“Murder in the Cathedral” is a verse drama written by T. S. Eliot and first performed in 1935. He wrote the play during the rise of fascism in Central Europe. Eliot’s play covers a small span of time, December second through the twenty-ninth of 1170. It follows the days leading up to the death and martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket.
During the first part, Thomas is confronted with the uneasiness of the people in Cambridge who worry about the coming violence and the upsetting of a stagnating but a hard way of life. The Chorus gives voice to these emotions. In the way of the Greek Dramas, they provide a link between the audience and the characters of the play.
The priests represent the various feelings of the church during this time. One is patient, one is ambitious and one wants to leave it to God. After Thomas, the Archbishop of Cambridge arrives the Tempters arrive to convince him to capitulate to the demands of King Henry II. Because Thomas wants more of the power returned to the Church and the King wants more power over the Church, the two have come to an insurmountable obstacle.
In the second half of the play, Thomas is attacked by the Four Knights and killed. They justify the act by saying they were sent on order by the King, although history has said that the King was angry and made an offhand comment they misinterpreted. They also claimed, and maybe rightly so, that Thomas searched out his execution so he could be martyred for the Church and later become Canonized, which he was soon after his death by Pope Alexander III.
The play opened in the Archbishop’s Hall on the second of December in 1170. A group of female commoners of Canterbury enter and stand near the cathedral. They are the ‘Chorus.’ The women don’t know why they are there but they have been mysteriously drawn because they feel something bad is about to happen. The women say their lives are full of suffering and the have become accustomed to it. They compare the dark, cold landscape of waste to live.
The women complain that seven years have passed since the Archbishop left them. They have tried to remain unseen and not stand out to the rulers since then. They see no end to their unhappiness and struggles. “For us the poor, there is no action, But only to wait and to witness.”
Enter three priests. The first priest echoes the seven-year loss of the Archbishop. The second priest wonders about the impact the Pope and the Archbishop can have on the political machinations of the English and French King. To which the third priest replies harshly that any worries of politics are worldly. “They have but one law, to seize power and keep it, And the steadfast can manipulate the greed and lust of others.” To which the first priest replies that he worries about the religious lives of the of the “poor at the gate.” He thinks they may have forgotten “Their Father in God.”
A Messenger enters. He announces that the Archbishop, Thomas is in England and is arriving at the city. The first priest hopes his return means he has made peace with the King. To which the third priest wonders what peace could be found “between the hammer and the anvil?” The second priests ask if this means peace or war. The first priest asks the messenger if the Archbishop has returned with the power of Rome to back up his belief and bringing peace. The messenger assures him that Thomas has the Pope, the King of France and the English people on his side, but not the agreement of the English King.
After delivering his speech ending with “But no one considers it a happy prognostic.” The messenger exits. The the first priest starts immediately into his fears for the Archbishop and for the Church. He remembers when Thomas was Chancellor and well loved by the King, even though all the barons hated him. He was “always isolated.” He continues with, “Had the King been greater, or had he been weaker Things had perhaps been different for Thomas.”
The second priest does not agree with the gloom and doom. He thinks that the return of Thomas is a good thing and he will help to straighten out the government. The third priest just wants something to happen, “for good or ill.” The government has been holding in a stalemate for seven years, “For ill or good, let the wheel turn.”
The chorus of women have been listening to the exchange and just want Thomas to go back to France. They don’t want to have any large changes, they just want to quietly live their lives. Although life is hard at least they know what to expect. They fear for the changes Thomas might bring.
When the second priest hears their complaining and woes of uncertain doom, he calls the women, “foolish, immodest and babbling women.” He wants them to put on a happy face to greet Thomas who is arriving. “And give a hearty welcome to our good Archbishop.”
Thomas enters. He overhears the priest admonishing the women and tells him they women might have the right idea. “They speak better than they know, and beyond your understanding.” He continues with “the wheel may turn and still Be forever still.”
The second priest is full of apologies for not being better prepared but uses the women as his excuse. He assures him that they have his room ready. He tells him that is no concern to him since he just barely made it past “Those who have sworn to have my head from me.” To which the first priest asks if he was followed. He replies that they are always circling like a “hungry hawk.”
The first Tempter enters. He calls himself “Old Tom, gay Tom, Becket of London.” He fondly remembers the good times and thinks that maybe the return of the Archbishop means he and the King have resolved their argument. He tries to tempt the Archbishop to give up his stern beliefs and give in to the easier way of life. “A nod is as good as a wink.” Go back to being carefree, and pliable. That way he can make peace with the King. “The easy man lives to eat the best dinners.”
