Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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Roles and justifications of priests and knights in Murder in the Cathedral

Summary:

In Murder in the Cathedral, priests and knights serve distinct roles with specific justifications. Priests represent the spiritual guidance and moral conscience of the community, urging caution and divine protection. Knights, on the other hand, justify their actions as serving the king and maintaining political stability, ultimately leading to the murder of Thomas Becket to assert royal authority over the church.

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What is the role of the priests in Murder in the Cathedral?

The three priests represents the institutional church wanting to protect its own. They also represent the church taking a worldly view of the events that are unfolding as Henry II moves against Becket. The priests plead with Becket to escape before the knights can arrive to kill him, and one priest tries to bolt the cathedral door against the knights. Becket tells them, however, not to worry about whether he lives or dies, for God will decide what is best.

None of the priests are capable of Becket's vision regarding his fate. The priests are, in turn, frightened, hopeful that events will work out the way they want, and fatalistic, but none of these attitudes grasp that Beckett has put himself entirely into God's hands. Becket explains to them:

I give my life / To the Law of God above the Law of Man.

In other words, Becket is saying that whether he lives or dies is less important than following God. The "Law of Man" would be self-preservation, but Becket is primarily interested in being faithful to God.

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What is the role of the priests in Murder in the Cathedral?

The three priests function as a group in a similar fashion to a Greek chorus early in the play, in that they speak to the audience about Becket before he comes onstage. However, the priests are not a single unit; we know this because each priest has a different opinion of Becket. All three of the priests want to help Becket, but they express different opinions about what will happen upon Becket's return to England. The first priest is fearful; the second is hopeful; the third, fatalistic, saying "For good or ill, let the wheel turn." By the second part of the play, all three priests band together to try to persuade Becket to flee for his life.

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What was the role of the knights in Murder in the Cathedral?

Murder in the Cathedral tells the story of the events that led to the demise of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop is murdered in the cathedral by four knights in the last part of the verse drama. The four knights were a carrying a plot to assassinate the Archbishop, which was supposedly sanctioned by King Henry II. Thomas Becket contradicted the king’s position over the rights and privileges of the church.

The king had successfully managed to limit the clergy’s independence and reduce Rome’s influence on the realm. Although most of the members of the clergy had consented to the king’s plans, Thomas Becket resisted. Henry’s attempts at convincing Becket failed, and he instituted contempt proceeding against him. Becket lost the case and was forced to flee to France. After negotiations, he returned; however, the conflict persisted, leading up to his assassination by the four knights believed to be at the behest of the King.

The knights justify their actions at the end of the drama. They believe that they were performing their social and moral duty for the good of the public.

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What was the role of the knights in Murder in the Cathedral?

The four knights in Murder in the Catherdral act as agents of King Henry II and actually carry out the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. At the end of the play, three of the four offer justifications for the murder. The second knight asks that they be pitied, saying they were only following orders for the good of the people of England. The third knight says that the archbishop was a guilty criminal, and so his murder was justified. The fourth knight argues that Becket brought the murder on himself, so in reality, the murder was a suicide.

The play was commissioned by George Bell, the bishop of Chichester, as a protest against the Night of the Long Knives of June 1934, in which Hitler turned on his dear old friend Röhm and had him and others who stood in his way murdered. The knights in the play represent the strongmen in Germany who carried out Hitler's orders and the justifications they used to rationalize their crime.

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How do the knights justify their actions in Murder in the Cathedral?

The scene containing the knights' speech provides comic relief, and its function is to force the audience to think about the gravity of the situation. The knights and their justification of the murder of Becket demonstrate moral bankruptcy of the earthly power, represented by the king. 

After Becket is murdered, all four knights attempt to justify the murder before the audience. The first knight is Reginald Fitz Urse. He insists that he is the man of action and not so eloquent, which is why he wants to let other knights speak. The second knight, William de Traci, gives a speech next. He describes himself and the other three knights as "four plain Englishmen who put our country first." He insists that the four of them did not get a penny for the slaying and only did what was right for the people and what was required by the king. The third knight, Hugh de Morville, speaks next. He explains thoroughly that the knights were only doing what was desired by the people, like those sitting in the audience. Becket's subordination to his own beliefs conflicted with his role as a servant of the king. He disregarded the world of orders and authority and that itself was why he had to die. And the last knight, Richard Brito, cunningly states that the knights are innocent because Becket committed a form of suicide. Becket's desire for martyrdom caused it, and he rejects any moral responsibility imposed on the knights for the committed murder.

These speeches emphasize the neglect of the spiritual world by the knights and the importance they place on the temporal world of order and power.

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