Written in an engaging mixture of styles and tones, this play begins with a chorus and several priests heralding Thomas Becket’s return from France to Canterbury. England has clearly suffered hardships during Becket’s absence, but the action of the play is intended to show how suffering can be redeemed when it is seen as part of a divine pattern, how it can be an act of devotion.
Upon his return, Beckett quickly confronts the wiles of four tempters. Their temptations include sensual pleasures, political power, and revenge against the King, all of which Becket promptly rejects.
The fourth tempter’s lure is more subtle: He offers Becket the glory of his own martyrdom. In this crucial moment, Becket recognizes that his actions and motivations must be subsumed within the will of God, and that the most grievous sin would be to will his own death and his own glory. Becket surrenders himself completely to the divine pattern that governs the world, and thus escapes the final temptation.
This theme of individual and divine will dominate the second part of the play, in which Becket overrules his priests’ entreaties to bar the assassin knights from the door of the church. Becket calls upon his followers to trust in divine will and look beyond the earthly consequences of human actions. It is this wisdom, which is contrasted to the knights’ deceptive (and entertaining) justifications for having killed Becket in the end, that forms the center of this rewarding and varied work.
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. A very readable biography providing useful and interesting details about the making of this play, its critical reception, and its importance to Eliot’s rising career as a playwright. Ackroyd finds the play a success and discusses it in connection with other Eliot works.
Adair, Patricia M. “Mr. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” Cambridge Journal 4 (November, 1950): 83-95. A full and penetrating study that regards the play not as a tragedy but as a drama paralleling the setting of Canterbury Cathedral in pointing people to God.
Bloom, Harold, ed. T. S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. A collection of eleven important essays by prominent literary critics such as Helen Gardner, David Ward, and Stephen Spender. Wide range and balance of approaches, along with a useful chronology and bibliography.
Clark, David R., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Murder in the Cathedral”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. A collection of fourteen essays by prominent critics such as E. Martin Browne, Louis L. Martz, Grover Smith, William V. Spanos, and David E. Jones. Includes a substantial chronology of the author’s life and a concise bibliography.
Smith, Carol H. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice: From “Sweeney Agonistes” to “The Elder Statesman.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. Chapter 3 provides a useful summary of the play’s main features and concludes that the play succeeds on the level of poetic rhythm and imagery. A good introduction to the play.