Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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The universal message and central themes of "Murder in the Cathedral"


The universal message and central themes of "Murder in the Cathedral" include the conflict between church and state, the power of faith and martyrdom, and the moral struggles of individuals. The play explores how personal sacrifice can transcend earthly power, emphasizing the spiritual victory of the protagonist, Thomas Becket, over temporal authority.

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What is the universal message of "Murder in the Cathedral"?

Hello! 'Murder In The Cathedral' highlights the controversial enmity between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket's eventual murder at the hands of knights loyal to the king propels him to the status of martyr. Even though Becket initially struggles with the idea of martyrdom for self-glory, he eventually comes to the conclusion that he would rather die in good conscience for the glory of God.

The universal message of 'Murder In The Cathedral' lies in the controversy between king and Church. Power corrupts absolutely, regardless of who wields the scepter of rule; therefore, the separation of church and state is an essential bedrock of true freedom. King Henry was well-known for his autocratic personality: he expected those he ruled to do exactly as they were told. He tolerated very little dissent (if any at all) during his rule. Becket was initially Henry's Chancellor. However, Henry was enthusiastic about ordaining Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury because he felt that Becket was his man, and that the Archbishop would basically let the king run the Church by proxy if Henry set him up as Archbishop. Alas, Henry was wrong. The Archbishop would not agree to Henry claiming jurisdiction over lay clergy. In regards to serious crimes, Henry wanted the clerics to answer to his own secular courts instead of the ecclesiastical courts. Becket however, balked, fled to France, and in a seeming fit of gall, proceeded to excommunicate the Bishops of London and Salisbury. Stubbornly refusing to absolve the bishops even after he returned to England, Becket set the stage for the famous lines from Henry:

"What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest."

In 'Murder In The Cathedral,' the four Tempters goad Becket into betraying his conscience, but Becket eventually states that the true martyr is the 'instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in his submission to God.' He is adamant that the king knows his place; the king is also adamant that the Archbishop knows his. The four knights purporting to be doing the will of the king hack Becket to death. Historically, Henry never did admit to ordering the murder: in an act of penance four years after Becket's death, Henry walked barefoot through the streets of Canterbury. Monks flogged him with branches as he walked to Becket's crypt to spend the night. 'Murder In The Cathedral' highlights the struggle for separation of church/state and the debate on conscience, religion and political power.

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What is the central theme of Murder in the Cathedral?

T. S. Eliot’s play centers on the difference between spiritual and terrestrial responsibility. Thomas Becket has taken an oath to support the king, Henry II of England, who is the embodiment of secular authority. As a Christian and as a priest, however, his primary responsibility is his devotion to God. Becket has been living abroad in part because of his disagreement with the king over the extent of Henry’s authority.

When Becket returns to Canterbury, the king has hopes that he has come to acknowledge his duty to the king. Instead, he has come to clarify his refusal to succumb to any authority other than that of God—indeed, to insist that there is such authority. He simply states that there is a power "higher than I or the King." Eliot emphasizes Becket’s human frailty and patriotism, as he wishes he could find a way to serve both masters, struggling with his conscience and resisting the Tempters’ offers. The king’s command to execute him is portrayed as conveying his lack of confidence in his own power; it is the only way he can silence Becket.

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What is the central theme of Murder in the Cathedral?

The entire play is built around the inevitable death of Thomas as he chooses to be obedient to God and God's call on his life rather than give in to the king's commands, which Thomas views as being against God's calling on him. The central theme is therefore that of obedience, as Thomas shows himself to be utterly obedient, even to the point of dying. This is shown most clearly in one of his last speeches where he remonstrates with the priests to open the door and let the knights, who he knows will kill him, into the cathedral. Note what he says:

For every life and every act

Consequence of good and evil can be shown.

And as in time results of many deeds are blended

So good and evil in the end become confounded.

Thomas willingly gives his life to his God, trusting that the consequences of his actions and those of his king in killing him will eventually, in God's perfect timing, become shown for what they are. Thomas eventually is strong enough in himself to resist all temptation offered in the form of the Tempters and is then free to face his destiny, remaining free to die with his loyalty to God in tact. In the major conflict in the play, which is between spiritual beliefs and earthly temptations, Thomas shows that he firmly conquers earthly temptations through his radical obedience.

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What are the themes and messages in the play "Murder in the Cathedral"?

Hello! In a nutshell, Murder In The Cathedral is about a power struggle between the English king, Henry II, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in the 12th Century. Here is a link for a short historical background of the story. If you can carve out some time in your busy schedule, try reading this short article; I promise you that it will go a long way towards helping you make sense of the story.

The play starts out with the local populace waiting for the return of their archbishop. They wonder if things will now go from bad to worse between their archbishop and the bad-tempered king. Furthermore, their lives are miserable and they're not too happy that it could get worse.

You must realize that apart from the king, the position of Archbishop of Canterbury is the highest church position a man in Becket's position could have. King Henry had once made Becket his Lord Chancellor. Lord Chancellors in Henry's time were predominantly important churchmen. Why? The clergy knew how to read and write. They advised the king on spiritual and government matters, they were involved in all levels of judicial government, and they were Keepers of the Great Seal.

However, Henry was not satisfied with merely having Becket as Lord Chancellor. You see, the king was greatly troubled that his power in the kingdom did not seem to extend to the Church. He felt that punishments for lay clergy were too lenient; he rather preferred the clergy to be tried in his own secular courts rather than ecclesiastical (religious) courts. That's why he wanted Becket to be Archbishop of Canterbury. After all, his reasoning was that they were already great friends: why not make good use of that friendship? Henry actually thought that giving Becket such a coveted and powerful church position would extend his power into the Church. Becket warned Henry about making him Archbishop, but Henry wouldn't listen.

Unfortunately for Henry, Becket was one of those men who took his religious responsibilities seriously. When he became archbishop, he also gave up the party life: no more rich banquets to attend and certainly no more drinking oneself to oblivion. Henry did not like this one bit. The king was angry that Becket would not deliver church authority into his hands. Hence, you may now understand this great historical quote:

"What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest."

Becket fled to France rather than agree to any of Henry's demands. The play ends with Becket being cut down with swords at the hands of four knights supposedly loyal to King Henry.

Themes: 1)The major one being the separation of church and state. Should the king also have power over religious matters?

2) Absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is true whether it references religious leadership or secular leadership.

I hope I have made Murder In The Cathedral a little more accessible to you. Thanks for the question!

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What's the play Murder in the Cathedral about?I need the themes in it.

T. S. Eliot's magnificent play, Murder in the Cathedral, deals with the last days of Thomas Becket following his return from exile in France in 1170. Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had spent six years abroad after a dispute with his former friend, King Henry II of England, and he returned only after a supposed reconciliation with the king. However, less than a month after his return, Becket was murdered by four knights inside Canterbury Cathedral. Becket was later canonized, and Eliot premiered his play at the 1935 Canterbury Festival--just fifty yards from the spot where Becket was slain.

Eliot explores religious and moral themes throughout, including the conflicts that arise between a man's human and spiritual entities. Becket rejected the need for earthly possessions and power, and showed no fear of death. He willingly rejected temptation, and he realized that his death--and martyrdom--was a possible scenario. Another theme is that of obedience. Becket faithfully observed that he could only be a servant of God, and that his obedience to his king would always be secondary to that. This disagreement between Becket and Henry was the core of their dispute, and it eventually led to Becket's murder and martyrdom.

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