Murder in the Cathedral

Murder in the Cathedral Summary and Analysis of Part II


The first scene of Part II takes place in the Archbishop's Hall on December 29th, 1170. It has been four days since the sermon of the Interlude, and 27 days since Part I. The Chorus of women gives an ominous address about the arrival of deep winter, noting how the winter brings momentary peace from man's aggressive wars: "The world must be cleaned in the winter" (201).

Four knights enter. All four are excitable – they have just come from France with business from King Henry, who was in France at the time of Becket's assassination. The priests recognize the knights and try to distract them with dinner before they bring them to the Archbishop. The knights insist that Thomas appear right away, and the First Priest sends an attendant. Thomas arrives immediately. When he sees the knights, he privately tells the priests that he recognizes "the moment" has come, but that he is embroiled in "matters of other urgency" (203). He tells them where to find his business and then addresses the knights. They insist their audience be private and Thomas dismisses the priests.

Immediately, the knights lay out their grievances. They insist that Thomas remains Henry's "servant, his tool, and his jack," and that he is revealing deep disloyalty. They remind him he was born a simple, middle-class "tradesman's son," a "backstairs brat" whom the King favored but who "broke his oath and betrayed his King" (203). Thomas denies their claims and insists that he remains the King's "most faithful vassal" but that he has a higher master (probably meaning both God and the Pope). They mock him and suggest he is driven less by love of God than by love of himself, derisively pretending they will pray for him.

Thomas stops them to ask whether their business is simply "scolding and blaspheming?" They prepare themselves to deliver the King's message, and Thomas demands that if their message is "by the King's command," then it should be "said in public" so he can "refute them" (204). They move to attack him, but the attempt is interrupted by the entrance of the priests and attendants.

The First Knight lectures Thomas on his ingratitude, suggesting he fled England with the goal of "stirring up trouble" for King Henry with the Pope and Louis, the king of France. The other knights add that even after the King kindly offered him clemency, Thomas remained an antagonist, contesting Henry's desire to crown his son king and causing unrest among some of the King's advisors in England. They ask if he will meet the King to answer these charges, and identify that as their purpose.

Thomas insists he bears Henry no ill-will and has no reason to contest the prince's coronation, but that it was the Pope who excommunicated them. The knights insist that the interdiction was engineered through Thomas, who could have them absolved. Thomas admits he was the impulse behind it, but says he cannot "loose whom the Pope has bound." The First Knight insists Thomas and his servants leave England immediately and Thomas replies that, after being separated from his people for seven years, causing them spiritual pain, he will not leave again. He insists that it is not he with whom they should be angry, but Rome. He calls them "petty politicians" and is openly contemptuous of their cause (206).

They threaten his life, and he promises that he would hold his ground not just to Rome on Earth, but to God in heaven. The knights warn the priests that they will be held accountable "with [their] bodies" if they let Thomas escape again before they return, and then they leave. Thomas announces that he is "ready for martyrdom" as they exit (207).

The Chorus gives a brutal, evocative speech in which they claim to have "smelt the death-bringers." They use violent imagery to describe the horror of the world to come and lament that this fate awaits everyone, from "councils of princes" to themselves, the "women of Canterbury." However, they assure the Lord Archbishop that they "have consented" and are prepared (208). Thomas begs them to "be at peace" and acknowledges that their "share of the eternal burden" is to accept things they cannot control. He assures them that their remembrance of this event will stay with them the rest of their lives until the memories "seem unreal. Human kind cannot bear very much reality" (209).

Together, the priests beg Thomas to flee before the knights come back to kill him. Thomas remains calm and insists he is ready and worthy to receive martyrdom. The priests hear the knights approaching and forcefully suggest Thomas fulfill his duty of vespers. When he still denies their request, they force him off stage against his will.

The Chorus gives a speech as the setting is changed to the cathedral. A Latin chant, the Dies Irae, is sung in the background. In their speech, the women emotionally steel themselves for the death soon to follow. In the cathedral, the priests bar the door despite Thomas's insistence that he will not be locked up and have the cathedral turned to a "fortress." The priests argue that the knights are not like men, but like "beasts" who must be kept out. Thomas chides them for arguing "by results, as this world does," which confuses the distinction between good and evil. He insists he has made his decision "out of time" and that he must "conquer… by suffering" (211-212).

