In T. S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral, what are the meanings of speeches addressed to the audience?

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

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In his play Murder in the Cathedral, T. S. Eliot makes use of the chorus found in Ancient Greek plays. In Ancient Greek plays, the chorus was a group of characters who "described and commented upon the main action of a play" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Chorus"). Since one purpose of the chorus was to comment upon and even critique the actions of the other players, the speeches of the chorus were often addressed to the audience and not to other characters. In their critiques, the chorus underscored major themes in the play. However, there were also times when the chorus critiqued a character by offering advice or at least by making the chorus's side of the argument known, and in those times the chorus addressed the character directly, not the audience. T. S. Eliot makes use of the classic chorus by having "the poor women of Canterbury" act as the chorus. Hence, any speech made by "the poor women of Canterbury," labeled "Chorus," is made directly to the audience, not to characters in the play.

We see the first example of a speech made by the chorus to the audience in the very first pages of the play. In this speech, the women describe themselves as standing outside of the Canterbury Cathedral, waiting for some terrible danger to happen that they feel forced to witness:

What danger can be
For us, the poor, the poor women of Canterbury? What tribulation
Which we are not already familiar? There is no danger
For us, and there is no safety in the cathedral. Some presageĀ  of an act
Which our eyes are compelled to witness, has forced our feet
Towards the cathedral. (p. 11)

Aside from describing themselves as feeling compelled to witness a terrible event take place in the cathedral, which we know turns out to be the historical murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, the women in the chorus describe themselves as having already undergone many tribulations. For example, they describe having been without their Archbishop for "seven years" while he was in exile in France, trying to resolve a dispute between the himself and King Henry ("The Murder of Thomas Becket, 1170"). Now, they fear further tribulations will come with the changing of the seasons--winter will bring death; spring will bring ruin to the crops; summer will bring drought; October will bring "decay"--and all they can do is wait and watch for such tribulations to happen, just as they are waiting for Becket's murder to happen and unable to do anything to prevent it; they are only able to wait (p. 11-12). The chorus's speech underscores the theme of hopelessness in the face of injustice.

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