Study Guide

Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

Murder in the Cathedral Themes

Themes

Flesh vs. Spirit
Throughout Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas is warned about the danger of his remaining in Canterbury and the threat of danger from his enemies, who seek to please King Henry by murdering him. Before he enters, the Chorus begs,' '0 Thomas return, Archbishop; return, return to France," for he comes "bringing death into Canterbury"; when he does arrive, Thomas tells them and the three Priests that none should fear his possible death, for "the hungry hawk / Will only soar and hover'' until there is an "End" that will be "simple, sudden, God-given." The very fact of his return suggests Thomas's refusal to fear death and belief that God will decide whether he will live or die: as he tells the Priests, "All things prepare the event."

Thomas's disregard for earthly pleasures and power is heightened during his conversations with the first three Tempters. When the First Tempter offers him "wit and wine and wisdom" if he will only "Be easy" in his condemnation of King Henry, Thomas calls his temptations a mere "springtime fancy" belonging to "seasons of the past." When the next Tempter urges him to take up again the Chancellorship and "guide the state again," Thomas argues that "what was once exaltation / Would now only mean descent" to a "punier power," since, as an Archbishop, he is able to "keep the keys / Of heaven and hell." "To condemn kings, not serve among their servants,'' he explains, is his "open office."

Clearly, Thomas is not interested in any form of temporal power. The Third Tempter attempts to appeal to Thomas's political and religious faith, stating that Thomas could help the barons fight for the' 'liberty'' of England and Rome; still dismissive of man's law, however, Thomas asserts that if he"break'' the tyranny of the King, he must not do so for promises of power but must "break myself alone." The fact that Thomas is able to so easily refuse these Tempters reflects his desire to serve divine—rather than human—law; this also accounts for his turmoil when facing the Fourth Tempter, who questions Thomas's desire to become a martyr for purely spiritual (as opposed to temporal) reasons. Once Thomas considers his own heart and concludes that he must not be tricked by his own pride into coveting his martyrdom, he is assured that even if he is killed, his "good Angel, whom God appoints" will "hover over the swords' points."

Thomas's unshaken devotion to his spiritual life is seen throughout the Interlude and Part Two. When preaching to his congregation on Christmas Day, he tells them that martyrdom is "never the design of man," for' 'the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God" and "who no longer desires anything for himself." He then bluntly acknowledges his acceptance of his possible fate by saying,' 'I do...

(The entire section is 1147 words.)