Murder in the Cathedral Themes
by T. S. Eliot

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Murder in the Cathedral Themes

(Drama for Students)

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Flesh vs. Spirit
Throughout Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas is warned about the danger of his remaining in Canterbury and the threat of danger from his enemies, who seek to please King Henry by murdering him. Before he enters, the Chorus begs, "O Thomas return, Archbishop; return, return to France," for he comes "bringing death into Canterbury"; when he does arrive, Thomas tells them and the three Priests that none should fear his possible death, for "the hungry hawk / Will only soar and hover" until there is an "End" that will be "simple, sudden, God-given." The very fact of his return suggests Thomas's refusal to fear death and belief that God will decide whether he will live or die: as he tells the Priests, "All things prepare the event."

Thomas's disregard for earthly pleasures and power is heightened during his conversations with the first three Tempters. When the First Tempter offers him "wit and wine and wisdom" if he will only "Be easy" in his condemnation of King Henry, Thomas calls his temptations a mere "springtime fancy" belonging to "seasons of the past." When the next Tempter urges him to take up again the Chancellorship and "guide the state again," Thomas argues that "what was once exaltation / Would now only mean descent" to a "punier power," since, as an Archbishop, he is able to "keep the keys / Of heaven and hell." "To condemn kings, not serve among their servants," he explains, is his "open office."

Clearly, Thomas is not interested in any form of temporal power. The Third Tempter attempts to appeal to Thomas's political and religious faith, stating that Thomas could help the barons fight for the "liberty"of England and Rome; still dismissive of man's law, however, Thomas asserts that if he "break" the tyranny of the King, he must not do so for promises of power but must "break myself alone." The fact that Thomas is able to so easily refuse these Tempters reflects his desire to serve divine—rather than human—law; this also accounts for his turmoil when facing the Fourth Tempter, who questions Thomas's desire to become a martyr for purely spiritual (as opposed to temporal) reasons. Once Thomas considers his own heart and concludes that he must not be tricked by his own pride into coveting his martyrdom, he is assured that even if he is killed, his "good Angel, whom God appoints" will "hover over the swords' points."

Thomas's unshaken devotion to his spiritual life is seen throughout the Interlude and Part Two. When preaching to his congregation on Christmas Day, he tells them that martyrdom is "never the design of man," for "the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God" and "who no longer desires anything for himself." He then bluntly acknowledges his acceptance of his possible fate by saying, "I do not think I shall ever preach to you again" and "it is possible that in a short time you may have another martyr."

In Part Two, when faced with the menace of the four Knights, Thomas refuses to flee (as the Priests beg him to do), since he is "not in danger: only nearer to death." Believing that "all things / Proceed to a joyful consummation," Thomas orders a Priest who has bolted the Cathedral door to open it. He then proclaims, "I give my life / To the Law of God above the Law of Man." As the Knights kill him, Thomas does not beg for any mercy or postponement; instead, he begins a prayer in which he "commends [his] cause and that of the Church" to "Almighty God." Although tempted with physical pleasures and threatened with physical violence, Thomas remains true to what he sees as the "pattern" of God's will in his life.

Closely allied with the theme of flesh vs. spirit is that of obedience, an issue of the play that is seen in Thomas's unflagging devotion to God. The very nature of the argument between Thomas and King Henry, occurring before the play begins, is centered on this issue: Henry wants Thomas to obey his (and thus the state's) commands, but Thomas is a man described by the First...

(The entire section is 1,141 words.)