Murder in the Cathedral

What makes a cause worth dying for? T.S. Eliot's tragedy Murder in the Cathedral (1935) details the historical and psychological circumstances of Archbishop Thomas Becket's murder during the reign of King Henry II in 1170. The Archbishop welcomingly accepted his fate out of loyalty and love for his faith. This willing acceptance of death is strange and difficult to understand, but Eliot's play aims to reveal the redemptive purposes of suffering and martyrdom in the Christian faith. Keep reading for a summary, an analysis, and more.

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Table of contents

    Murder in the Cathedral: Setting and Context

    Murder in the Cathedral (1935) is a play by the British‐American Modernist poet and playwright T.S. Eliot (1888‐1965). The play is a Christian tragedy that follows the story of Archbishop Thomas Becket during the month leading up to his assassination by King Henry II's men. T.S Eliot wrote the play primarily based on Edward Grim's eyewitness account of Becket's assassination.

    The drama is set in Canterbury, England, the seat of religious power in England. It takes place in the year 1170, during the reign of King Henry II. King Henry II was initially friends with Thomas Becket and elected him Chancellor of Canterbury. Issues arose as Becket defended the rights and powers of the Catholic Church, while the King wanted greater power for the monarchy. The two men disputed whether the Church and Crown should have the right to deal with the crimes of clergymen.

    Thomas Becket is venerated as a saint and martyr in both the Anglican and Catholic Churches.

    Murder in the Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral Interior, StudySmarterFig. 1 Archbishop Thomas Becket was ultimately assassinated in the Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England.

    Murder in the Cathedral: Characters

    The play features the following characters listed in order of appearance.

    A Chorus of Women of Canterbury

    A group of common women from Canterbury who regard Archbishop Thomas Becket as their spiritual leader and fear for his safety. The women present the fear and suffering of the common people.

    Three Priests of the Cathedral

    The priests at Canterbury Cathedral who are awaiting the Archbishop's arrival. The priests condemn the women for worrying and welcome Becket back. They try to protect him from the knights and his death.

    A Herald

    A messenger who tells the women and priests that the Archbishop has returned from France.

    Archbishop Thomas Becket

    The Archbishop of Canterbury who has been away in France for seven years. Thomas Becket used to be the King's right-hand man but had to leave England because he eventually disagreed with the King's impositions on the powers of the Church.

    Four Tempters

    Four people who try to tempt Becket to seek power and pleasure over love and service of God.

    Four Knights

    Four men who say they are King Henry's men. They come to the cathedral, drunkenly murder Becket, and then try to convince the audience that they were justified in killing him.

    Notice that King Henry II never appears in the play. Why do you think Eliot chooses to have the King be absent from the play?

    Murder in the Cathedral: Summary

    The play is split into two parts, with an interlude between them.

    Part I Summary

    Murder in the Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral Interior, StudySmarterFig. 2 Imagine the scenes of the play taking place within the grand Canterbury Cathedral.

    The common women of Canterbury speak in a chorus. They tell of how Archbishop Thomas Becket has been gone for seven years and is now expected to return. The women fear for his safety. They express they can carry on through the drudgery of the winter months and seasons on their own, but the risk that awaits the Archbishop is too much to bear. Three priests enter the Cathedral and express their frustrations with the King of England and the King of France, who struggle for power and appear to forget God.

    In Classical Greek Tragedies, choruses were used as a group of people who commented and described what was going on in a play. What do you think is the primary purpose of the chorus of Canterbury women?

    A herald, or messenger, enters and announces that Archbishop Thomas Becket is near and that the priests should prepare to meet him. The priests ask the herald about the Archbishop's current relations with the pope, the King of France, and the King of England. He tells them the Archbishop is in a good relationship with the pope and the King of France, but not with the King of England. However, the herald suggests that Becket is aware of the risks and realities of his jeopardized position upon his return.

