Murder in the Cathedral Summary
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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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The women of Canterbury are drawn to the cathedral, knowing instinctively that they are drawn there by danger. There is no safety anywhere, but they have to bear witness. Archbishop Thomas Becket has been gone seven years. He had always been kind to his people, but he should not return. During the periods when the king and the barons ruled alternately, the poor had suffered all kinds of oppression. Like common people everywhere, the women had tried to keep their households in order and to escape the notice of the various rulers. Now they could only wait and witness.

The priests of the cathedral are well aware of the coming struggle for power. The archbishop has been intriguing in France, where he has enlisted the aid of the pope. Henry of Anjou is a stubborn king, however. The priests know that the strong rule by force, the weak by caprice. The only law is that of seizing power and holding it.

A herald announces that the archbishop is nearing the city and that they are to prepare at once for his coming. Anxiously, they ask whether there will be peace or war, whether the archbishop and the king have been reconciled or not. The herald is of the opinion that there had been only a hasty compromise. He does not know that when the archbishop had parted from the king, the prelate had said that King Henry would not see him again in this life.

After the herald leaves, one priest expresses the pessimism felt by all. When Thomas Becket was chancellor and in temporal power, courtiers flattered and fawned over him, but even then he had felt insecure. Either the king should have been stronger or Thomas weaker. For a time, the priests are hopeful that when Thomas returns he will lead them. The women think the archbishop should return to France. He would remain their spiritual leader, but in France he would be safe. As the priests start to drive out the women, the archbishop arrives and asks them to remain. Thomas Becket tells his priests of the difficulties he has encountered, and that rebellious bishops and the barons had sworn to have his head. They sent spies to him and intercepted his letters. At Sandwich, he had barely escaped with his life.

The first tempter arrives to talk with Thomas. When he was chancellor, Thomas had known worldly pleasure and worldly success. Many had been his friends, and at that time he knew how to let friendship dictate over principles. To escape his present hard fate, he needs only to relax his severity and dignity, to be friendly, and to overlook disagreeable principles. Thomas has the strength to give the tempter a strong refusal.

The second tempter reminds Thomas of his temporal power as chancellor. He could be chancellor again and have lasting power. It is well known that the king only commands, whereas the chancellor rules. Power is an attribute of the present; holiness is more useful after death. Real power has to be purchased by wise submission, and his present spiritual authority leads only to death. Thomas asks about rebellious bishops whom he had excommunicated and barons whose privileges he had curtailed. The tempter is confident that these dissidents will come to heel if Thomas were chancellor with the king’s power behind him. Again, Thomas has the strength to say no.

The third tempter is even easier to deal with. He represents a clique intent on overthrowing the throne. If Thomas...

(The entire section is 3,481 words.)