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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 251

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Perhaps the most obvious themes—at least in the beginning of the narrative—in The Countess Cathleen by William Butler Yeats is the greediness of men and the temptation that precedes it. This is exemplified by Shemus and Teigue's complaints regarding the charity given to them by Countess Cathleen, which they consider meager.

However, the "meagerness" of her contribution is due to her generosity towards other peasants, so only a small amount is left for Shemus and Teigue. When the wife of Shemus scolds him for his ingratitude, Shemus throws a tantrum by calling the paranormal creatures living in the forest.

The theme of greed and temptation is further exemplified when two traveling merchants offer the men and the rest of the townspeople money in exchange for souls. The seriousness of the exchange doesn't affect the greediness of Shemus and Teigue. In fact, they use it to cheat Countess Cathleen—who is the personification of virtue, generosity and sacrifice—out of her money. The father and son even rob her treasury.

The character of Countess Cathleen is meant to teach the importance of what is invaluable in life, which in this case is a person's soul. Another theme, which is subtle, is the history of famine and Christianity in Ireland. There are instances in which the Christian faith is contrasted with ancient Celtic pagan beliefs. Countess Cathleen also represents martyrdom, which is a prominent theme in Catholicism. The Countess can be viewed as a representative of Jesus Christ in the story.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 323


*Ireland. Island west of England occupied and governed by Great Britain during the time of this play. The seat of power resides in London, and England controls the wealth and the land. Lack of land and money causes economic hardship as extreme poverty and famine looms over the country. The impoverished peasants, who previously lost their cattle, farm implements, and fields, sell their souls to demons for food and money. Yeats believed that Ireland should be filled with holy symbols, not only from an orthodox religion but also from poetry and mysticism. These symbols reveal the mystical spiritual realities not found in degenerate Europe.

Rua cabin

Rua cabin. Home of Shemus and Mary Rua, a hut warmed and lighted by foul-smelling sod fires in which the play opens. A door leading into the farmyard allows the peasant couple to watch over their few chickens and see the surrounding trees and woods. The cabin walls and trees are painted in flat colors without much light or shadow. This gives an otherworldly aura and diminishes any realism which may enter the drama, conforming to Yeats’s belief that dramatic scenery should be symbolic and decorative. The small and rocky fields cannot support a family; the economically and spiritually impoverished peasants remain superstitious, fearful, and easily duped.

Cathleen’s castle

Cathleen’s castle. Home of Countess Cathleen, located in the woods not far from where the Ruas’ cabin stands. The old castle has turreted walls painted in a flat gray color against a diapered or gold background. Its great hall contains kegs of gold (coveted by the English) and an oratory with an altar, where Cathleen prays. Her grace and nobility make her superior to both the powers of darkness and the English overlords whom they represent. Her wealth and her faith allow her to save the peasants. As a symbol of Ireland, Cathleen gives everything she has, including her soul, to save her people.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 195

Lucas, F. L. The Drama of Chekhov, Synge, Yeats, and Pirandello. London: Cassell, 1963. Places The Countess Cathleen in the context of European drama. Finds the play wanting.

Nathan, Leonard E. The Tragic Drama of William Butler Yeats: Figures in a Dance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965. Examines Yeats’s failure to realize completely his goal of a metaphysical drama about the conflict between the natural and supernatural worlds.

O’Connor, Ulick. All the Olympians: A Biographical Portrait of the Irish Literary Renaissance. New York: Atheneum, 1984. The chapter on The Countess Cathleen provides unusual detail about the play’s first Dublin production in 1899 and its hostile reception by some segments of the Irish public.

Rajan, Balachandra. W. B. Yeats: A Critical Introduction. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1965. Includes a good, brief account of the play’s failure to achieve Yeats’s vision and places the work in the context of his later successes, arguing that these successes unfairly color critical vision of The Countess Cathleen.

Ure, Peter. “The Evolution of Yeats’s The Countess Cathleen.” Modern Language Review 57, no. 1 (January, 1962): 12-24. Traces Yeats’s development of the conflict between dreams and responsibility through several stages of revision.


Critical Essays