Murder in the Cathedral Themes
The main themes in Murder in the Cathedral include flesh vs. spirit, obedience, and martyrdom.
- Flesh vs. Spirit: Thomas is tempted with earthly pleasures but remains devoted to his spiritual life.
- Obedience: Thomas's unflagging devotion to God is seen throughout the play, as he refuses to obey any earthly authority.
- Martyrdom: Thomas's acceptance of his possible death is an act of devotion to God.
Last Updated August 17, 2022.
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...
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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 Priest as one "Loathing power given by temporal devolution, / Wishing subjection to God alone." Convinced that God is his only judge and ruler with any authority, Thomas mocks those who view themselves as sources of power in a worldly sense: "Only / The fool, fixed in his folly, may think / He can turn the wheel on which he turns." Another example of Thomas's belief in the power of divine law is found in his rebuttal of the Second Tempter, who offers him his previous power as Chancellor:
Temporal power, to build a good world, To keep order, as the world knows order Those who put their faith in worldly order Not controlled by the Order of God, In confident ignorance, but arrest disorder, Make it fast, breed fatal disease, Degrade what they exalt.
Here, Thomas asserts that the only order is that found in the will of God and that any attempt to stray from one's obedience to it can only result in the "fatal disease" of chaos. Only God can provide any sort of harmony between one's temporal and spiritual lives and Thomas chooses to remain in the "confident ignorance" of one who does not know— but who nevertheless trusts—the force of Providence.
While Thomas's refusal to flee the cathedral certainly proves his obedience to God, it is in an earlier conversation that Eliot dramatizes the conflicting forces within Thomas that solicit his obedience. After speaking to the Fourth Tempter, who asks, "What can compare with the glory of Saints / Swelling forever in presence of God?" Thomas must examine his own conscience to determine whether or not his pride is encouraging him to (as the Tempter commands), "Seek the way of martyrdom." Thomas's problem lies not in dying, but in determining if he is doing so out of an obedience to his pride or his God. Eventually, he reaches the enlightenment for which he searches:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain: Temptation shall not come in this kind again The last temptation is the greatest treason To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
Thomas has learned that the "right deed" (martyrdom) must not be performed for the "wrong reason": his self-interest. To allow his desire for glory to interfere with the will of God—which is, ultimately, what will determine his fate—would be like "treason" in its attempt to subvert the authority of an all-powerful ruler. Only by remaining obedient to God can he ever hope to "do the right deed'' and become a martyr for his church and his people. He will remain God's obedient servant, living in "confident ignorance" of God's eternal plan.