The priests open the doors at his command, and the knights, whom Eliot describes as "slightly tipsy," enter. The priests try to force Thomas to the crypt to hide while the knights tauntingly call out to Becket as they search for him. Thomas confronts them and declares he is "without fear... ready to suffer with [his] blood" (213). The knights insist he absolve those he has excommunicated and declare his obedience to the King, but Thomas ignores their requests and insists they do with him as they like but leave his people untouched. They begin to chant "traitor" at him, and Thomas reminds the First Knight, Reginald, that he himself has been a traitor to Thomas. The First Knight denies he owes anything to a "renegade" (213). Thomas commends his cause and life to God, and the knights murder him.

As the knights kill him, the Chorus gives an address in which they beg someone "clear the air!" They feel lost and see the return of peace as impossible. They realize that life will grow harder now that they can no longer go on "living and partly living," since now they must bear some of the weight for the miserable world. They now see a life "out of time," but that awareness brings extra responsibility, guilt, and suffering.

When the murder is over, the First Knight – whose name is Reginald Fitz Urse - walks downstage and directly addresses the audience. In a prose speech, he begs the audience to give him a chance to explain his and the other knights' behavior. He stipulates that his English audience believes "in fair play" and will sympathize with "the under dog." However, he equally expects them to allow a "Trial by Jury" in which the knights might defend themselves. Not being an eloquent man, he wishes for the Second Knight – William de Traci – to present their case (215).

The Second Knight presents as their defense the fact that they are personally "perfectly disinterested" in the murder. They do not stand to profit from the murder but instead did it because they "put country first." He apologizes for their boorish behavior earlier, noting that they were all a bit drunk. However, he indicates that their drunkenness was their way of coping with the impending murder, which they personally were not motivated to commit. He points out that they in fact stand to lose something by the murder, since they will have to flee and will be maligned by history, even after the English eventually accept Becket's murder as necessary (215-216). When the Second Knight finishes, the First Knight briefly sums up his "disinterested" argument and then introduces the Third Knight, Hugh de Morville.

The Third Knight provides a different and much longer defense. He believes Becket had committed an offense against his King and the people of England, and therefore the execution was just. He wonders whether Becket should actually be considered the under dog, and suggests he will appeal to his audience's "reason" rather than their "emotions." The first stage of his argument is that the King's aim was always to unite his judiciary so as to engender justice. The judiciary was split into three courts: those of the King, those of the bishops, and those of the baronage. Thomas, as Chancellor, supported this campaign and was in fact named to the Archbishopric specifically for the purpose of uniting those courts. Though he acknowledges that Becket was qualified for the post, the Third Knight attacks Becket for having immediately resigned the Chancellorship and grown "ascetic." With his new attitude, Thomas withdrew from the King's counsel and was no longer interested in compromise. The knight believes his audience views such behavior as contrary to their interests, since Thomas's refusal to compromise kept the legal system unjust and corrupt. Hence, the Third Knight believes the only problem is with the "method" the knights employed, and not their "issue." In fact, he argues, under other circumstances Thomas might have been found guilty by courts for these offenses and killed by the state, without garnering any controversy. Because the knights have taken the first important step toward securing the interests of the people, they represent the people, and hence all people must be somewhat guilty of the crime if it is called a crime (216-218). The First Knight commends Morville for his subtle reasoning and then introduces the Fourth Knight, whose name is Richard Brito, to provide a final argument.

The Fourth Knight gives the most subtle argument. His argument is that the knights are not guilty of murder because Thomas is guilty of suicide. He briefly repeats a history of Thomas's life, saying that Thomas pursued "unity" and "justice" while he was Chancellor, but "reversed his policy" when he was named Archbishop. Thomas then revealed his primary instinct was "egotism" that grew into an "undoubted mania" that showed no concern for the people of England. The Fourth Knight provides evidence that Thomas had spoken in France of his impending murder in England, which proves that he was "determined upon a death by martyrdom" (218). He points to Thomas's refusal to answer their charges in his final moments as further proof of his guilt in facilitating his own death. Knowing the knights were "inflamed with wrath," Thomas nevertheless had the doors opened instead of letting the knights cool off. For all these reasons, the Fourth Knight asks that the audience "hesitatingly render a verdict of Suicide while of Unsound Mind" (219). The First Knight closes the proceedings and suggests the audience head home without doing anything "that might provoke any public outbreak" (219). The knights leave.

