Discuss 'Martyrdom' as the central theme of the play Murder in the Cathedral.

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coachingcorner's profile pic

coachingcorner | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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Martyrdom is undoubtably a central theme in 'Murder in The Cathedral' by T.S. Eliot. Before beginning any assignment on a theme, be sure you know what the terms mean. A martyr is someone who is willing to endure death rather than renounce beliefs or religion. Martyrdom takes this one step further - it is the state of someone who has died for their faith and who has often built up an 'aura' of heroism because of that. Many martyrs are 'prayed to' particularly in the Christian faiths as 'saints.' Thomas Becket's murder and his status as martyr has dominated King Henry 11 of England's reign for us as well as the contempoary peoples of the time. The trouble with disposing of so-called 'trouble-makers' in this way has always been and still is a headache for world leaders and politicians, monarchies. This is because, in dispensing with one 'snake' a hundred more sometimes grow to take thier place as feelings of injustice and victimisation run high. Instead of going out, the spark of whatever unrest is present grows - sometimes into cult proportions. Look through the work and historical writings for the causes and consequences for Henry and the Pope  of Becket's martyrdom.

teachersage's profile pic

teachersage | (Level 2) Educator

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T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral was commissioned by Bishop George Bell as a response to Nazi abuse of power. It calls on people to resist tyranny and is based on the real story of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered for opposing King Henry II.

In the play, the Becket character realizes that he will have to oppose the king, and faces three temptations to avoid doing this, temptations based on the gospel account of the devil's temptations of Christ in the wilderness. However, Eliot burdens Becket with a fourth temptation: the desire to become a martyr for worldly reasons rather than spiritual ones. Becket struggles with whether he wants to be a martyr for ego gratification or to serve the will of God. 

As Becket comes to understand, 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."

Martyrdom is central to this play both because Becket becomes a martyr, dying to uphold his faith and because the play suggests that principled people must oppose tyranny, but also because the play calls into question what motivates martyrdom, arguing that it should be done for spiritual reasons, not self-glorification. 

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