The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Becket begins as it will end, with King Henry performing ritual penance for his long-suspected role in the assassination of Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, formerly his friend and chancellor of England. While the king wonders aloud how and where their friendship went wrong, Becket’s ghostly presence soon appears, exhorting the king to pray instead of talking. The scene then shifts abruptly to the days of the two men’s boon companionship, culminating in the king’s impulsive appointment of Becket to the post of chancellor, a move calculated to increase the crown’s control of a rebellious clergy. Equally mistrusted by the bishops and by the king’s own noble henchmen, Becket nevertheless discharges his duties with truly diplomatic grace and considerable skill, temporarily earning the grudging respect of both sides. Refined, even somewhat dandified in manners and appearance, Becket seems determined to establish the dignity of the British crown, the better to increase its power.

The king, as boorish as Becket is refined, in time comes to perceive the extent of Becket’s skills, exerted on his own behalf. He crucially fails, however, to seek or find his friend’s true motivations: The second half of act 1, directly following Becket’s appointment as chancellor, shows Becket and the king riding through the woods when they are caught in a downpour; as they seek refuge in a peasant’s hut, the king betrays nearly total ignorance of his subjects and even of the laws of his own land. It is Becket, indeed, who provides the needed education, meanwhile parrying the king’s sudden urge to abduct the peasant’s daughter. Indispensable to the delineation and development of character, the scene will end tragically with the suicide of Becket’s mistress Gwendolen, whom the king has demanded of Becket in exchange for the peasant girl. He has asked Becket if he loves Gwendolen, yet Becket, true to his personal code of honor, has remained inscrutable, loyally allowing the king to have his own way. When Gwendolen stabs herself as an alternative to sleeping with the king, the king concludes that he has narrowly escaped an assassination attempt and crawls into Becket’s bed for comfort. Act 1 ends with Becket’s soliloquy before the sleeping king, weighing the merits of his own pragmatism.

At the start of act 2, the king’s barons, little more than a band of armed thugs, are grumbling with resentment toward the subtle, smooth-talking chancellor when Becket himself appears, assessing the human cost of the battle that the British have just won. As before, Becket must instruct both king and barons in the art of politics, arguing that diplomacy is the best tool of the victor and that looting the vanquished territory works against the victor’s ultimate material interest; he encourages the king, against the latter’s instincts, to treat the vanquished French with generosity and dignity, the better to appease their resentment and prevent reprisals. Becket then informs the king of a growing threat posed at home by the British clergy, whose power competes increasingly with that of the crown. As Becket and the king discuss such matters across the nude form of the king’s latest amatory conquest, a guard arrives to announce the arrest of a suspicious character found lurking outside the king’s tent, a young monk armed with a knife. A countryman of Becket’s, the young monk seems to remind Becket of his former self; throughout the action that follows, Becket will supervise the monk’s capture and eventual release, gradually befriending the fractious youth.

During the formal march into the town already conquered, Becket continues his civilizing, restraining influence upon the king, all the while protecting the king’s person with the strictest security procedures. A messenger suddenly appears, announcing the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The king, Becket’s recent intelligence still ringing in his ears, impulsively decides to replace the dead bishop with Becket himself, a former candidate for the priesthood, in order to place “his own man” in that politically sensitive position....

(The entire section is 1690 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Although divided into what appear to be four traditional acts, Becket more often resembles a series of tableaux, a technique frequently employed in Anouilh’s other plays. Breaking with the unities of action, time, and place prescribed by French neoclassicism, the action of Becket ranges freely through time and space, taking frequent advantage of techniques borrowed from the cinema, such as flashbacks and split framing. As originally written, the text of Becket calls both for horseback scenes and for a scene on open water, although the latter was—perhaps wisely— deleted from the initial Paris production. Anouilh’s apparent intent was to create a spectacle of truly epic proportions, suggesting in its very sweep and grandeur the importance of the two main characters to the development of European history. A number of scenes must be set outdoors, and the horseback scene in which the two adversaries confront each other across a freezing plain is difficult to match for sheer dramatic power. Indeed, the scenic prescriptions of Becket suffice to strain the resources of the stage, as well as those of potential designers and financial backers.

Even with regard to the dialogue, the text of Becket often more closely resembles a film scenario than a stage play: The author’s stage directions, incorporated in the printed text, tend to be highly prescriptive as to timing, delivery, and even facial expression, allowing little creative freedom to potential actors and director. Arguably, Anouilh often appears to be directing the play himself, across the printed page, a circumstance which, when added to the numerous complexities of staging, might help to explain why Becket, for all of its genuine merits, is seldom revived in production.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Canterbury Cathedral

*Canterbury Cathedral. Medieval cathedral located in Canterbury, a city southeast of London. The play both opens and closes at Canterbury Cathedral. The stage directions locate Henry II of England at Becket’s tomb at the beginning of the play. The year is 1170. Henry is naked, except for his crown and cloak, and is about to be scourged by monks as punishment for the murder of Becket. That this punishment takes place in the cathedral is particularly important because it symbolizes the power of the Church. Henry’s attempt to control not only the state but also the Church through his friend Becket is what has led Henry to this ignominious moment.

The bulk of the play is told in flashbacks and traces the friendship and later the enmity between Henry and Becket. When Henry names Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket turns from being thoroughly the king’s man to being God’s man.

When the struggles between Henry and Becket reach their peak, Henry asks of his four henchmen if any of them can rid him of Becket. The men take this as a command and go to murder Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, where he is about to celebrate mass.

Because churches are traditionally places of sanctuary, the murder in the cathedral is particularly horrific and leads to serious repercussions for Henry. Within two years, Becket becomes a saint and his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral becomes the site of miracles and pilgrimages. In killing Becket, Henry creates a martyr, and the holiest site in England.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Middle Ages
The historical events on which Becket is based took place during the twelfth century, culminating with...

(The entire section is 672 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Anouilh chooses to construct Becket through a device known as ‘‘flashback.’’ That is, the opening scene...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1100s: England, conquered by the Normans in 1066, is populated by an English-speaking Anglo- Saxon majority and a French-speaking...

(The entire section is 153 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the conflict between Queen Matilda and King Stephen. How does Henry Plantagenet come to the throne? What political maneuvering takes...

(The entire section is 136 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Becket was released on film in 1964. The movie starred Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and was directed...

(The entire section is 39 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Anouilh’s play L’Allouette (The Lark) (1952) retells the life of St. Joan of Arc, focusing on her heroism and her refusal...

(The entire section is 139 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Anciman, André, Foreword, in Becket; or the Honor of God, by Jean Anouilh, translated by Lucienne Hill,...

(The entire section is 257 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Della Fazia, Alba. Jean Anouilh. Boston: Twayne, 1969. A thoughtful examination of Anouilh’s theater, with good consideration of the costume plays. Discussion of Becket is brief but perceptive.

Falb, Lewis W. Jean Anouilh. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977. Good overview of Anouilh’s theater, yet slights Becket in favor of The Lark.

Harvey, John. Anouilh: A Study in Theatrics. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964. Correctly distances Anouilh from the thinker-playwrights of his generation, situating him within the tradition of theatricality along with Molière and...

(The entire section is 167 words.)