Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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Murder in the Cathedral Summary

Murder in the Cathedral is a play by T.S. Eliot that dramatizes the final days of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas was once a powerful and well-regarded chancellor, but he has made many enemies as Archbishop.

  • Thomas returns to England from France after a seven-year absence. He is now hated in England because he excommunicated several bishops.

  • Four tempters come to Thomas, telling him to be kind to his old friends and make use of the connections he made as chancellor. He refuses.

  • In the end, four knights come to the cathedral and murder Thomas, declaring him unworthy of his position.

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Last Updated December 19, 2023.

Murder in the Cathedral is a play written in verse by the poet T.S. Eliot. Originally published and performed in 1935, the play takes place during the Middle Ages in England. It depicts events surrounding the true-life killing of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, by knights serving King Henry II.

The first half of the play is set on December 2, 1170, at the Archbishop’s Hall in Canterbury. It opens with a chorus of Englishwomen, a recurring element throughout the play that provides context and foreshadowing for the drama. “Seven years and the summer is over, seven years since the Archbishop left us,” the chorus proclaims early in the play, alluding to Becket’s exile in France after defying King Henry II. 

Three priests then enter the scene, followed soon by a messenger. The messenger announces to the priests that Becket has returned to England and will be arriving in Canterbury at any moment. The priests express excitement for Becket’s return but also concern for his safety, fearing that the tension between Becket and the king has not been properly resolved.

Becket arrives. He is aware of the danger following him, telling the priests, “[T]he hungry hawk will only soar and hover, circling lower, waiting….End will be simple, sudden, God-given.” Still, as archbishop, Becket remains committed to serving God and leading his people, even if he risks his life by doing so. A series of four tempters then visit Becket. They tempt Becket with safety, power, and glory in the afterlife should he abandon his convictions. Becket, however, resists their temptations.

A brief interlude divides the first and second halves of the play. The interlude takes place in Canterbury Cathedral on Christmas morning, 1170. Becket is the only speaker in the scene. He preaches about the meaning of Christmas and discusses martyrdom, referencing Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and how Saint Stephen’s Day immediately follows Christmas. Becket ends by foretelling his death, saying, “[I]t is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr.”

The second half of the play takes place on December 29, 1170, and starts in the Archbishop’s Hall, where the three priests are confronted by four knights demanding to meet with Becket. After a few moments, Becket enters and asks the knights about their concerns. They are hostile toward Becket, telling him that he “broke his oath and betrayed his King,” which Becket argues is not true. “We come for the King’s justice, we come with swords,” the knights proclaim before departing.

The priests urge Becket to retreat to the altar, believing the knights will return. Becket refuses, so the priests drag Becket away, moving the action to the Cathedral. Here, the knights return and call Becket a traitor. They ask him to undo all the ways he has defied King Henry II, but Becket does not; instead, he tells the knights, “I am now ready to die.” The knights kill Becket.

After the murder, each knight speaks and justifies their reasons for killing Becket. The knights then exit the scene. The priests remain, mourning Becket but also praising his sacrifice. The play ends with the priests asking God to have mercy on them and for Blessed Thomas to pray for them.

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