    The priests put aside their worries to welcome Archbishop Thomas Becket, hoping his leadership will lend clarity. However, the chorus of Canterbury women speak of the Archbishop's ill fate and beg him to go back to France to save the Church, the townspeople, and himself from doom and suffering. The women oppose the tension and change that Becket's return brings. They fear the demise of their faith and religion if Becket is killed or humiliated by the king of England. From France, he can safely be a beacon of light for the people of Canterbury, but upon his return, his image risks being compromised.

    The priests scorn the women for their negative talk and worries, stating they should look cheerful and pleasant upon the Archbishop's arrival. Becket appears and defends the women, saying they know more than they understand. He explains that his journey to Canterbury was difficult, with rebellious clergymen trying to interfere.

    Four tempters appear to Archbishop Thomas Becket. The first three tempt him with offers of pleasure and power. They tell him to seek the glory of his prior days as chancellor and to relish his former status and rank among people. The first three tempters do not easily sway Becket, but the final tempter distresses him by presenting his true desire, to be a saint. However, the tempter presents martyrdom and sainthood to Becket as a vain means of never being forgotten rather than a path of holiness by humbly dying for the love of God.

    The tempters, the priests, and the women speak of the fate of the Archbishop's death. The women beg Becket to save himself and leave, but he admonishes them all. He makes a resolution not to serve political means or the King before serving God. He says that he will not dwell in fear and temptation but trust in God's plan and protection.

    In the play, God's protection is suggested in the form of a guardian angel. However, Archbishop Thomas Becket is seeking protection from temptation and sin more so than from death.

    Interlude Summary

    The interlude of the play is the Archbishop's homily, or sermon, given on Christmas morning. He speaks about how Christmastime is both a time of celebration and mourning, as Christ was born in the world to suffer and die for humanity's sins. He speaks about the idea of Christian martyrdom, saying that martyrdom is a plan for a person designed by God.

    Archbishop Thomas Becket explains that a man is not made a saint by his own will but by subjugating his will to that of God the Father. He ends his talk saying telling the churchgoers that there is likely to be another martyr soon, indicating it is himself.

    A martyr is someone who suffers persecution for adherence to their faith or religion.

    Part II Summary

    Four knights come to the Cathedral saying that they are servants of the king who need to see the Archbishop immediately. The priests try to stall them, being wary of their intentions.

    The knights meet Becket and accuse him of disloyalty to the King. Thomas denies their accusations but affirms the power of the pope. The knights threaten Becket to confess his wrongs against the King and agree to the King's terms. He refuses, and the knights leave.

    The priests barricade the doors and tell Archbishop Thomas Becket to come to vespers, or night prayer. However, Becket insists they open the doors and not prevent anyone from entering the house of God. The priests try to drag him away, fearing the men will return to kill Becket. The Archbishop is unafraid of his fate and does not hide from the men. The knights, now drunk, enter and kill him.

    The knights speak directly to the audience, making appeals to gain their sympathies. They give long speeches explaining how they were not in the wrong for killing Archbishop Thomas Becket because they were doing what needed to be done to protect the political well-being of the state. They say that Thomas Becket was a willing victim and wanted to die for his faith.

    An Aside used to Break the Fourth Wall.

    An aside in theater is when characters speak directly to the audience to reveal particular feelings or truths. This theatrical technique breaks the fourth wall, which is the imaginary wall between the story and the audience. T.S. Eliot uses the breaking of the fourth wall to lend a bit of lightheartedness and strange irony to the scene following Becket's death. The surprise and absurdity of the knights' reasoning help reduce tension while also giving the audience further points to ponder.

    The Canterbury women speak of discomforts and suffering through vivid, eerie descriptions of nature. The play ends with the women coming to terms with the fact that they play a role in Christ's suffering and redemption through their own suffering. They also realize that the Archbishop's martyrdom was not something to be avoided but a fulfillment of God's plan for him to be a representation of strong faith and trust in the Lord. His death has brought a greater realization of faith to the women. The play ends with them asking God to have mercy on them and for Archbishop Thomas Becket to bless them.

    Murder in the Cathedral: Analysis of Themes

    Murder in the Cathedral focuses on the themes of power and suffering within a Christian context.

