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

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

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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1110 words.)

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