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...
(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.)
The action of Murder in the Cathedral occurs in and around Canterbury Cathedral; Part One takes place on December 2,1170, the day that Archbishop Thomas Becket returned to England and twenty-seven days before his murder by four knights of King Henry II. When the play begins, a Chorus comprised of the Women of Canterbury huddle outside the cathedral, certain that something is about to happen but unable to articulate any details: "Some presage of an act / Which our eyes are compelled to witness, has forced our feet / Towards the cathedral." They then describe their lives to the audience and these descriptions mark them as common people who fear any threat of change:"We try to keep our households in order," they explain, but "Some malady is coming upon us." Ultimately, they decide that"For us, the poor, there is no action, / But only to wait and witness."
Three Priests enter and briefly discuss a major issue of the play: the differences between temporal (i.e., worldly) and spiritual power The Third Pnest claims that, "King rules or barons rule" and that politicians "have but one law, to seize the power and keep it." The First Priest hopes that the Chorus has not become too jaded and hopes that they will realize that they have a "friend'' in "their Father in God." (Clearly, the populace and their religious leaders are living in spiritually trying times.)
A Messenger then arrives and informs them that their...
(The entire section is 1862 words.)