The Countess Cathleen

by William Butler Yeats

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Shemus 

The play opens in Shemus’s house as he returns home from what appears to be yet another scavenging mission. Shemus is a middle-aged Irishman with a wife and son who struggles to provide for his family during a crippling famine. His finances are grim, his pantry empty, and his future hopeless; Shemus fears that his family must soon subsist on edible roots alone, as food and money are scarce, seemingly inaccessible commodities. He is an angry and violent man who berates his wife and physically abuses her. 

Their bleak life has embittered Shemus to the world, and he denounces God, whom he feels has failed him completely. He follows this denunciation with an invitation, welcoming any manner of devilish figures into his home in exchange for an improvement in their circumstances. Shemus is understandably jaded and sees no harm in selling his soul to the demonic merchants who answer his call; all he knows is that he is wealthy and no longer hungry, for the merchants have provided him with the deliverance God has not. His actions lead to Countess Cathleen’s death, so although it is unclear whether the angel’s arrival or declaration of Countess Cathleen’s salvation changed Shemus’s mind, these religious experiences likely forced him to revise his impulsive and sinful ways. 

Mary 

Mary is Shemus’s wife; due to their dire financial circumstances, their marriage appears strained and unhappy. Despite her husband’s black moods and vile temper, Mary worries about him constantly, fearing for his safety. She is a mild woman with strong moral values and a firm belief in God. Ultimately, her piety and devotion to her religious beliefs lead to her death, as she refuses to sell her soul to the merchants or partake in the devilish wealth her husband and son earn from selling theirs. Like Shemus, circumstances have molded her into a desperate, tragic figure. Yet, unlike her volatile husband, she holds firm to her beliefs, even though they lead her to death. 

Teig 

Tieg is Shemus and Mary’s fourteen-year-old son. Like his father, he is full of well-deserved anger at the state of the world and denounces God in favor of the Devil. Alongside his father, he spreads the word about the merchants’ arrival and attempts to convince his fellow villagers to sell their souls too. 

Aleel 

A musician by trade, Aleel is one of Countess Cathleen’s traveling companions. He appears to care deeply about her well-being and attempts to buoy her weary spirits along the long journey home with raunchy jokes and comical rhymes. Once they return to Cathleen’s estate, Aleel reveals that he is in love with her; moreover, he explains that he foresaw her death and begs to spirit her away to safer lands. When she refuses due to her obligation to her people, Aleel lives. However, he is never far from the action and attempts to prevent Cathleen from signing her soul away, knocking the pen to the ground and begging her to rethink his decision. Aleel is a determined man who loves both deeply and genuinely. When Cathleen dies as a result of her sacrifice, he flies into a rage, shattering the looking glass that proved her death, berating the hapless peasants, and seizing hold of an angel from whom he angrily demands answers. 

Oona

Oona is Cathleen’s maid or, more accurately, foster mother. She raised Cathleen from infancy and has accompanied her ever since. Oona is a devoted woman who is deeply loyal to Cathleen. As such, she feels the death of her surrogate daughter deeply. 

The Countess Cathleen

The titular character, Countess Cathleen, is a beautiful...

(This entire section contains 911 words.)

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young woman with a kind soul and a penchant for altruism. During the play, she reveals her selfless spirit time and again, offering up first her resources and then her life in service of those living on her estate. Although she is a wealthy landowner whose estate boasts an abundance of tenant farmers, she is neither cruel nor exploitative; instead, she looks after her people and wishes only to ensure their happiness and salvation. Despite her love for Aleel, who offers to protect her from the evil threatening her life, Cathleen chooses to stay with her people. She gives up her wealth, lands, love, and, ultimately, life in service of others, proving herself to be entirely pure of heart and mind. Moreover, Cathleen's deep religious spirit and pious perspective lead her to heaven, even though she sold her soul to the devilish merchants. Cathleen’s motivations are selfless and sacrificial, and she makes a martyr of herself to save the poor farmers reliant upon her beneficent, a decision very few would make in such times of strife. 

The Merchants 

The merchants arrive at Shemus’s behest; they are employed by the Devil and wish to purchase the villagers' souls, thus sealing their fate and condemning them to hell. They are willing to pay unimaginable sums for these souls, and the deal seems (and is) too good to be true. In the pursuit of souls, the merchants are willing to lie, manipulate, steal, and cheat; like their employer, they embrace sin and live immoral lives. Although they acquire Cathleen’s soul, which they covet for its pure and virtuous nature, they are ultimately defeated by the forces of heaven, who free her soul and carry it to salvation. 

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