Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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Characters Discussed

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Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury. Having just returned from France, where he has gained the support of the pope in his attempt to achieve both temporal and spiritual power in England, he finds a mixed reaction among the people. Although some support him, others would gladly see him dead. He is faced with a dilemma that leaves him no alternative but to sin against his faith. After his murder, he achieves martyrdom and sainthood, which his accusers say he was seeking all along.

Three priests of the cathedral

Three priests of the cathedral, who fear the outcome of Becket’s return. They express the pessimism felt by everyone.

The first tempter

The first tempter, who offers worldly pleasure and success.

The second tempter

The second tempter, who offers temporal power through negation of spiritual authority.

The third tempter

The third tempter, who offers the support of a faction wishing to overthrow the throne.

The fourth tempter

The fourth tempter, who offers martyrdom and eternal glory. Becket denies all the tempters.

Reginald Fitz Urse

Reginald Fitz Urse,

William de Traci

William de Traci,

Hugh de Morville

Hugh de Morville, and

Richard Brito

Richard Brito, the knights who murder Becket. They defend their action on the grounds that they will not benefit from their deed, that Becket had refused to acknowledge the king’s supremacy, and that he was egotistical to the point of insanity.

The women of Canterbury

The women of Canterbury, who act as the chorus of classical drama.


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Thomas Becket Thomas Becket is the Archbishop of Canterbury and hero of the play. When the play opens, the viewer learns that he has not been in England for the last seven years because of a power struggle with King Henry, who wants the church to serve the state. His return from France provokes a variety of reactions from the Chorus, the Priests, and the four Knights who serve the King; as the play progresses, Thomas responds to a number of these reactions with the calm, measured voice of one who believes "there is higher than I or the King."

Although he is repeatedly tempted away from his desire to lead his people and threatened with death by the four Knights, Thomas becomes convinced that only "The fool, fixed in his folly, may think / He can turn the wheel on which he turns" and places the question of whether or not he will be martyred into the hands of God He accepts his martyrdom as part of a larger pattern that he, with his human limitations, cannot fully understand.

Richard Brito (Fourth Knight) See The Four Knights

Chorus Similar to those found in ancient Greek drama, the Chorus in Murder in the Cathedral serves as a mediator between the play and the audience. Composed of women of Canterbury, this group originally fears the unknown act that their "eyes are compelled to witness" and begs Thomas to return to France; they have accepted their common and often miserable lives (where"King rules or barons rule'') and do not wish to "stand on the doom" of then-church. At the play's conclusion, however, they have been enlightened to the fact that there is a higher power at work in the world other than that found in politics and they sing praises to the wisdom of God: "We thank thee for Thy mercies of blood, for Thy redemption by blood," they proclaim, for "the blood of Thy martyrs and saints shall enrich the earth, shall create holy places."

Sir Hugh de Morville (Second Knight) See The Four Knights

Baron William de Trad...

(This entire section contains 1001 words.)

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(Third Knight) See The Four Knights

The Four Knights Sent by King Henry to kill Thomas, the Four Knights parallel the Four Tempters of Part One. While the Tempters offer intellectual and spiritual trickery, the Knights threaten Thomas with physical violence, ultimately following through on their threat when they kill him near the end of the play. When they arrive at the cathedral and demand that Thomas acquiesce to the King's demands, he refuses. They murder him and then "present their case'' to the audience in the form of a mock inquest in which they assert their blamelessness in the entire affair. Although their names are mentioned during their speeches to the audience, the Knights are not as different from each other as are the Three Priests.

The Four Tempters During Part One, Thomas is visited by four Tempters who promise him a number of rewards in return for recanting his former judgments against the King and his minions. The First Tempter tells him that "Friendship is more than biting Time can sever" and asks Thomas to befriend the King (as he did once before) so that there will be"Fluting in the meadow" and "Singing at nightfall." The Second Tempter suggests that Thomas should reclaim the Chancellorship (from which he resigned after his feud with King Henry); doing so would, the Tempter assures him, let Thomas "set down the great" and "protect the poor." The Third Tempter, dubbing himself "A country-keeping Lord who minds his own business,'' attempts to seduce Thomas into representing the barons at court in order to "fight a good stroke / At once, for England and for Rome, / Ending the tyrannous jurisdiction'' of Henry's reign.

All three Tempters are easily deflated by Thomas, who is unaffected by their empty promises: "Shall I," he asks, "who ruled like an eagle over doves, / Now take the shape of a wolf among wolves?" The Fourth Tempter, however, is more difficult for Thomas to dismiss, since he tempts him with his "own desires" of becoming a saint and martyred leader of his people. Eventually, the Fourth Tempter teaches Thomas about the degree to which his own pride stands between him and the will of God.

The Messenger The Messenger arrives in Part One to announce to the Priests that Thomas is returning to Canterbury. He peppers his news with his own thoughts on Thomas, remarking that "He is at one with the Pope'' and that his new "peace'' with the King is, at best, a "patched-up affair."

The Three Priests As a unit, the three Priests provide a context for Thomas's religious speculations and offer the audience different opinions of him before he enters the play. Throughout Murder in the Cathedral, the Priests express their desire to help Thomas guide his people and remain safely in Canterbury. Although they may seem interchangeable by virtue of their names ("First Priest," "Second Priest," and "Third Priest"), they are distinguished at times by Eliot according to the way in which they approach the danger of Thomas's return. The First Priest, for example, is uneasy and remarks, "I fear for the Archbishop, I fear for the Church," before concluding that Thomas's troubles began when he wished for "subjection to God alone.''

The Second Priest, less world-weary than the First, voices the hope that Thomas will dispel"dismay and doubt," for"He will tell us what we are to do, he will give us our orders, instruct us." The Third Priest expresses neither the doubts of the First nor the optimism of the Second; his only certainty is that fate will unwind as it must: "For good or ill, let the wheel turn," he remarks, "For who knows the end of good or evil?" These differences, however, fade in Part Two, when the Priests act as a group in order to convince Thomas to flee the cathedral.

Reginald Fitz Urse (First Knight) See The Four Knights




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