Critically examine the central theme of Murder in the Cathedral.

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T. S. Eliot’s play centers on the difference between spiritual and terrestrial responsibility. Thomas Becket has taken an oath to support the king, Henry II of England, who is the embodiment of secular authority. As a Christian and as a priest, however, his primary responsibility is his devotion to God. Becket has been living abroad in part because of his disagreement with the king over the extent of Henry’s authority.

When Becket returns to Canterbury, the king has hopes that he has come to acknowledge his duty to the king. Instead, he has come to clarify his refusal to succumb to any authority other than that of God—indeed, to insist that there is such authority. He simply states that there is a power "higher than I or the King." Eliot emphasizes Becket’s human frailty and patriotism, as he wishes he could find a way to serve both masters, struggling with his conscience and resisting the Tempters’ offers. The king’s command to execute him is portrayed as conveying his lack of confidence in his own power; it is the only way he can silence Becket.

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The entire play is built around the inevitable death of Thomas as he chooses to be obedient to God and God's call on his life rather than give in to the king's commands, which Thomas views as being against God's calling on him. The central theme is therefore that of obedience, as Thomas shows himself to be utterly obedient, even to the point of dying. This is shown most clearly in one of his last speeches where he remonstrates with the priests to open the door and let the knights, who he knows will kill him, into the cathedral. Note what he says:

For every life and every act

Consequence of good and evil can be shown.

And as in time results of many deeds are blended

So good and evil in the end become confounded.

Thomas willingly gives his life to his God, trusting that the consequences of his actions and those of his king in killing him will eventually, in God's perfect timing, become shown for what they are. Thomas eventually is strong enough in himself to resist all temptation offered in the form of the Tempters and is then free to face his destiny, remaining free to die with his loyalty to God in tact. In the major conflict in the play, which is between spiritual beliefs and earthly temptations, Thomas shows that he firmly conquers earthly temptations through his radical obedience.

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