Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The women of Canterbury are drawn to the cathedral, knowing instinctively that they are drawn there by danger. There is no safety anywhere, but they have to bear witness. Archbishop Thomas Becket has been gone seven years. He had always been kind to his people, but he should not return. During the periods when the king and the barons ruled alternately, the poor had suffered all kinds of oppression. Like common people everywhere, the women had tried to keep their households in order and to escape the notice of the various rulers. Now they could only wait and witness.
The priests of the cathedral are well aware of the coming struggle for power. The archbishop has been intriguing in France, where he has enlisted the aid of the pope. Henry of Anjou is a stubborn king, however. The priests know that the strong rule by force, the weak by caprice. The only law is that of seizing power and holding it.
A herald announces that the archbishop is nearing the city and that they are to prepare at once for his coming. Anxiously, they ask whether there will be peace or war, whether the archbishop and the king have been reconciled or not. The herald is of the opinion that there had been only a hasty compromise. He does not know that when the archbishop had parted from the king, the prelate had said that King Henry would not see him again in this life.
After the herald leaves, one priest expresses the pessimism felt by all. When Thomas Becket was chancellor and in temporal power, courtiers flattered and fawned over him, but even then he had felt insecure. Either the king should have been stronger or Thomas weaker. For a time, the priests are hopeful that when Thomas returns he will lead them. The women think the archbishop should return to France. He would remain their spiritual leader, but in France he would be safe. As the priests start to drive out the women, the archbishop arrives and asks them to remain. Thomas Becket tells his priests of the difficulties he has encountered, and that rebellious bishops and the barons had sworn to have his head. They sent spies to him and intercepted his letters. At Sandwich, he had barely escaped with his life.
The first tempter arrives to talk with Thomas. When he was chancellor, Thomas had known worldly pleasure and worldly success. Many had been his friends, and at that time he knew how to let friendship dictate over principles. To escape his present hard fate, he needs only to relax his severity and dignity, to be friendly, and to overlook disagreeable principles. Thomas has the strength to give the tempter a strong refusal.
The second tempter reminds Thomas of his temporal power as chancellor. He could be chancellor again and have lasting power. It is well known that the king only commands, whereas the chancellor rules. Power is an...
(The entire section is 1152 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Eliot’s best-known and most performed play, Murder in the Cathedral dramatizes the assassination of Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170 at the hands of four knights and at the bidding of King Henry II. In this play, written for production at the Canterbury Festival, June, 1935, Eliot put into practice his long-held desire to reestablish verse drama as a viable form of theater, a wish shared by the Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, whose work preceded Eliot’s. Both sought to return poetry to the stage for historical and aesthetic reasons, as they viewed the popular realistic plays of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as less desirable than poetic drama. Both writers have secured lasting places in the history of modern drama.
Modeled upon the chorus of ancient Greek tragedy, the chorus that opens the play introduces the place and the time—the return from a seven-year exile of the archbishop, at odds with the king for whom he had served as chancellor. Three priests, a messenger, Thomas, and four tempters of some demoniac reasonableness fill out the players of the first act. These last, for echoic effect, should be read/played by the same actors who play the four knights in the third act: This was Eliot’s original design, and it is one reason he altered the lines of the knights in the play’s second edition (1937), the text now current.
The chorus of the women of Canterbury comments on the...
(The entire section is 467 words.)