Murder in the Cathedral

Murder in the Cathedral Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Explain how the play expresses and explores the conflict between "action" and "suffering."

    The conflict between "action" and "suffering" is at the center of the play, and it is one of the many contradictions that Thomas realizes he must embrace if he is to transcend his earthly limitations in favor of godly serenity. It is first useful to understand both terms in the context of the play. "Action" refers to man's attempts to influence his own fate, to declare his own individuality. "Suffering" is best defined as "patient endurance," rather than "painful sensation," and in this way refers to man's impulse to retreat, to hide his individuality in complacency. Thomas notes that this dichotomy seems like an irreconcilable contradiction to humans, but ultimately discovers that he should embrace an active patience, in which he willingly allows himself to be submissive as God's instrument. He will not seek martyrdom, but will allow it to happen because God wills it. Ultimately, his example leads the Chorus to embrace the contradiction as beyond man and available only to those who submit themselves to God.

  2. 2

    What is the effect of double-casting the Tempters and the Knights?

    By double-casting the tempters and the knights, a producer or director can stress the way that both figures represent the worldly way of thinking that Thomas repudiates. At one point, when chiding one of the priests, Thomas notes that the world judges "by results," meaning that the end can justify the means. Such a philosophy allows humans to rationalize and justify their behavior, as opposed to accepting their naturally sinful nature. Both the tempters and knights attempt to sway Thomas's resolve (and later, the resolve of the audience) through such worldly means. The tempters offer him glimpses of worldly power, sometimes arguing that such power would allow him to do more good than his church position would. The fourth tempter is most subtle of all, suggesting martyrdom but for a worldly reason – pride, which Thomas could indulge by securing a holy reputation through his death. The knights are similarly minded. At first, they wish to confront Thomas politically and are angered when he reveals a serenity that transcends such logical, cause/effect political arguments. After they murder him, they directly address the audience and make complicated arguments about why they should not be prosecuted for the murder. Because these characters have been double-cast, the audience will instinctively note that they are being tempted to consider Becket's death by its political and practical effects. Eliot is able to build upon this idea of worldly vs. spiritual existence by having the same actors play the knights.

  3. 3

    Explain the journey of the Chorus throughout the play.

    Thomas's journey is essentially complete by the end of Part I, which suggests that Eliot was at least equally interested in the journey of the Chorus. Throughout the play, they recognize the limits of their complacency in life, learn to confront the world, and endeavor to make themselves instruments of God. They mirror Thomas's transformation. At first, they prefer a life of "living and partly living" to any controversy that Thomas's return might inspire. They admit their lives are defined by suffering, but prefer this to the possibility of being more engaged in a world that they realize has little use for them. However, Thomas's martyrdom forces them to realize that they, too, have a responsibility in the world. For every true martyr's death, which parallels Christ's sacrifice, the community must sanctify the sacrifice by attempting to replicate it. They must confront the limitations of the world and attempt to transcend it through active patience and serenity. Eliot does not hide the fact that such acceptance is difficult; it requires one to disregard his or her physical comfort and risk further disappointment with the world. As the play progresses, the Chorus realizes this difficulty and its speeches grow more brutal in both imagery and sentiment. However, the Chorus finally, bravely accepts its share of the "eternal burden" and ends the play by asking God and Thomas to help them attempt the struggle.

  4. 4

    In what ways is the play pessimistic? In what ways is it optimistic?

    Murder in the Cathedral is at its core based on Christian faith and optimism. Thomas bravely repudiates the limitations of physical existence to secure a spiritual path for himself and those who will come after him. Much like Christ did, Thomas sacrifices himself to illustrate the glory of subsuming oneself to God's command. However, the play is extremely pessimistic in its depiction of the life of suffering. As the play progresses, the Chorus gives speeches that are progressively more pessimistic. Not only is life full of thankless toil and examples of powerlessness, but one can be further discouraged by pursing a holy life of integrity, since such a perspective only reveals how much deeper the depths of human depravity truly are. Eliot maintains the ability to paint a pessimistic, dark picture of the world that defined his earlier poetry, but here he demonstrates that by confronting such pessimism, one can discover a much greater, fuller optimism.

  5. 5

    In what ways is the play indebted to its history? In what ways is it unconcerned with its history?

    Eliot wrote his play for an audience that would have been ostensibly quite familiar with the story of Thomas Becket and Henry II, so there is little attempt outside of minor exposition to tell the story. Yet the play certainly relies on foreknowledge of the story to achieve its effect. First, Eliot makes it clear early on that he has little interest in psychology. When Thomas is confronted by the four Tempters, an informed audience can realize that each tempter represents a certain aspect of the Archbishop's personality or past. Further, they represent different historical perspectives on the man. That Thomas so fully repudiates them all reveals that Eliot wishes to present Thomas as a man who accepted his place as myth. The political arguments that Thomas has with the knights make mention of historical details like excommunications and exile, but Thomas makes it clear that his decision is not indebted to that way of thinking. Eliot's Thomas is more a reflection of an idea or a philosophy than a complex, rounded historical figure. However, Eliot's use of liturgy and Greek tragedy in shaping the play reveals this as a deliberate choice. Overall, Eliot tells this story on a higher level, one which barely needs history at all in order to deliver its message.

