Murder in the Cathedral

Murder in the Cathedral Summary and Analysis of Part I (after Becket's entrance)


The scene is continuous from the previous section. Thomas Becket enters having heard the priest's admonishment of the Chorus for expressing dread instead of joy over Becket's arrival. He notes that they in fact "speak better than they know," and he lays out an important philosophy for the play:

They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.

They know and do not know, that acting is suffering

And suffering is action. Neither does the actor suffer

Nor the patient act. (182)

The Second Priest apologizes for not preparing more adequately for Thomas's return but assures him that they have prepared his former chambers for him. Thomas thanks him but is unconcerned with it. He tells them how he snuck past the barons who would have stopped his return. He begs them to be patient, since he believes greater things will soon occur.

A man, the First Tempter, enters. He identifies himself as Old Tom, one of Becket's former friends, and speaks nostalgically about "the good times" of the past. Mistaking Becket's return as a sign that the Archbishop and King have resolved their argument, he expresses his anticipation for the "gaiety" to come. Thomas quickly disabuses him of the notion, insisting he is no longer a carefree young man. The First Tempter then warns him that such "proud" sternness will cost him greatly and reminds him that "the easy man lives to eat the best dinners" (183-184). In effect, he is tempting Thomas to drop his sternness and responsibilities so as to enjoy an easier, more luxurious life. Thomas remains firm in his refusal of the temptation and the man leaves.

Thomas considers aloud how the man's offer was tempting even though it would have been impossible to accept. The Second Tempter enters and identifies himself as someone Thomas met years before when the latter was still Chancellor. He tempts Thomas by suggesting Thomas "guide the state again," thereby reclaiming his former power and glory (185). When Thomas points out that he is a man of God, the Second Tempter reminds him that the Chancellor is actually more immediately powerful than the King (since he carries out the laws), and Thomas could therefore do good works like "protect the poor" with more expediency than he does as Archbishop. Thomas is angered by the man's insistence that he can have more power (186). Thomas argues that he would lose virtue as Chancellor because of compromises he would have to make with corrupt barons and bishops. He then insists his power is greater as Archbishop, since from that vantage he is placed "to condemn kings, not serve among their servants." Bested, the Second Tempter leaves and Thomas reminds himself that worldly power is inherently limited.

A Third Tempter arrives and claims he is "unexpected," a claim Thomas denies (187). The temper identifies himself as "a country-keeping lord" and "rough straightforward Englishman," more interested in his business than in politics. He tells Thomas that there is no chance of reconciliation with Henry, but that he and other barons will help him overthrow the King. Believing that Becket's connection to Rome will give them legitimacy, he wants to create a coalition with Thomas at its head. However, Thomas easily rejects him, remembering how such "wolves" used to sit at his door constantly when he was Chancellor. The man leaves and Thomas tells himself, "if I break, I must break myself alone" (190).

The Fourth Tempter arrives and is genuinely unexpected by Thomas. He is deliberately mysterious about his identity, saying, "I always precede expectation," and "I do not need a name… You know me, but have never seen my face" (190). When Thomas asks him to speak, the tempter briefly agrees with Thomas's replies to the previous tempters and then suggests that Thomas should die for his beliefs. By becoming a martyr, the Fourth Tempter suggests, Thomas will "bind/King and bishop under [his] heel." The tempter's argument is that the world of "temporal power" is transient and unfixed, whereas the prestige of martyrdom is eternal and all-powerful (191). Thomas admits he has considered this path before, and the tempter reveals that he knows the Archbishop's deepest fears: Thomas is afraid he will not only be hated until his death, but also become irrelevant in the face of history. The tempter reminds Thomas that martyrdom will make his enemies irrelevant in the face of history, and Thomas rebukes him as offering nothing but "dreams to damnation" (193). Thomas begins to despair at being faced with his deepest, most shameful fantasies. The tempter throws his philosophy about "acting" and "suffering" back into his face, repeating the speech almost verbatim.