The First Priest laments Thomas's death and fears the "world without God" that he predicts will now come (219). The Third Priest insists that "the Church is stronger for this action," since it will be fortified for having survived the tragedy. He addresses the absent knights, suggesting they will forever justify their actions while God creates a "new state" that is stronger because of its new martyr (220).

The Chorus gives the final speech while a Latin song, the Te Deum, is sung in the background. They give praise and thanks to God and acknowledge Canterbury as holy ground that will engender more holiness throughout the world. In their final stanza, the women ask God to forgive them as weak, representative examples of "the men and women" who "fear of injustice of men less than the justice of God," and who want a comfortable misery rather than a challenging spirituality. They acknowledge they wish to fear and love God more than they fear and love the physical world. They are thankful that "the blood of the martyrs and the agony of the saints" help them to transcend their weakness. They ask God, Christ, and Thomas to have mercy and pray for them.


Part II begins with a strange theatrical challenge. The play's protagonist has already gone through the entirety of his personal journey, as he stresses in the Interlude. He has faced his temptations and now is ready to accept martyrdom for the right reason. Since the audience knows what will happen – Thomas will be murdered by knights in the Cathedral – the second half of the play runs the risk of being overlong and undramatic. Indeed, from a purely dramatic standpoint, Part II is static. Thomas knows that his end has come immediately upon seeing the knights early in the act; there is no suspense. Even the altercations with the priests, in which they argue vehemently and then force Thomas to hide, lack much momentum. Certainly, these scenes in performance would be physically exciting, but nevertheless would lack any suspense.

However, the value of Part II is less about drama and more about confrontation and ritual. Because Eliot wishes to involve his community so fully in the experience, along the lines of Greek theater or a mass, the ritual must be enacted. In the same way that a mass without the communion (which represents the body of Christ, sacrificed for mankind) is not considered complete, so would the play not fulfill Eliot's purpose if the ritual of the murder were not dramatized. Eliot emphasizes this purpose through his masterful use of the Chorus in Part II. In many ways, Thomas is rather absent in Part II. Aside from the speeches that the knights give the audience, the Chorus is given the most stage presence as well as the most magnificent poetry in this second half of the play.

The Chorus undergoes its own journey throughout Murder in the Cathedral, and it is this journey that is most important to the play's intention. Eliot does not add much to the Becket story, but he does add a new perspective by integrating the idea of community into Becket's murder. The Chorus in Part I learns to accept that they are involved in Becket's sacrifice and must recognize their choice: they may stay passive in a life of suffering untroubled by spiritual turmoil, or they can act as Thomas does and engage the wickedness of the world directly. This second option is more spiritually fulfilling and honest, but requires more struggle.

Thomas enters Part II having reached serenity in terms of this struggle. He has accepted his fate and is active in his patience. He is ready to be God's instrument. The Chorus realizes that they, too, face this challenge, but are not yet at peace with it. Instead, their language grows significantly harsher throughout Part II. They have heard Becket's Christmas sermon, in which he explored the idea of opposites in Christianity – Christians celebrate martyrdom as they celebrate Christ's death, simultaneously mourning the world that forces such death while celebrating the sacrifice that validates existence - but they are not yet ready to accept the peace that comes with accepting the contradiction. This transformation happens through the act. They must learn to accept their "share of the eternal burden," which is to force their own spiritual growth by imitation and reflection of Becket's martyrdom (208).

Their opening speech in Part II reveals their persistent pessimism. They reflect on how "the peace of the world is always uncertain" because "man defiles this world" (201). Ironically, they find peace in the harshness of winter because that harshness cleanses the world of the violence that comes with the warmth of spring. The warmth correlates to human passion, which they professed to reject in Part I, since passion brings with it hope and greater dissatisfaction. The life they propose in Part I is one of "living and partly living," not one that challenges the social and spiritual order as Becket does. Here, we see that though they realize the necessity of Becket's sacrifice, they are mired in a pessimism which evokes Eliot's earlier poetry. In a sense, they are the Eliot of The Wasteland and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," chained to a pessimistic perspective that sees mankind as doomed by their own failures, and reticent to hope for any better, since hope leads to disappointment. Eliot had since that time converted to Christianity, but he clearly can still relate to a pessimistic perspective. As Eliot found Christianity to brighten his perspective, so will this Chorus find their Becket through Part II and learn to accept their spiritual, Christian responsibilities for the world.