  6. 6

    Explain Eliot's use of Greek tragedy in shaping his play. How does an understanding of tragedy help to inform the play's message?

    Overall, Eliot uses the shape and conventions of Greek tragedy both to evoke the idea of fate and to imbue this historical tale with the weight of myth and symbol. There are many conventions that he uses from Greek tragedy, including the Chorus, the nameless characters like priests, the series of obstacles that enter one by one, and the verse. By invoking Greek tragedy, his story becomes necessarily about fate and individuality. Where Greek tragedy sought to mourn the tragic forces of the universe that are so much bigger than man, it also celebrated the strength of characters who declare their individuality in the face of such forces. Eliot adapts this understanding to a more optimistic, Christian purpose by suggesting that Christians mourn the world that kills martyrs, while celebrating the sacrifice. It is a similar mystery and contradiction, although Eliot's conception is about subsuming one's individuality to God rather than flaunting it in the face of greater forces. Perhaps Eliot's most important use of Greek convention is the Chorus, which for the Greeks served to include the audience in the action, offering them a way to witness the inevitability and weight of myth as more than passive theatre spectators. Eliot allows the Chorus to do this for his audience, to the point that knights even directly tempt the audience in the final moments, essentially asking: have you learned from Thomas's sacrifice? By having his own Chorus transcend their weakness in their last speech, Eliot suggests that any Christian is capable of such transcendence.

  7. 7

    Explain Eliot's use of the liturgy in shaping his play. How does the play parallel the experience of a mass?

    Eliot often cited the medieval allegory Everyman as his greatest influence in the shape of Murder in the Cathedral, yet the Catholic liturgy seems equally important. By stressing the symbolic nature of this historical tale, Eliot wishes to include his audience in the experience much the way a Catholic mass includes the congregation. Part I provides the message and Part II provides a chance for the audience members to respond in their own ways. Essentially, viewing the murder makes audience members active; likewise accepting communion (a piece of bread that in Catholic tradition is believed to be the body of Christ) makes Catholics active in the importance of any particular mass. The sermon in the middle parallels the homily that a priest delivers during the mass. Mass is based around a type of active submission – the congregation is involved in a call-and-response, but subsumes their individual identities to the ritual's language. This relinquishing of individual identity mirrors the message that Thomas learns in the play.

  8. 8

    Explain how the murder functions as a ritual in the play. How does it integrate community?

    One could argue that the play's main journey is completed in Part I, since the play's protagonist has completed his emotional development. However, Eliot's emphasis on the Chorus and his use of the mass structure suggest that he does not believe the play should function as an individual experience, but as a communal one. The murder is inevitable in Part II, but must be witnessed in the way a ritual must be completed. We might know that a bride and groom are inevitably going to commit to marriage, but we still observe the ritual. It is a Catholic idea that only by giving public witness to a ritual will its meaning be fulfilled. Therefore, Thomas's serenity at the end of Part I matters little; it is only an idea. Only by actually dying before a Chorus (and the theatrical audience whom they represent) is the meaning brought to life. An act without a community to observe and validate it is just an act. With the community, it has the power to become holy, with the power of myth or symbol.

  9. 9

    Analyze the priests in the play. What do they add to the story and meaning?

    Arguably, the priests are the least important element of the play's message, but they provide an example of clergy that is still limited by the worldly thinking that Thomas wishes to repudiate. Eliot is not writing a political tract in favor of the Church, but rather crafting a ritual that should suggest to every audience member the importance of subsuming his individuality before God. The priests are heavily concerned by the political and practical ramifications of Thomas's return to England. Even the Third Priest, who stresses patience and humility in Part I, is involved in trying to get Thomas to flee the knights in Part II. Their inclusion in the church does not automatically entitle them to the serenity that Thomas reaches. This implies that the church itself is as worldly and obsessed with political, cause/effect thinking as anything else on earth. What matters is what the church represents. Like individuals, the church needs to subsume its identity before God or else it will be defined by the limitations of the world. It is telling that in the end, the priests do not seem to fully embrace the lesson that Thomas teaches through his death; only the Chorus does.

  10. 10

    Can one call Eliot's depiction of Thomas hagiography?

    It would be possible to consider Eliot's depiction of Thomas as hagiography - the writing of the lives of saints - although the context of the play belies such an interpretation. Eliot is clearly enamored of Thomas, who does consider the temptations he faces, but disposes of those temptations fairly easily. Eliot gives Thomas the flaws of pride and sanctimony, but Thomas overcomes those flaws to provide a perfect example of serenity and faith. For these reasons, one could argue Eliot has been blinded by admiration for his subject, except that the context of the play makes it clear he was not interested in psychology. He does not mean to suggest that Thomas Becket actually had such moral fortitude; in fact, he does not mean to represent the historical Thomas Becket at all. Instead, he wishes to craft a ritual, a play of symbol and myth. This is clear in his Chorus, which speaks in language that commoners could never use; in the Tempters, who have clear allegorical purpose; and in the theatricality, like the addresses the knights make directly to the audience. Because it is clear that Eliot wishes to craft more of a ritualistic experience than a historical play, it is misguided to suggest he is too enamored of Becket the historical figure. In truth, he is barely concerned with that historical Becket.