‘Murder in The Cathedral’ is a historical play written by T.S. Eliot. The events are centered around the murder of the Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury. The play is set in December 1170 during a time in England when England was embroiled in deep historical and political turmoil. King Henry II had appointed Sir Thomas Becket as The Archbishop but soon they had a falling out over what law should deal with a member of the clergy who had committed an unholy act against God and the church. The king could be heard shouting at the top of his voice for someone to get rid of the priest. This falling out between them came after the Archbishop had changed from his despicable ways and now was committed to the church.
Setting is important in a story. When one understands the story’s historical and social background, and connects these with the characters in the story, the more one will understand fully the particulars of the story. The persons who read the story by T.S. Eliot would have been familiar with the story of King Henry and Sir Thomas Becket. Becket was not a spiritual man so when Eliot presented the four tempters the audience knew that each of them depicted a part of the Archbishop’s past. Thomas and the King had a quarrel and a part of this quarrel was linked to historical events.
King Henry II had appointed the Thomas Beckett to be Archbishop of Canterbury so that he could dispense with the laws governing the Catholic Church. These laws stipulated that anyone who deviated from the laws would be exempt from the secular laws and could only be punished within the church courts. The King wanted to have his own way and divorce his wife so that he could take on a new one. The Catholic Church abhors this. There was much opposition from most persons mainly because Thomas was never a holy man, so he was not fit to be a part of the Holy Order. Because of the imposition of this law, there was much disorder in society and criminals were not being punished for their crimes.
The first half of the play takes place at the Cathedral, in Canterbury. The Cathedral in the play bears much significance as it is the symbol of the seat of power of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church represents the place of temptation, because this is the place where Thomas met the tempters who offer him an alternative course of action that would save his life but he refused. His refusal of this offer makes the church into a place of conflict and unease. After being exiled for seven years Thomas came back and his first place of refuge sis the church. Here the church is his tower of strength and he reassures his people that these things were inevitable. He tells his people that “You shall remember them, droning by the fire, when age and ..sweeten memory”
Although the church has now become a place of dread and fear, and there is no safe place, the women are still drawn there. It was as though they had to witness the fate of their bishop. When the Archbishop returned he was summoned to the church, ironically a place for the temptation to take place. The women came and stood near the church. They were all commoners whom Thomas had been kind to when they suffered oppression. They sensed that something terrible was about to happen and they all chorused, “the land became/brown sharp points of death in a waste of water and mud” (175). They remembered Thomas when he was among them and he was especially kind to them but hey could not shake what they felt. They felt that hopeless and did not feel that they had anything to live for.
The chorus features significantly in the setting of the play. The women of Canterbury who comprises the chorus, play an important role. They represent the people of great power who embrace life with a lot of strength. The chorus helps the writer to provide a context for making the decisions that would ultimately affect the characters in the play. The chorus also helps the audience to have a better understanding of the story being told and allows them to be part of the action. The women, being part of the setting, make the play very dramatic, and leave much to ponder on. They represent a part of the theme of fate. The events are bound to happen and they feel themselves being drawn to the Cathedral. The found themselves there and could not say how they got there. It was as if God had led them there.
In the second half of the play, the cathedral becomes a place of violence and death. The knights who were opposed to him not sanctioning the coronation of King Henry’s son sought to kill him. Thomas’s priests took him to the church, as a place of refuge but the knights followed him there. Thomas refuses to bar the doors to the house of God. This allows the knights to enter and kill him. The house of God is no longer seen as a place of refuge and safety, but as a place where one becomes a martyr for something that is right. The women who stood waiting and watching to see what would happen to Thomas were helpless. They could only speak of spring as “ruinous” and summer as “disastrous”. They realize that it was God who controls destiny and not man and no one could change it. They could only “wait and witness” (176-177)
The priests represent the church. They cry for those who will suffer because of the political upheaval that exists. Thomas is Like Jesus who, in the bible, enters the temple for reprieve but received none. Instead the church was desecrated by those who had no scruples and who would trample on Gods holy place in order to please the King or themselves. The priests wonder if the religious powers of Thomas and the pope would have any effect on the political war that was taking place. The priest was fearful that the “poor at the gate” (177) will be affected by the chaos around them.
The events of the play are set around Canterbury and makes allusion to the scriptures. The church is significant in all of this because it depicts the psychological and spiritual aspects of those who must make sacrifices for the good of others and for themselves. Thomas represents the historical aspect of the turmoil that was present in England at the time and the punishment that would befall those who resented the order of the day.
Eliot, Thomas Stern. ‘Murder in the Cathedral” Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963.
A Harvest Book. HB72. Notes on English Literature. Reprint ISBN0156632772