Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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

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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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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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