    Power

    The idea of power is presented in several different ways throughout the play. Thomas Becket, as chancellor, was swayed by worldly power, prestige, and comforts. The tempters try to present his former state of political power in glorified terms, hoping he will choose worldly, temporal power over spiritual power.

    The idea of spiritual power is complex because it actually comes from a surrender of self to God's will. It is choosing to glorify the power of God. Throughout the play, Thomas Becket must choose to give up his reputable position in the public eye, his comforts, pride, and eventually his life to defend his faith and the Church. Ultimately, the greatest power is held by the freedom of relinquishing fears and temptations and trusting in God's plan.

    Suffering

    Suffering is a theme that frames the premise of the play. The chorus of Canterbury women is constantly speaking of their woes, troubles, and the suffering they have witnessed and endured. They fear additional suffering upon Archbishop Thomas Becket's return, as they know he is in danger. They seek the comfort and safety of keeping him far from the land of King Henry II.

    However, Eliot uses the women's fears to show how avoiding suffering is counterintuitive to the Christian faith. Christ himself suffered and died as an ultimate sacrifice of love for humanity. In Christianity, suffering has a redemptive quality and is a way that human beings can draw closer to Christ. Archbishop Thomas Becket resisting the tempters echoes Jesus resisting the temptations of the devil in the Bible. Through the Archbishop's suffering of temptations and death, he is able to be a model of the endurance of faith and a model of Christ.

    Murder in the Cathedral: Quotes

    The following quotes elucidate the themes of power and suffering present in the play.

    One of the tempters tries to make Thomas Becket desire worldly power over the will of God. Becket replies that people who prioritize worldly order and power fail to recognize the true power of God and God's plan. Becket admits that he used to be powerful as the King's right-hand man, but now he knows that serving the King before God is senseless:

    "Temporal power, to build a good world,

    To keep order, as this world knows order.

    Those who put their faith in worldly order

    Not controlled by the order of God,

    In confident ignorance, but arrest disorder,

    Make it fast, breed fatal disease,

    Degrade what they exalt. Power with the King

    I was the King, his arm, his better reason.

    But what was once exaltation

    Would now be only mean descent." (Part I)

    Thomas Becket speaks of the women who are afraid to endure more suffering. He suggests that suffering is a form of movement from which growth and goodness come. He explains that a person must accept his suffering to have this redemptive quality, foreshadowing his acceptance of his death:

    They know and do not know,what it is to act or suffer.They know and do not know, that acting is sufferingAnd suffering is action. Neither does the actor sufferNor the patient act. But both are fixedIn an eternal action, an eternal patienceTo which all must consent that it may be willedAnd which all must suffer that they may will it,That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the actionAnd the suffering, that the wheel may turn and stillBe forever still." (Part I)

    Murder in the Cathedral - Key takeaways

    • Murder in the Cathedral is a play by the British-American poet and playwright T.S. Eliot.
    • The play details the death of Archbishop Thomas Becket during the reign of King Henry II in 1170.
    • The play is split into two parts, with an interlude between them.
    • The play takes place in Canterbury Cathedral in England.
    • The main themes of Murder in the Cathedral are power and suffering.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Murder in the Cathedral

    What is Murder in the Cathedral about?

    Murder in the Cathedral is about the historical and psychological circumstances of Archbishop Thomas Becket's murder during the reign of King Henry II in 1170.

    Who wrote Murder in the Cathedral?

    T.S. Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot was a British‐American Modernist poet, playwright, literary critic, and editor.

    What is the moral of Murder in the Cathedral?

    The moral of Murder in the Cathedral is suffering has purpose and meaning in the Christian faith. It is not something to be afraid of.

    How long is Murder in the Cathedral?

    Murder in the Cathedral is about 96 pages long. It is split into two acts and an interlude.

    Is Murder in the Cathedral a tragedy?

    Murder in the Cathedral is a Christian tragedy.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What year does the play take place?

    True or False: Murder in the Cathedral is based on a true story.

    True or False: The women of Canterbury are happy about Thomas's return.

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    Team Murder in the Cathedral Teachers

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