Thomas denies the tempter even though it sounds good it is impossible for him. But, “the impossible is still a temptation.”
The Second Tempter enters. He identifies himself as someone the Archbishop met while he was Chancellor. He suggests Thomas go back to that job when he had more power than he does now. “Power obtained grows to glory.” He tells Thomas that the church can wait. “Power is present. Holiness hereafter.” He tries to convince Thomas that as Chancellor he was able to enact laws that protected the people. He had more immediate control. But Thomas argues that as Chancellor he had to bend to corrupt barons and bishops as Archbishop he only answers to the church and God. He has the power now to “condemn kings, not serve among their servants.” Bested, the second Tempter leaves.
The Third Tempter enters. He claims to be unexpected, but Thomas tells him he expected him. The Third Tempter says that he is “A country – keeping lord who minds his own business.” “a rough straightforward Englishman.” He tries to twist his idea around until Thomas tells him to speak clearly. Finally, the Tempter tells Thomas he has no hope of reconciliation with the King. He claims to be speaking for the barons when they offer to help him overthrow the King. Since Thomas has the backing of Rome they can end the “tyrannous jurisdiction.”
But Thomas rejects him easily. “if the Archbishop cannot trust the King. How can he trust those who work for the King’s undoing?” He remembers these barons that used to wait outside his door with these claims when he was Chancellor. “No one shall say that I betrayed a king.” “if I break, I must break alone.”
The Fourth Tempter enters. He is unexpected. He won’t reveal his name, but he says Thomas knows him. “your will is hard to bend. And with me beside you, you shall not lack a friend.” The Tempter agrees with Thomas’ arguments thus far and counsels that Thomas takes the path of martyrdom. Although Thomas admits that he has considered that path. But, the tempter reveals what Thomas’ real fear is, that he will be hated till his death, and then put down in history as irrelevant afterward. This Tempter is the strongest because he knows Thomas’ most shameful fantasies, to go down in history as a martyr. Thomas asks, “Can sinful pride be driven out only by more sinful?” The Tempter answers with the speech Thomas gave at the beginning, ending with “That the wheel may turn and still be forever still.”
Thomas is silent and the Chorus speaks up. They claim there is no rest to be found anywhere. The are restless and waiting for the danger they fear is coming. The Four Tempters address the audience. They speak together in verse. They say that all things are unreal. “The Catherine wheel, the pantomime cat, The prizes are given at the children’s party. The prize awarded for the English essay. The scholar’s degree, the statesman’s decoration.” They see Thomas as “obstinate, blind, intent on self-destruction.” As are most men. They say that Thomas is “Lost in the wonder of his own greatness, The enemy of society, enemy of himself.”
Then the three priests speak to Thomas in the chorus. They beg him not to fight the “intractable tide.” They ask him to “wait for the sea to subside.”
Next the Chorus, Priests and Four Tempters alternate speeches. First the Chorus then the priests, and then the Tempters alternating lines. They speak of the uncertainty of death and life. “A man my climb the stair in the day, and slip on a broken step.”
Then the Chorus goes into a long speech about their unhappiness. They beg him to help them find some happiness. “O Thomas Archbishop, save us, save us, save yourself that we may be saved; Destroy yourself and we are destroyed.”
But, Thomas has come to a decision. His way is clear. He remembers that he once sought “pleasure, advancement, and praise.” And he understands the last Tempter was the most potent because he must not accept martyrdom for the sake of his pride. Not to live on in history. He realizes that he must accept it not yearn for it.
The interlude is a sermon delivered by Thomas, Archbishop. The sermon is delivered at the Cathedral on Christmas Morning, 1170. It begins with a quote from the book of Luke in the Bible. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.”
He promises to make the sermon a short one. Then he goes on to say that he wants to look into the deeper meaning of their Christmas sermons. He points out that the celebrate the birth and death of Christ on the same day. He asks why they would celebrate and mourn on the same day. Then he brings up the use of the word Peace. Thomas states that since his disciples didn’t experience much peace themselves they must have been told to carry the peace of Jesus to others. He didn’t mean earthly peace but a greater peace.
Then he reminds them the next day they celebrate St. Stephen’s day. He was the first martyr. He thinks that Christmas is closely related to the celebration of martyrs. He analyses the making of martyrs. Dying for Christ is not enough. That can happen by accident, and “A Christian martyrdom is never and accident, for Saints are not made by accident.” He says that worldly ambitions don’t lead to martyrdom, either. A true martyr finds freedom by submitting to God. “In Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low.”
