Based on T. S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral, what was Thomas Becket’s life and character like? Why was he isolated? What was his internal spiritual struggle about? What temptations had he...

Based on T. S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral, what was Thomas Becket’s life and character like? Why was he isolated? What was his internal spiritual struggle about? What temptations had he to resist? Why was he killed? What was the place for his spiritual values in the totalitarian state he lived in?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In T. S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral, one reason Archbishop Thomas Becket is isolated is due to the fact that he went into exile in France for seven years. The second reason Becket is isolated has to do with the underlying reason for his exile--he believes the Church should and does hold more power than the king.

Historically, Becket went into exile in France after entering into a major dispute with King Henry II. King Henry became close with Thomas Becket and made him Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking it would help him as king gain more power over the Church. However, soon after his appointment, Becket shifted his allegiance from the king to the Church. One major point of opposition between Becket and Henry occurred when Henry decided to eliminate the custom of trying priests and other church leaders accused of crimes in religious courts of justice; wanting to gain more power over the Church, Henry insisted they be tried in the king's court instead. Becket's protest against this change led to further clashes and his decision to save his life by running to France ("The Murder of Thomas Becket, 1170"). Hence, as seen in both history and in the play, Becket became isolated because he disagreed with the king--he did not believe the king should hold power over the Church but that the king should submit in power to the Church.

We see the theme of the king's power vs. the Pope's power, or worldly power vs. spiritual power, discussed early on in the play when the three priests who converse after the chorus's first speech discuss Becket's exile and the king's unyielding dominance in power. As the Third Priest phases it, "King rules or barons rule ... They have but one law, to seize the power and keep it" (p. 14). The First Priest notes the spiritual side of the conflict when he asks if the king won't put an end to the strife "Until the poor at the gate / Have forgotten their friend, their Father in God, have forgotten / That they had a friend?" (p. 14).

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