As Thomas is silent in his pain, the Chorus considers how there is "no rest" to be had in this situation. They feel affected by the uncertainty. The Four Tempters then address the audience in verse, suggesting that "all things are unreal," and that Thomas is doomed, "lost in the wonder of [his] own greatness." The priests address Thomas directly, begging him not to fight against "the intractable/tide" (194).

All the characters except for Thomas then give a long address, with lines alternating between the Chorus, the priests, and the tempters. Together, they consider the uncertainty of life and death and the lack of discernible order to the universe. The Chorus breaks from the shared address and begs Thomas for "some reason, some hope." In a reprise of their "living and partly living" speech, they tell him they have known misery and that they feel "The Lords of Hell" in the air, but beg him, "save us, save us, save yourself that we/may be saved;/Destroy yourself and we are destroyed" (195-196).

Thomas has made up his mind. He announces that the "way [is] clear" and "the meaning plain." He acknowledges the danger of the Fourth Tempter, who begged him "to do the right deed for the wrong reason." He tells how he once sought only pleasure and fame in life and never wanted to devote his life to God. In fact, he always feared that by devoting his life to the highest purpose of God, he might be more inclined to use that power and authority corruptly. He acknowledges that by accepting martyrdom, he might be judged harshly by history, but that nobody can control such things. He announces his decision: he will "no longer act or suffer," and will instead face `his martyrdom not as something he wants, but as something he is willing to accept (196-197). He has accepted his fate.


Many critics believe Eliot achieves the sum of his purpose in Act I. Thomas enters the play a hero with a destiny before him, is tempted to hide from that destiny, and ultimately overcomes not only those temptations but even his own weaknesses in deciding to accept martyrdom for what he sees as the right reason. In a sense, the entire play is encapsulated in this second half of Act II.

It is useful to recognize the influence of Greek tragedy on Eliot's creation of Thomas. Part of the Aristotelian conception of tragedy was that a 'great' man would brave challenges that attempted to waylay him from accepting his fate. Even though Greek tragedies ended poorly for their heroes, audiences were meant to respond to the bravery with which these heroes accepted their deaths. While the concept of a 'tragic flaw' is often overstated, it is worth mentioning that these heroes often were defined by a characteristic quality that both aided and hampered their journey toward accepting their fate.

Thomas is easily analyzed according to these terms. Eliot was not interested in creating a realistic, psychological depiction of the saint. As some critics have noted, the play was intended to be performed in the expansive cathedral of Canterbury, which would have made any audience connection with an individual almost impossible, since the human form would be dwarfed in those surroundings. Instead, Eliot depicts Thomas more as a myth, in the same way that Orestes or Oedipus would have been seen by a Greek audience. The Easter audience for whom Eliot wrote would have known the end of this story from the moment the play started, much as Greek audiences would have know the basic plot of their myths. So the experience of Murder in the Cathedral is about relating to a hero who has to accept his fate as a martyr. The dramatic struggle is not whether Thomas will die, but rather how he will accept that death.

The primary challenge that confronts Thomas in accepting this fate is his version of a 'tragic flaw' – his pride and moral superiority. These are the very qualities that made Thomas an effective Chancellor and now empower him to so passionately defend his Church. However, this pride is also his biggest obstacle. As we learn from the Fourth Tempter, Thomas is more than willing to die for the Church. The issue – a moral issue, not a practical one – is whether he will die "for the wrong reason." To die for the sake of glory, to feed his pride and grant himself immortality, would be to compromise the death. Instead, Thomas has to die for the right reason: because God wills it. He must rid himself of a 'self,' ignore his own feelings and totally subsume himself to the will of God. It is this acceptance that constitutes the dramatic momentum of Part I.