Thomas closes his sermon by asking the congregation to remember the Archbishop of Elphege, the martyr of Canterbury. He goes on to say that he doesn’t think he will speak to them again and they will have another martyr. “I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time.”
The first scene opens in the Archbishop’s Hall on the twenty-ninth of December 1170. Four days have passed since the sermon of the Interlude and it has been twenty-seven days since Part One. The first to speak is the Chorus. They talk about the arrival of the deaths of winter. “What signs of a bitter spring?” They point out that the deep winter brings a cease-fire to the wars because the “world must be cleaned in the winter, or we shall have only a sour spring, a parched summer, an empty harvest.”
The First Priest enters, he is carrying a banner of St. Stephen. Some of the dialogue is spoken and some is sung. Next, the Second Priest enters carrying a banner of St. John the Apostle. The spoken and sung dialogue continues in a chant to the Saints. Then the Third Priest enters carrying the banner of the Holy Innocents. The chant continues. Then the Priests stand together with the banners behind them. They continue the chant praising the Saints.
Four Knights enter and the banners disappear. They are greeted as servants of the King. They say that they have ridden from France with orders from the King for the Archbishop. Thomas arrives immediately. When he sees the knights he tells the priests that the moment has come. He tells the priests that he was involved in matters of another urgency. “On my table, you will find The papers in order, and the documents signed.” He sends the priests away and speaks privately with the knights.
The knights proceed to harangue Thomas for being disloyal to the King. He insists that he has never betrayed the King, but he must serve a higher master.
The knights move to take Thomas by force when he says that he will answer the charges in public. When the knights try to attack, the priests and attendants step in front of Thomas. He insists that he is not against the King or the King’s desire to crown his son. He is not the one who excommunicated the King and his son, that was the Pope.
Thomas adds that he has already spent seven years away from his congregation and “Never again, you must make no doubt, Shall the sea run between the shepherd and his fold,” when the knights tell him that the King’s command is that he and his servants’ depart from this land.
Before the Knights leave they warn the priests that they are accountable if they don’t restrain Thomas. “We come with the King’s justice, we come with swords.”
The Chorus gives an ominous speech that uses horrible images to paint the pictures of violence coming. Thomas begs them to be quiet. “I am not in danger; only near death.” The priests beg him to flee but he says he is ready to receive martyrdom. When the priests hear the knights approaching they force Thomas off stage to fulfill his duty of vespers.
The Chorus speaks again and the scene changes to the cathedral. Meanwhile, a Latin chant is being sung in the distance. The women are preparing for the upcoming death, but the priests are trying to bar the door. Finally, the priests accept his command and open the door.
The knights enter “slightly tipsy.” The priests try to force Thomas to hide while the knights drunkenly taunt him. The knights begin to chant the word traitor to him. Thomas argues that he is “no traitor to the King. I am a priest.” as he faces them unarmed. The first knight wants him to “absolve all those you have excommunicated.” The second knight, “Resign the powers you have arrogated.” The third knight, “Restore to the King the money you appropriated.” Then the first night again, “Renew the obedience you violated.” Thomas commends his cause to the church. Then the Knights kill him while the Chorus begs someone to clear the air. With the death of the Archbishop, they see only pain and suffering.
Afterward, the First Knight goes downstage to address the audience. He begs the audience to give him the chance to explain. But not being an eloquent man he asks the Second Knight to explain. He says they were disinterested in the murder and were putting their country first. The First Knight agrees and asks the Third Knight to speak.
The defense of the Third Knight is more lengthy and involved. He believes he was doing his duty for King and country. He goes on to say that although the Knights may be guilty of murder Thomas is guilty of suicide.
The First Knight closes their parts by telling the audience to head home and not do anything that would provoke a public commotion. Then the Knights leave.
Then the priests lament about the world without the Archbishop. The Chorus ends by asking the Lord and Christ to “have mercy upon us.” and ” Blessed Thomas, pray for us.”
Thomas Becket – Born on the twenty-first of December around 1119, in Cheapside, London. His parents were of Norman descent. He started out as a clerk and later rose to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. Along the way, he served as Lord Chancellor to King Henry II. His quitting that post to become the Archbishop is what began the rift with King Henry II and led to Becket’s death. The King wanted royal control over the church and Becket wanted to regain the control the church had lost.
Thomas was labeled a traitor by the King privately. It is believed he made an off-hand remark that was overheard by four knights who then assassinated the Archbishop on what they thought were the King’s wishes.
