Two musicians converse in a woodland house. The First Musician rehearses the background of the play: King Conchubar finds Deirdre as a young child in the wood, hires a nurse to care for her, and, as she attains womanhood, falls in love with her. Just before Conchubar is to wed Deirdre, Naoise, a young man, climbs the hill to the woodland house where Deirdre is sequestered and abducts her.
Fergus, an old man, enters the house and informs the musicians that Deirdre and Naoise are to arrive momentarily. They have been in self-exile, hiding from Conchubar’s jealous wrath. Having softened, the old king invites them to return. Fergus insists that King Conchubar has overcome his jealousy and forgives the young lovers. When the musicians express skepticism, Fergus grows angry. Although he insists that he will dance for pure joy at the change in King Conchubar, the First Musician notices forbidding-looking men moving around outside.
Upon entering the house, Deirdre and Fergus express apprehension that King Conchubar did not arrange to welcome them. Fergus conjectures that Conchubar will appear to welcome his guests himself, and he observes to Naoise that Deirdre’s uneasiness is understandable: Having been reared outside polite society, she does not understand the inviolability of the king’s vow. Surrendering his own uneasiness to Fergus’s assurance of safety, Naoise tells Deirdre that it is ungrateful of them to doubt their host. Fergus remarks that he believes the best of everyone, and that such belief is capable of influencing people to behave well.
Deirdre speaks quickly to the First Musician, and from his veiled remarks she divines that Conchubar intends to kill Naoise and force her to become his unwilling queen. Deirdre’s sudden anguished cry attracts Naoise, who admonishes her not to criticize the king. Reminding her of Conchubar’s oath, he instructs Deirdre that, “when we give a word and take a word/ Sorrow is put away, past wrong forgotten.” Fergus pragmatically reminds the lovers that the house stands in the stronghold of King Conchubar’s power and flight is impossible. Realizing that she and Naoise are trapped, Deirdre exclaims that she will buy their freedom by mutilating herself, to “spoil this beauty that brought misery/ And houseless wandering on the man I love.”
Naoise urges her to do nothing, for, indeed, their fate is unalterable. As if to punctuate Naoise’s fatalism, a messenger arrives and announces that Conchubar has prepared supper and awaits the company of his guests. The faithful Fergus gushingly confesses that he, too, had suspected Conchubar’s intentions, but that all is well again. Naoise gently chides himself for doubting Conchubar. Deirdre, who knows better, calmly notes that the messenger did not finish delivering his message.
Only Deirdre and Fergus are being invited to supper, the messenger concludes; Naoise, “the traitor that bore off the queen,” is unwelcome. The trap is sprung and Conchubar’s treachery revealed. Naoise quickly discovers that the woods around the house swarm with Conchubar’s soldiers: Flight and fight are equally futile. In a defiant gesture of self-control, he and Deirdre join in a game of chess.
Conchubar appears at the window, then slips back into the night. Naoise chases him, presuming that Conchubar flees from fear, but Deirdre snatches a knife from the First Musician, pretending that she will help Naoise in his flight. When Conchubar makes his appearance in the room, he gloats...
(The entire section contains 891 words.)
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