Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Canterbury Cathedral

*Canterbury Cathedral. Church in southeast England that was the seat of the archbishop of Canterbury and the center of Roman Catholic power in England during the period in which T. S. Eliot’s play is set. In the play, the cathedral quickly becomes a place of temptation. Each of four tempters offers Becket a course of action supposedly intended to save his life. In his resistance the cathedral is shown to be a place of anxiety and confrontation. However, in the process it also becomes a place of strength. Becket’s rejection of the tempters’ invitations underscores an important Eliot theme: Religion’s place in the world is not to secure for its adherents automatic safety, but faith gives direction for decisive action.

In the second part of the play the theme of the cathedral as a place of violence is intensified. Becket’s priests try to protect him from the murderous knights. His instructions to them to open the doors and not make the cathedral into a fortress constitutes a key Eliot theme about the role of place. Even after violence enters the house of prayer, Becket will not allow the barring of the doors. The unbarred doors allow the knights to enter and kill him, but his martyrdom shows that the cathedral is not simply a place of sanctuary, but also a place where one may suffer for the good of all.

After the assassination, each of the four knights attempts to justify the murder of Thomas Becket. Their rationalizations make the cathedral a place where, finally, the audience must bear the burden of the world’s false attempts at justification of its power against faith in God.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

World War I and Modernism
The ravages of World War I (1914-1918) brought about the deaths of millions of soldiers and...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

''Tragedy'' as a dramatic form is usually defined as the story of a noble individual who struggles against...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1170: King Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Becket begin to quarrel over the growing strength of the Catholic Church, marking...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the historical Thomas Becket and his reasons for quarreling with King Henry II To what degree does Eliot's version of these events...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Murder in the Cathedral was adapted as a British film in 1952, directed by George Hoellenng. Paul Rodgers and Leo McKern are featured...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The sixteenth-century Morality Play Everyman (1500) was admired by Eliot for its versification, which he imitated in his play. A...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot. A Life, Simon and Schuster, 1984, p. 227

Bloom, Harold....

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. A very readable biography providing useful and interesting details about the making of this play, its critical reception, and its importance to Eliot’s rising career as a playwright. Ackroyd finds the play a success and discusses it in connection with other Eliot works.

Adair, Patricia M. “Mr. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” Cambridge Journal 4 (November, 1950): 83-95. A full and penetrating study that regards the play not as a tragedy but as a drama paralleling the setting of Canterbury Cathedral in pointing people to God.

Bloom, Harold, ed. T. S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. A collection of eleven important essays by prominent literary critics such as Helen Gardner, David Ward, and Stephen Spender. Wide range and balance of approaches, along with a useful chronology and bibliography.

Clark, David R., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Murder in the Cathedral”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. A collection of fourteen essays by prominent critics such as E. Martin Browne, Louis L. Martz, Grover Smith, William V. Spanos, and David E. Jones. Includes a substantial chronology of the author’s life and a concise bibliography.

Smith, Carol H. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice: From “Sweeney Agonistes” to “The Elder Statesman.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. Chapter 3 provides a useful summary of the play’s main features and concludes that the play succeeds on the level of poetic rhythm and imagery. A good introduction to the play.