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 will lead them, they can make the power of the Church supreme. No more will the barons as well as the bishops be ruled by a king. Thomas declines the offer to lead the malcontents.
The fourth tempter is unexpected. He shows Thomas how he can have eternal glory. As plain archbishop, the time will come when men will neither respect nor hate him; he will become a fact of history. So it is with temporal power, too: King succeeds king as the wheel of time turns. Shrines are pillaged and thrones totter. If, however, Thomas continues in his present course, he will become a martyr and a saint, to dwell forevermore in the presence of God. The archbishop faces a dilemma. No matter whether he acts or suffers, he will sin against his religion.
Early on Christmas morning, Thomas preaches a sermon on peace, saying that Christ left people his peace but not peace as the world thinks of it. Spiritual peace does not necessarily mean political peace between England and other countries or between the barons and the king.
After Christmas, four knights come to Canterbury on urgent business. Refusing all hospitality, they begin to cite charges against Thomas, saying that he owes all his influence to the king, that he has been ignobly born, and that his eminence is due solely to King Henry’s favor. The knights try to attack Thomas, but the priests and attendants interpose themselves.
The charges are publicly amplified. Thomas had gone to France to stir up trouble in the dominion and to intrigue with the king of France and the pope. In his charity, King Henry had permitted Thomas to return to his see, but Thomas had repaid that charity by excommunicating the bishops who had crowned the young prince; hence the legality of the coronation is in doubt. The knights then pronounce his sentence: He and his retinue must leave English soil.
Thomas answers firmly. In France he had been a beggar of foreign charity; he would never leave England again. He had no dislike for the prince; rather, he had only carried out the pope’s orders in excommunicating the bishops. These words availed little. In the cathedral proper, the knights fall on Thomas Becket and slay him.
The knights justify the slaying. It may have looked like four against one, an offense against the English belief in fair play, but before deciding, the people should know the whole story. First, the four knights would not benefit from the murder, for the king, for reasons of state, would deplore the incident, and the knights would be banished.
Second, the king had hoped, in elevating Thomas to the archbishopric, to unite temporal and spiritual rule and to bring order to a troubled kingdom; but as soon as Thomas was elevated, he had become more priestly than the priests and refused to follow the king’s orders. Third, he had become an egotistical madman. There is evidence that before leaving France he had clearly prophesied his death in England and he had been determined to suffer a martyr’s fate. In the face of this provocation, the people must conclude that Thomas had committed suicide while of unsound mind. After the knights leave, the priests and populace mourn. Their only solace is that so long as people will die for faith, the Church will be supreme.
Eliot’s best-known and most performed play, Murder in the Cathedral dramatizes the assassination of Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170 at the hands of four knights and at the bidding of King Henry II. In this play, written for production at the Canterbury Festival, June, 1935, Eliot put into practice his long-held desire to reestablish verse drama as a viable form of theater, a wish shared by the Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, whose work preceded Eliot’s. Both sought to return poetry to the stage for historical and aesthetic reasons, as they viewed the popular realistic plays of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as less desirable than poetic drama. Both writers have secured lasting places in the history of modern drama.
Modeled upon the chorus of ancient Greek tragedy, the chorus that opens the play introduces the place and the time—the return from a seven-year exile of the archbishop, at odds with the king for whom he had served as chancellor. Three priests, a messenger, Thomas, and four tempters of some demoniac reasonableness fill out the players of the first act. These last, for echoic effect, should be read/played by the same actors who play the four knights in the third act: This was Eliot’s original design, and it is one reason he altered the lines of the knights in the play’s second edition (1937), the text now current.
The chorus of the women of Canterbury comments on the action and presents its own sense of foreboding, fear, and, at the play’s end, desolation. The priests, who may be seen as chorus leaders, voice their own concerns and trepidations. They seek to act according to conventional wisdom, counsel Thomas to flee back to France, seek to protect him from martyrdom, and finally look to the martyr for spiritual help in a time of personal need for comfort.
Of greater dramatic interest is the interplay between Thomas and the tempters, who offer him fleshly delights and good times, earthly political power by regaining the chancellorship he had resigned upon becoming archbishop, temporal sovereignty by joining a coup against the king, and glorious triumph over the king by seeking martyrdom. Once the murder is committed—onstage (a break with classical and neoclassical traditions but quite Jacobean)—the knights offer the audience-turned-jury their defense of disinterestedness in carrying out the king’s will; finally, they claim that Thomas has sought martyrdom and seek a verdict of “suicide while of Unsound Mind.”
Throughout the play, Eliot’s language echoes scriptural injunctions, parables, and situations. In his stage directions and dialogue, Eliot uses liturgical hymns and portions of the Anglo-Catholic Mass. The interlude between the two acts is a Christmas sermon stylistically reminiscent of those of the seventeenth century ministers John Donne and Lancelot Andrews.