Becket begins as it will end, with King Henry performing ritual penance for his long-suspected role in the assassination of Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, formerly his friend and chancellor of England. While the king wonders aloud how and where their friendship went wrong, Becket’s ghostly presence soon appears, exhorting the king to pray instead of talking. The scene then shifts abruptly to the days of the two men’s boon companionship, culminating in the king’s impulsive appointment of Becket to the post of chancellor, a move calculated to increase the crown’s control of a rebellious clergy. Equally mistrusted by the bishops and by the king’s own noble henchmen, Becket nevertheless discharges his duties with truly diplomatic grace and considerable skill, temporarily earning the grudging respect of both sides. Refined, even somewhat dandified in manners and appearance, Becket seems determined to establish the dignity of the British crown, the better to increase its power.
The king, as boorish as Becket is refined, in time comes to perceive the extent of Becket’s skills, exerted on his own behalf. He crucially fails, however, to seek or find his friend’s true motivations: The second half of act 1, directly following Becket’s appointment as chancellor, shows Becket and the king riding through the woods when they are caught in a downpour; as they seek refuge in a peasant’s hut, the king betrays nearly total ignorance of his subjects and even of the laws of his own land. It is Becket, indeed, who provides the needed education, meanwhile parrying the king’s sudden urge to abduct the peasant’s daughter. Indispensable to the delineation and development of character, the scene will end tragically with the suicide of Becket’s mistress Gwendolen, whom the king has demanded of Becket in exchange for the peasant girl. He has asked Becket if he loves Gwendolen, yet Becket, true to his personal code of honor, has remained inscrutable, loyally allowing the king to have his own way. When Gwendolen stabs herself as an alternative to sleeping with the king, the king concludes that he has narrowly escaped an assassination attempt and crawls into Becket’s bed for comfort. Act 1 ends with Becket’s soliloquy before the sleeping king, weighing the merits of his own pragmatism.
At the start of act 2, the king’s barons, little more than a band of armed thugs, are grumbling with resentment toward the subtle, smooth-talking chancellor when Becket himself appears, assessing the human cost of the battle that the British have just won. As before, Becket must instruct both king and barons in the art of politics, arguing that diplomacy is the best tool of the victor and that looting the vanquished territory works against the victor’s ultimate material interest; he encourages the king, against the latter’s instincts, to treat the vanquished French with generosity and dignity, the better to appease their resentment and prevent reprisals. Becket then informs the king of a growing threat posed at home by the British clergy, whose power competes increasingly with that of the crown. As Becket and the king discuss such matters across the nude form of the king’s latest amatory conquest, a guard arrives to announce the arrest of a suspicious character found lurking outside the king’s tent, a young monk armed with a knife. A countryman of Becket’s, the young monk seems to remind Becket of his former self; throughout the action that follows, Becket will supervise the monk’s capture and eventual release, gradually befriending the fractious youth.
During the formal march into the town already conquered, Becket continues his civilizing, restraining influence upon the king, all the while protecting the king’s person with the strictest security procedures. A messenger suddenly appears, announcing the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The king, Becket’s recent intelligence still ringing in his ears, impulsively decides to replace the dead bishop with Becket himself, a former candidate for the priesthood, in order to place “his own man” in that politically sensitive position....
(The entire section is 1690 words.)