Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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How does T.S. Eliot's use of verse in Murder in the Cathedral enhance the drama?

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Eliot wrote this play at the behest of George Bell, the bishop of Chichester, who wanted him to speak out against what was going on in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Bell was especially troubled after what was called the Night of the Long Knives, in which Hitler murdered many of his former friends and associates to purge his Party and consolidate his power.

The play is set in the twelfth century, during the reign of Henry II, who, like Hitler, had a friend killed for opposing his policies. This friend was the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The verse, much of which concerns the turning of the seasons and the rotating of the wheel of life, evokes the idea of repetition. This works well because it reinforces the idea that tyranny is a repeating and universal problem. Eliot is trying to make a universal statement that all people in all times have an obligation to stand up against tyranny, which will keep popping up, over and over.

The verse form is effective not only because it reinforces the sense of the eternal, but also because it creates rhyming lines that lend themselves to repetition and are easy to remember. One effective couplet, because of both its rhyme and the message it conveys, is the following:

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason

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T.S. Eliot used verse for “Murder in the Cathedral” for several reasons.

First, dramas were written in verse long before they appeared in prose. Classical, medieval, Elizabethan, and Jacobean drama were all in verse.

Eliot felt that prose was ideally a purely intellectual and reflective medium and that verse synthesized the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic components of language. He considered that the growth of prose, especially as manifested in the scientific prose of the Royal Society and what he saw as the anti-intellectualism of Romantic verse, caused our intellectual and emotional sensibilities to split (the “disassociation of the sensibility”). By writing the drama in verse, set in the past, he was trying to recover an approach to religion which balanced emotional, spiritual, and intellectual.

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