Like a Greek tragedy or a medieval allegory like Everyman, the structure of Murder in the Cathedral is quite simple in its episodic shape. Thomas confronts Four Tempters, who offer various challenges to his ultimate goal of accepting martyrdom for the right reason. By tracing through their offers, one can understand the various challenges that Thomas must overcome. The first three tempters do not offer much in terms of dramatic tension. Not only has Thomas already rejected what they have to offer in his life, but the audience would also know he has already rejected them. Their effect is largely expositional: by revealing what Thomas has rejected, they can remind the audience of Becket's past. The First Tempter offers Thomas the carefree dalliance of youth, a past Thomas historically would have known as far back as his time studying in Paris. Thomas was known for his high taste in fine things, and this tempter reminds him that those things still exist. The Second Tempter offers earthly power. He promises to have Thomas reinstated as Chancellor and appeals to Thomas's pride and virtue by suggesting that a Chancellor can do more with laws than a priest can with pronouncements. He also reminds the audience of how effective Thomas was as Chancellor. The Third Tempter offers a vision of the future in which Thomas will not only rule, but rule via a new system of government. This tempter's evocation of a 'coalition,' a political concept that would have been impossible in the feudal era in which Becket and Henry lived, is a nod to Eliot's modern era.

Again, these tempters can be seen as superfluous to the drama, since there is never truly any chance that Thomas will accept their temptations. And yet they still do much to enrich the play. The first purpose they achieve is a stress on Becket's pride, the flaw he must overcome in order to peacefully accept martyrdom for the right reason. All three appeal to that quality, albeit in different ways. The first appeals to Becket's love of his body (physical pleasures), the second appeals to his love of control (Chancellorship), and the third appeals to his ambition to be greater, a quality that defines Becket's rise from a middle-class boy to one of the most powerful people in England. For all these reasons, it is possible to see the tempters as versions of Thomas himself. Considering that Thomas's ultimate dramatic goal is to rid himself of a 'self,' of his personality, it is important that the audience see him confront all of these variations of that personality, even if he has already repudiated those temptations.

The three tempters also have something else in common: they all speak to alterations in time. The first two tempters offer Thomas the possibility of going back, of changing what has already happened. They play to his potential regrets and his desire to live a simpler life, one in which he has already found success without the complications he faced ever since clashing with Henry. The third tempter offers a vision of the future, a promise of a world in which Becket's ambition could be realized. Certainly, any reader or audience member can relate to the desire to escape into the past or future from a tumultuous present. So when Becket refuses both possibilities, it is a sign of his fortitude; he will not turn away from the challenges before him.

The Fourth Tempter raises the stakes considerably by indicating that the greatest challenge Thomas faces is from himself. In terms of time, he offers neither a past nor a future, but immortality. He argues that not only will Thomas's name last throughout history if he allows himself to die, but he will also exist beyond the limits of time. He will be at the center of the proverbial wheel, more a myth than a man. Suddenly, the challenge of repudiating the temptations of the past and future seem simple. The Fourth Tempter does not offer Thomas a different existence – he offers him a greater existence, a more pronounced and incredible version of the holy existence and reputation he now has. Like the first three, the Fourth Tempter is a version of Thomas himself, but one less superficial, one far more hidden in the shadows. He indicates as much in his addresses to Thomas, noting that the Archbishop entertains the temptation for martyrdom only at private times, "between sleep and waking, early in the morning" (192). This is the voice Thomas least wants to hear from himself and as such, it is the most difficult to defeat. The Fourth Tempter is both mysterious – he never gives his identity and instead uses phrases like "I do not need a name" that evoke Mephistopheles or other versions of Satan – and subtle. He is not incorrect in arguing that Thomas will do great good for his church by dying, and so Thomas would not be rejecting his holy duty by giving in to the man's temptation.

However, Thomas would be rejecting his own moral integrity, and the play argues implicitly that this would have compromised his martyrdom. Even though Eliot gives Thomas a realistic flaw, he does so in the vein of the great Greek heroes, and therefore does not totally avoid hagiography in his depiction of Thomas. Consider that Thomas's first word is "Peace." Eliot knows the audience for whom he is creating his Thomas Becket, and he is certain that Thomas will not die for impure or selfish reasons.

