Becket Summary

Jean Anouilh


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Becket Summary

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“Becket” is a 1959 play by the French playwright Jean Anouilh. It portrays a fictionalized version of real events that transpired between King Henry II and the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. The play premiered on Broadway in London in 1960 and has been revived numerous times and adapted into an Academy Award winning film in 1964.

In Act I, King Henry II visits the tomb of Thomas Becket, who has just been assassinated. Henry takes off his robe and is naked. While kneeling at the grave and awaiting a flogging punishment from the church for participating in the events that led to Becket’s murder, Henry remembers better times when the two were friends.

The narrative moves backward in time, and the audience sees Becket, a Saxon nobleman, accompany Henry, a Norman, to the Privy Council. There, they discuss a tax levied by the king that the church refuses to pay. In hopes of resolving this issue, Henry appoints Becket, a church archdeacon, to be his chancellor, and Becket in turn skillfully out-argues the current archbishop of Canterbury, the bishop of Oxford and Gilbert Folliot in regard to the tax in question. Despite his earlier loyalty to the clergy, Becket says, “My mother is England now.”

The audience learns more about the unorthodox friendship between Becket and the king as the two come across a Saxon family while on a hunt together. Becket, a Saxon himself, fears that Henry will rape the daughter of the Saxon family, and so he tells Henry that he wants her for himself. To show the transactional nature of their relationship, Henry says he wants to spend the night with Becket’s woman, Gwendolen, and Becket feels he has little choice to comply. But rather than go through with a sexual act with the king, Gwendolen kills herself. To add insult to injury, Henry is so frightened by Gwendolen’s suicide that he insists on going to bed in Becket’s room.

In Act II, Becket and Henry are on the battlefield where England has just defeated the French army. Becket is reminded of himself at a younger age by a Saxon monk who is caught trying to assassinate the king. Becket’s increasingly cautious attitude toward the king is exacerbated when the king appoints Becket to serve as the new archbishop of Canterbury to replace the one who has just died. Becket, who cannot fathom serving both Henry and God simultaneously, wants anything but to accept the position but feels he has no choice.

Becket takes to his new godly role with the ascetic zeal of a monk, giving his possessions away to charity and inviting the poor to dinner.

In Act III, Becket makes his loyalty to God over the crown clear by insisting that three friends of Henry who had killed a monk be tried in the church’s court. This enrages Henry who now views Becket as his enemy. Becket escapes England and is protected provisionally by King Louis of France. Becket also travels to see the pope, torn about whether he can still serve as archbishop of Canterbury in good faith. He prays to God and decides that God has placed him in the position of archbishop for a reason and therefore he cannot abandon his post.
In the final act, King Louis no longer wants the burden of protecting Becket as it strains his relationship with Henry. Nevertheless, he does not wish to simply throw Becket to the wolves so he attempts to organize a peace summit of sorts between the two men. The meeting results in Henry guaranteeing that Becket can return to England safely. Henry does not however mention what may or may not happen to Becket after he returns. Moreover, the King comes to the realization that Becket’s insubordinate behavior threatens his sovereignty. That Becket must not remain as archbishop is clear to Henry. However, it is not clear that Henry truly wants him dead. Nevertheless, he bemoans to a group of his barons, of Becket, “Will no one rid me of him?”

Whether or not Henry means this literally or not, literally is exactly how his barons take it. The barons attack and murder Becket along with his Saxon monk companion while the two are on their way to mass at Canterbury Cathedral. This brings the audience up to date and the first scene of the play is revisited. Henry has allowed himself to be flogged by the priests, to whom he promises to find and capture those responsible for Becket’s murder even though, ironically, it is Henry himself who is most responsible. Henry walks out of the church with his head held high as the play ends.

Many scholars have pointed out that one of the primary themes of “Becket” is honor, or a lack thereof. In her book, Jean Anouilh, Alba Della Fazia writes that “”Anouilh’s heroes love honor not for honor’s sake, but for the sake of an idea of honor which they have created for themselves.” This bears out in the first act in which Becket’s actions, though borne out of a sense of honor, result in the suicide of his mistress, Gwendolen. That scene ends with the line, “But where is Becket’s honor?”

There are also existential themes in play, as Becket is doomed by a combination of the absurd situation he’s in—torn between loyalty to the church and the king—and his value system, which places a high premium on honor regardless of whether the outcome of his actions could be described as “honorable.” In this way, the subtitle of “Becket” (Or, the Honor of God) is highly ironic. In the end, Becket fulfills his oath to honor God, but at what cost? What is gained or whom is helped by this honor? Certainly not Becket himself, and perhaps not England either.