Murder in the Cathedral
is a fictionalized verse drama of the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket written by TS Eliot and first performed in 1935. Written and performed at a time when fascism was on the rise in continental Europe, the play considers the agency of the individual in resisting temporal authoritarianism.
In life, Thomas Becket was a close personal friend and chancellor of Henry II, though he had decided to devote his life to the (Catholic) Church from a relatively young age. During this time Becket enjoyed the earthly pleasure of wealth and influence in the state and even led contingents of knights too fight alongside the king. It was ultimately Henry who suggested that the vacant Archbishopric of Canterbury Cathedral (the highest Church office in England) go to Becket, even though he initially refused. Becket was conscious that were he to become Archbishop the two would likely no-longer be friends, and Henry may even come to hate Becket because the king had been infringing on the rights of the Church, which Becket would not allow. Eventually, despite his protestations Becket was elected to the seat, and as predicted his relationship with the king became strained. After his appointment Becket lived piously, his influence and friends at court ceased to be of importance to him, and he and the king often clashed over the relative powers of the Church and the State. After several other conflicts between the two, the final straw occurred in 1170 wherein Becket excommunicated the Archbishop of York and two other bishops for presiding over the coronation of Henry II’s son, which was the traditional right of Canterbury. Angered by this latest assertion of power Henry condemned Becket. Regardless of the king’s intent, it appeared to those in attendance to be an order for Becket’s death.
Becket had been seeking refuge in France and the counsel of the Pope, but decided to return to England even though it appears from historical accounts that he was both aware of the danger and had predicted his own imminent death. After his return to England, four knights rode to Canterbury Cathedral, hid their weapons outside and demanded that Becket leave with them by order of the king. When he refused, the knights gathered their weapons and returned to the cathedral. They killed Thomas Becket and cut off his head on December 29, 1170. A monk, Edward Grim was in attendance and sustained an injury to his arm attempting to defend Becket. His account of the murder heavily informs Eliot’s version. Becket was canonized just three years after his death and is revered as saint in both the Catholic and Anglican faiths.
The play is in two parts, separated by a short interlude. Following in the traditions of Greek drama, the play begins with the entrance of the chorus, which serves as a narrator of sorts and also passes judgements on the action of the play. Half the chorus is comprised of women, gone to the cathedral for shelter from the growing danger and oppression of the state. The other half of the chorus is made up of priests, who also foreshadow
the coming struggle. Although Becket is a good leader, they wish him to remain in France and in safety. However, Becket returns to the Cathedral and bids the women stay and bear witness to the coming events.
Four tempters arrive, each offering Becket a way to save his own life, or glorify his memory at the expense of his true beliefs. The first tempter reminds Becket of the friends that he once had at court, and suggests that if Becket were to be less severe and relax his principles, he might escape his fate; Becket refuses. The second tempter reminds Becket of the power he wielded as chancellor to the king, and that he could wield such power again and no one would oppose him. He says that holiness is only useful for the dead and power is necessary for the living; Becket refuses him as well. The third tempter recommends Becket overthrow the crown, giving the church supremacy over England, and again Becket refuses. The fourth tempter is the most difficult for Becket to resist, because he suggests that Becket continue on his path, and seek the reverence and glory of martyrdom. Becket realizes that allowing himself to be killed for personal glory would be a sin against his faith, and sends the man away. The scene alludes to the three temptations Christ, and also foreshadows the four knights who arrive to kill Becket on the King’s behalf.
In the interlude Becket gives a sermon on Christmas day, ruminating on the inherent conflict of a day devoted both to celebration and lamentation, a conflict that is also applied to martyrs. Becket is aware of his imminent death. The second half of the play is concerned with the murder of Thomas Becket by the four knights who arrive to charge him. They defend their actions, stating that they will not benefit from carrying out the orders of the King, and will instead by exiled. The King himself will mourn the loss, because (as they tell it) he had raised Becket to the Archbishopric in the hopes of united the powers of church and state, and it was Becket who sought supremacy and a martyr’s death for himself. They conclude that his death must be viewed as a suicide and leave, while the chorus mourn.