Their second speech, which begins with "I have smelt them, the death-bringers," is significantly harsher in its imagery and perspective. It's important to remember that these speeches are primarily defined by their poetry, not their philosophy. To read the speeches aloud is to recognize the linguistic mastery and emotional power at work. But the philosophy is implicit and worth exploring. In the "death-bringer" speech, the Chorus is particularly obsessed with the nature of opposites, which parallels the message of Thomas's sermon. For instance, they note how there is "corruption in the dish, incense in the latrine, the sewer in the incense," and a multitude of other such images (207). They have realized more fully how the degradation of man infects the world. Thomas knows this as well – he has only just moments before confronted the boorish knights on their first visit – but he has found peace in accepting the possibility of a greater existence in submission to God. The Chorus cannot yet bring themselves to accept these contradictions so easily; they still see what is to come in terms of physical death brought by the "death-bringers," and not in terms of its spiritual import. They realize that his sacrifice is meaningless unless they make it manifest in their own lives, noting that everything that is "woven on the loom of fate" and "woven in the councils of princes" is also "woven like a pattern of living worms/In the guts of the women of Canterbury" (208). They are part of the wheel, and the ritual of Thomas's sacrifice needs a congregation to give it meaning. However, they are too distracted by their violent pessimism, and they therefore end this speech by asking Thomas to forgive them. They are not yet strong enough to do service to what he is about to give.

As Thomas is dragged forcefully to the cathedral by the priests, the Chorus gives a speech that begins "Numb the hand and dry the eyelid," which reveals a burgeoning strength in the women while still reflecting their refusal to accept what is happening. They confess the depth of their fear, which is less of God than of the nothingness they will face if they cannot accept God's plan. They fear "the face of Death the Judgment/And behind the Judgment the Void.. Emptiness, absence, separation from God" (210). They are beginning to understand that there is a greater death than physical, earthly death. The "death-bringers" are no longer the greatest threat, which is instead the eternal existence of nothingness. However, they are still not quite ready – they end their speech asking the Lord for help.

As Thomas is being murdered, the Chorus gives a speech that begins "Clear the air! Clean the sky!" This speech allows the murder to theatrically take a long time without drawing full focus to its horror; the chorus acts as incidental music might in a film. However, they transcend their functional purpose through the poetic intensity of their language. The imagery is harsher here than in either of the previous two speeches – "the land is foul," "a rain of blood has blinded [their] eyes," they are "soiled by a filth that [they] cannot clean" – because they realize how terrible their burden will be in accepting their share of Thomas's sacrifice. They see more clearly than ever before how depraved and foul the world truly is.

It is telling that while Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral with a powerful, positive message – we all have the opportunity through our rituals to transcend the limits of our physical suffering – he does not sugar-coat it. This speech reveals that the sacrifice of someone like Becket, and the way that a congregation must endeavor to live up to that sacrifice in their own lives, is difficult. It requires that congregation to open their eyes and discover how terrible and cruel the world can be. The sufferings the Chorus listed in their opening speech of Part I, which were about physical difficulties of seasons and daily toil, are nothing compared to the imagery of blindness through blood or a "terror by day that ends in sleep" (214). In many ways, this is the moment before the climax of the Chorus's journey. The moment has come, and Becket dies. Their realization of how intense their own existence will become parallels his as the worst moment of the journey. What they want more than anything is for the air to be cleared and the world to be cleaned. It's a futile and impossible request, but they make it from desperation.

Their final speech, which closes the play, shows that they have overcome this obstacle. Gone are the intense, horrific images. Instead, they praise and thank the Lord. They have not forgotten how difficult the world is, but they have come to peace with it. They are prepared to attempt the active patience that Thomas modeled for them in his sacrifice. They want a greater life and recognize that even in a terrible world, "all things affirm [God]." They ask for forgiveness, admitting that their insistence on seeing the world in physical terms is a weakness that they must struggle to overcome. They "fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God," which is how they felt at the beginning of the play. The difference is that they now recognize the iniquity and failure of such a perspective. They might not have Thomas's strength and persistence, but that is what makes him a saint. They promise to endeavor to follow his lead and they beg proactive forgiveness and mercy as they prepare to do service to his martyrdom through their lives.

