s fierce loyalty to her mistress but is too preoccupied with the concerns of the world to distract her effectively. Oona forces her mistress’ recognition of the castle when they finally reach it, and it is she who discovers that the treasury has been robbed. She lacks the imagination to comprehend Aleel’s visions, concerning herself with Cathleen’s physical comfort more than her emotional state. She remains with the countess but is kept from knowledge of Cathleen’s decision to sell her soul until it is too late. Her lifelong charge taken from her, Oona provides a final note of sorrow, bemoaning Cathleen’s loss even though reassured that her mistress is in heaven.

Shemus Rua

Shemus Rua, a rough and materialistic peasant, so beset by the famine that he no longer believes in anything. He is unsuccessful both in hunting and in begging for food, and he curses the world for his state. Desperation makes him ungrateful for Cathleen’s aid, and the need to assert himself drives him to beat his wife and to call on supernatural forces in which he only half believes. Because he does not believe in the soul, he has no compunction about selling his, and he finds a kind of joy in despair when he does so, becoming a willing lieutenant in the scheme to buy other souls.

Mary Rua

Mary Rua, another peasant, whose values are more conventionally Christian than her husband’s. She resists compromise with the evil of the times, insisting on proper gratitude to the Countess Cathleen and a holy respect for the supernatural. She will have no dealings with the demons, preferring to subsist on weeds rather than eat what is provided by their money. She dies in her bed, having preserved her soul at the expense of her body.

The demons

The demons, who disguise themselves as merchants, although many people have seen them in the form of human-faced owls and similar monsters. They will commit any dishonest act to further their goal of acquiring the souls of the desperate. They particularly value the immaculate soul of Cathleen.