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Murder in the Cathedral T.S. Eliot
Introduction In 1163, a quarrel began between the British King Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.
The men had been good friends, but each felt that his interests should be of primary concern to the nation and that the other should acquiesce to his demands. • Becket fled to France in 1164 in order to rally support from the Catholic French for his cause and also sought an audience with the Pope.
After being officially (although not personally) reconciled with the King, Becket returned to England in 1170, only to be murdered as he prayed in Canterbury Cathedral by four of Henry’s Knights. • Three years later, he was canonized and pilgrims—Henry among them—have made their way to his tomb ever since.
Characters • Thomas Becket – the Archbishop of Canterbury and hero of the play. • Chorus – Similar to those found in ancient Greek drama, it serves as the mediator between the play and the audience. • The Four Knights – They threaten Thomas with physical violence, and ultimately follow through with their threats.
The Four Tempters – They offer Thomas intellectual and spiritual trickery. • The Messenger – arrives in Part One to announce to the Priests that Thomas is returning to Canterbury. • The Three Priests – As a unit the three Priests provide a context for Thomas’s religious speculations and offer the audience different opinions of him before he enters the play.
Conflict • The conflict exists between the King and the Pope; that is between temporal power and spiritual power.
Four Knights • Reginald Fitz Urse – First Knight • Sir Hugh de Morville – Second Knight • Baron William de Traci – Third Knight • Richard Brito – Fourth Knight
The Four Tempters • First Tempter – tells him that “Friendship is more than biting Time can sever” and ask Thomas to befriend the King as he did once before, so that there will be “Fluting in the meadow” and “Singing at nightfall.” • Second Tempter – suggest that he should reclaim the Chancellorship from which he resigned after his feud with King Henry; doing so would, the Tempter assures him, let Thomas “set down the great” and “protect the poor.”
Third Tempter – dubbing himself “A country-keeping Lord who minds his own business,” attempts to seduce Thomas into representing the barons at court in order to “fight a good stroke At once, for England and for Rome, Ending the tyrannous jurisdiction” of Henry’s reign.
Fourth Tempter – he tempts Thomas with his “own desires” of becoming a saint and martyred leader of his people. Eventually the 4th Tempter teaches Thomas about the degree to which his own pride stands between him and the will of God.
Protagonist • The protagonist is Thomas Becket, who represents the church and who resists Temptation.
Antagonist The antagonist is the state (or King Henry II) whose casual remark that the priest should be taken out of his way brings about the death and ultimate martyrdom of Thomas Becket.
Climax • In the course of the play, the climax of the action occurs with the temptation by the four tempters who offer Becket various items ranging from money to unlimited power. Becket resists them all.
The play really opens at the true point of climax when the whole city of Canterbury is rejoicing, but the peasant women of the Chorus have a strange intuition of death. • The tension is accompanied by a feeling that death is unavoidable, and it is almost accepted by the Chorus and the priests. What is left is only the ritual of killing and the prayer thereafter.
Outcome The play ends in tragedy with the murder of Thomas Becket; thus, the protagonist (Becket) is overcome by the antagonist (the state).
Note • Murder in the Cathedral was written for a ritualistic presentation. Hence, the reader does not find elaborate treatment of these components of the plot. • The whole play has an economy of scenes and action. It has the effect of unity of action on a single theme of how martyrdom takes place.