In Murder in the Cathedral Thomas is portrayed as a bit of a heretic in search of becoming a martyr. In the end, he is canonized. He is shown to be very proud and sanctimonious. In the end, he decides that he will not seek to become a martyr but be willing to accept it when it happens.
Chorus – made up of a group of common and poor women. They are the true workers in the community. They don’t want to be involved in politics and although they are religious and have been taught to respect the church and the men running it, they also know that life has been hard but manageable while Thomas was in exile for seven years. Now they fear that with his return will come harsher punishments that will trickle down to them.
First Priest – He is the worrier. He sees the return of the Archbishop as bringing trouble for the church and the congregation.
Second Priest – He is pragmatic. He examines the return of the Archbishop by how it will affect the business side of the congregation and the church.
Third Priest – He is the patient one. Instead of worrying, he places all in the hands of God.
The First Tempter – He is named after an old friend of Thomas. He would be the representative of his early carefree days before he entered so closely into the service of the King and began to reach for power.
The Second Tempter – He names himself as a friend from Thomas’ time as a Chancellor. He is the representative of the times when Thomas was able to use the post to aid the common man. He tempts him with the power that was almost more than the King.
The Third Tempter – He names himself as a baron. He wants to tempt Thomas to join with the dissenters. He wants Thomas to use his fame and power to actually fulfill the claims of the King and become a traitor and overthrow the King.
The Fourth Tempter – This man is a surprise to Thomas. He points out that Thomas may be searching for martyrdom by being too prideful to give in to the demands of the King. He is a surprise because Thomas does harbor private thoughts of being canonized. This Tempter allows him to see the fault and understands he must not seek to become a martyr but be willing to accept it when it comes.
Thomas Stearns Eliot Biography
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in September of 1888 in Saint Louis, Missouri. His father was Henry Ware Eliot, a successful businessman, president and treasurer of a hydraulic press brick company. His mother was Charlotte Champe Stearns who wrote poetry and was a social worker. Eliot was the youngest of six children.
As a child, he suffered from illness and therefore could not participate in physical activities and could not socialize with other children. Since he was so isolated he found his solace in literature. When he began to attend the school he studies included Latin, Ancient Greek, French and German. He began writing poetry at fourteen years of age. When he was seventeen his poem, “A Fable For Feasters” was published in the school paper. Later, while attending Harvard, his poetry continued to be published in the Harvard Advocate. Eliot earned his Bachelor’s Degree from Harvard in three years instead of the usual four.
Eliot moved to Paris after working as a philosophy assistant at Harvard from 1909 to 1910. There he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. He went back to Harvard to study Indian philosophy and Sanskrit from 1911 to 1914. In 1914 Eliot received a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford. Eliot had had plans to take a summer program at Marburg, Germany, but was stopped with the onset of World War I. He went back to Oxford, instead. During that time there were so many American students at the Merton College that the Junior Common Room proposed a motion to stop the Americanization of Oxford. But, Eliot was on the committee to stop the motion and reminded the students how much they owed to American culture.
While in London Eliot met the poet Ezra Pound who took an immediate interest in the young poet and helped him in his career. Pound took Eliot around to social events introducing him to the artist in London. He spent more time with these people than he spent at Oxford.
By 1915 he had taken a job teaching English at Birkbeck, University of London. Eliot’s doctoral dissertation for Harvard on “Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley was finished by 1916, but he failed to return for the viva voce exam.
Less that three months after meeting Vivienne Haigh – Wood, a governess in Cambridge, she and Eliot married. Their marriage was not a happy one. He married in order to settle down and she married by the advice of Pound to entice Eliot to stay in London. While he was teaching at the University of London the couple stayed with philosopher Bertrand Russell. Rumors had it that Vivienne and Bertrand had an affair, but the rumors were never substantiated.
One of the main obstacles to their marriage was her health issues. She wrote often to Pound with extensive lists of real and imagined health issues. Her mental instability led to her being sent away for her health. By 1933 they had spent so much time apart that they finally became legally separated. In 1938 her brother had her formally and forcefully committed to a lunatic asylum, where she died of heart disease in 1947. The play Tom & Viv written by Michael Hastings in 1994 tells the story of their relationship.
T. S. Eliot died of emphysema in 1965. After being cremated his ashes were taken to St. Michael and All Angels’ Church, East Coker in Somerset. It is the village his ancestors emigrated to America from. A plaque with the words, “East Coker. In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.”