In understanding the crux of Thomas's transformation, it is important to consider the play's central themes of acting and suffering, which were introduced by the Chorus before Thomas entered. Firstly, it helps to define "to suffer" as "to endure pain or distress patiently" rather than as "to undergo pain or distress." The suffering Thomas and the Chorus evoke certainly involves pain, but it is more akin to patience than to sensation. This makes it align cohesively within the play and frames it as a stark contrast to action. The question Thomas asks in his important acting/suffering speech (which is repeated to him by the Fourth Tempter) is whether there is a distinction between action (aggressively attempting to make change) and suffering (patiently and passively receiving what comes). He chides the Second Priest for insulting the Chorus, suggesting that they do not realize that acting and suffering are two sides of a coin, or, to use the medieval symbolism, on opposite sides of a wheel that turns. To act is to wait, and to wait is to act. We never fully do one or the other, though from our limited perspective on the proverbial wheel of the universe, we do attempt to choose one side or the other.

Thomas is guilty of the same misunderstanding that he claims the Chorus is. The Fourth Tempter, in repeating the speech, points out that Thomas is falling into the same despair that the Chorus was. He is uncertain whether he should act in pursuing martyrdom or suffer through his life, since his reasons for seeking martyrdom are impure. The tempter's words are interesting in that at first, they seem to be mocking in tone, but an attempt to read the full speech as mockery makes it quite ineffective. Instead, the Fourth Tempter plants the seed for Thomas's final decision: he must accept martyrdom, but he must accept it as his fate willed by God, not as an effect of his own will. His martyrdom exists outside of time, and so is not engendered by the cause/effect of his decision-making. He must be patient, but actively patient. He must choose to accept what comes independent of his own decision. He must rid himself of personality so he will be ready to accept what God intends. He must wait and understand that he does not live in the middle of the wheel, but this requires active and difficult vigilance.

The climax of Part I, therefore, is Thomas's realization that neither acting nor suffering exists independently of the other. The play is often criticized because this crucial climactic decision is decidedly undramatic. It is an entirely internal shift that happens for the protagonist during his long silence following the Fourth Tempter's reprise of the acting/suffering speech. On stage, the actor playing Thomas has no language following this speech until he decides to accept it. The fact that the audience does not hear his thought process is fitting, since Eliot is not interested in psychology, but it does rob the audience of the climax.

But Eliot works overtime to keep the play theatrical during this silent climax. The Tempters, Chorus, and Priests all have speeches that overlap until they all speak as one voice. The tempters address the audience, suggesting the pessimistic voice that Thomas must be hearing in his own mind. He must be considering that he is "obstinate, blind, intent/On self-destruction," and hence incapable of reaching the serenity required by holy and proper martyrdom (194). The Priests speak the more optimistic voice in reminding him that there is an "untractable tide," although even this voice suggests simple patience, not active patience. The Chorus is miserable as usual, until all three voices become different shades of the same perspective. In the speech where the voices overlap, they all accept that no man can know what is to happen. No man is at the center of the proverbial wheel. These voices are distinct for the audience, but they are all the same for Thomas. They are all shades of himself, the 'self' he needs to repudiate if he is going to accept martyrdom. His decision is not to make a decision, but to rid himself of decision-making and become joyfully ready to accept God's will.

Ultimately, he comes to the proper decision and is worthy of martyrdom. It is arguable that the final impulse comes not from his own strength but from the Chorus, who gives the last speech before Thomas accepts his fate. In many ways, the Chorus provides the only real dramatic tension in this section, for they, too, have changed. Whereas they earlier begged Thomas to leave them to a comfortable misery, they now beg him to die, to "save us, save us, save yourself that we may be saved." In both the Greek tragedy tradition and the Catholic liturgical tradition, the audience/congregation is crucial to the ritual. If only the characters go through a transformation, then the ritual or play is meaningless. The audience must change as well; indeed, the Chorus has realized that they are involved. They cannot personally take any path that will enact immediate change, but they are crucial toward convincing Thomas; likewise, their decision to accept their own fate is equally important. The saint/priest/tragic hero needs his Chorus to journey with him. Without this, the ritual and transformation is individual. What matters to Eliot is the community that is affected by Becket's martyrdom, the very community celebrating that martyrdom as they celebrate the death centuries later through Eliot's play. As the Chorus changes its mind, Thomas's martyrdom is complete. Dramatically, the protagonist has reached his serenity, and through his strength led his people to do the same. Now, all that is left is for him to die.