‘Murder in the Cathedral’ is a verse drama by T. S. Eliot and portrays the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral that took place in 1170. It was performed first of all in 1935. The play includes incidents taking place between 2nd and 29th of December, 1170. The highlight of the play is the internal struggle faced by Thomas Beckett which reveals his psychology as well as the situations prevailing in the society that caused bloodshed. The struggle between the Archbishop and the authorities also reflect the effect of the rise of fascism in Central Europe at the times of Eliot.
Plot of Murder in the Cathedral
The book has been divided into 2 parts. The first part reveals the action taking place inside Archbishop Thomas Beckett’s hall on 2 December 1170. Thomas Beckett had been away from France for 7 years. The chorus informs about his absence over this period, his return, the rise of temporal powers and the possibility of violence in the coming days. Beckett is ready to accept his martyrdom which he believes is very likely. He confronts the tempters who offer him physical safety; prosperity and fame; coalition with the barons against the King; and, the glory of martyrdom, respectively. The concept of the tempters as well as the offers forwarded by the first three of them resembles the same in case of Christ. Beckett responds against the temptations stating his determination to not fall for them. He particularly denounces the last temptation which is similar to doing something praiseworthy with a wrong intention in mind.
The interlude includes a sermon by Beckett on Christmas morning which highlights the contradiction that Christians mourn as well as rejoice for martyrs on Christmas. The sermon reflects his peace of mind and his resolve to accept death without seeking sainthood.
The second part of the play includes incidents taking place on 29th of December. Four knights arrive who heard the King’s expression of his frustration regarding Beckett. They analyzed this expression to be his wish to have Beckett killed. They accuse him of betrayal and he defends himself. He demands to be tried before public. He is saved by the priests’ intervention when the knights try to attack him. he refuses to do so when the priests ask him to leave so as to protect himself. The knights leave for the time being but he again announces that he is ready to die. The chorus states its prior awareness about the possibility of such a conflict. It also announces the possibility of destruction in near future. Beckett is sent to the Cathedral where the knights, coming back, kill him. The chorus laments on his death and the knights come forward to justify their action. The murder is justified since church should not undermine state power.
The play is about Thomas Beckett who served as Archbishop while King Henry II attempted to reduce the powers available to the Catholic Church. Beckett was the only member of the church who did not stop opposing the King’s decision. The king, ultimately, convicted Beckett for having shown contempt to the royal authority. Beckett fled. Beckett excommunicated members of English court from the church which led to further rift between him and the King. Ultimately, four knights found Beckett out and killed him. However, whether the King had actually ordered for his assassination or the knights had misunderstood his intentions has always been debatable. The church canonized Beckett and pronounced him to be a martyr.
One of the most unique features of ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ is that it is in verse. Eliot produced a verse drama in an era when such an attempt was highly uncommon.
The play makes use of the chorus just like the Greek dramas. The chorus plays a very significant part in the play by providing necessary links and information the audience. It also guides the emotions of the audience by changing the tone of its own voice as per the situation.
Eliot seems to be following the popular beliefs regarding Beckett’s story without introducing many emotions on his own. Even the debate about whether the King actually ordered Beckett’s assassination or not has been presented in the usual doubtful manner in the play.