King Henry is doing ritual penance for his suspected role in the assassination of Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, formerly his friend and chancellor of England. While the king wonders aloud where their friendship went wrong, Thomas’s ghostly presence appears before him, telling him to pray instead of talk. The scene then shifts to the early days of the two men’s boon companionship. Henry makes an impulsive appointment of Becket to the position of chancellor, a move intended to give the king more control of a rebellious clergy. Equally mistrusted by the bishops and by the king’s own henchmen, Becket nevertheless performs his duties with grace and skill, earning the grudging respect of both sides.
The king, however, fails to understand his friend’s true motivations. While riding through the woods shortly after Becket’s appointment as chancellor, the two are caught in a downpour. The king’s questions to Becket show the king to be quite ignorant regarding his own subjects and the laws that govern them. The king then becomes enamored of the young peasant girl in the shack where they take cover. Becket pretends to want the girl for himself in order to parry the king’s indiscretion. Becket soon thereafter loses his mistress to the king’s misguided playfulness: The king decides that Becket should return the favor that the king granted Becket in the shack. Specifically, the king should sleep with Becket’s mistress. Becket, circumspect as ever, agrees to share Gwendolen’s favors in exchange for those of the peasant girl. Gwendolen stabs herself rather than sleep with the king. Henry, oblivious as...
(The entire section is 668 words.)