Without this transformation, the play would be incomplete. Eliot did not write this play to tell us historical facts about Becket's life – again, he adds little to the central story - but rather to draw attention to the congregation who would watch his play. The play reminds them that they, too, are responsible for the sacrifice Becket made, since it was made for the community they share. In the same way that all Christians endeavor to justify Christ's sacrifice, so must they endeavor to justify the deaths of their martyrs on a smaller scale.

However, Thomas is not entirely irrelevant in Part II. Thomas is busy at work when the knights finally arrive, and his first words are to the priests, to tell them how to continue that work. This conforms to the historical depiction of Thomas as an obsessed and vigilant worker. The one area in which Thomas cannot help but engage his attackers is politics. This drive towards political and legal wrangling certainly conforms to the real Becket, who was equally adept at Chancellorship as at priestly matters. Here, Eliot proposes another way to delineate the Becket story from the political framework in which it was and continues to be frequently considered. Thomas proposes a dichotomy of ways to think of the world in Part II. On way is through the lens of ritual and myth. He comforts the Chorus at one point, saying that their memories of this day will turn to myth in their minds, until the memories "will seem unreal" (209). He does not posit this as a negative thing, instead suggesting that "humankind cannot bear very much reality" (209). In the context of the play, this is almost a virtue. "Reality" is not painted in a positive light in Murder in the Cathedral. People are described as essentially warlike, the knights and even the priests are defined by their self-interest as much as anything else, and death is an easy answer to political problems. By reflecting on our world as myth, to recognize that it is "unreal" and not the highest realm of existence, people can find comfort. On the other hand, he suggests that most humans see the world from a polarized, political framework that serves self-interest and moral justifications:

You argue by results, as this world does,

To settle if an act be good or bad.

You defer to the fact. For every life and every act

Consequence of good and evil can be shown.

And as in time results of many deeds are blended

So good and evil in the end become confounded.

It is a philosophy obsessed with worldly gain and justifications, rather than spiritual transcendence. This philosophy is manifest in the political arguments of the knights. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was its own political entity and often warred with secular regimes. While it did sometimes battle physically, it more often worked by excommunicating opponents. In a solely Catholic society, the threat of excommunication from the church was devastating, since it meant one no longer had the opportunity to go to heaven after death. It also carried great social stigma. On the other side of the struggle, many secular regimes resented the independence of the church, which compromised secular rule. Henry had long attempted to force the church courts under his control (as the knights describe), and in fact likely hoped his right-hand man and Chancellor Thomas Becket would help in that purpose when the latter was named Archbishop. When Becket immediately found a new, greater allegiance to the church, Henry, a notorious hot-head, was politically thwarted and personally offended. During their long struggle, which forced Becket to flee England in exile, Becket suggested that Pope Alexander not recognize the legitimacy of the young Prince Henry's coronation. Finally, excommunications could be easily lifted when a person acquiesced to or overpowered church demands, and so often only added political complication to situations.

The knights – whose names in the play are the same as the names of the murderous knights in history - are clearly boors by nature and are drunk, as well. Historically, they were not explicitly ordered to murder Becket, but were acting from the intensity of Henry's anger. What they want more than anything, though, is to defeat Becket in political argument. They insist he has betrayed the king on a personal and legal level, and that he is hiding behind a smokescreen in blaming the prince's excommunication on the Pope. In many ways, their arguments are justifiable. However, though Becket is momentarily drawn into the nuances of political argument, he mostly expresses his serenity, his active patience in awaiting death. This infuriates them – it is a philosophy "out of time," whereas all they want is the political argument of cause and effect. Eliot intended the Four Tempters to be double-cast with the Four Knights, which stresses their purpose. They are meant to tempt Becket into returning to a physical, earthly means of discourse.

Though they fail on that front, they do serve as tempters to the audience through their direct address speeches, again showing how important the congregation is to Eliot's intention. Thus far, he has meant for the Chorus to represent the audience. However, in a wonderful and hilarious theatrical shift, Eliot directly confronts and tempts the audience of his play. The question posed by the knights' speeches is whether we will be drawn into the cause-and-effect political discourse that defines our own world. Have we realized the spiritual nature of Becket's sacrifice, which exists out of time? Or will we be led again to consider his story as a political one, one which should be judged by cause and effect?

Eliot's purpose is to deliberately confront a physical realm and then to suggest the possibility of transcendence. He does not sugar-coat the transcendence offered by martyrdom – the violent murder happens on stage, and the Chorus reflects on how this martyrdom will add more responsibility to Christians in its aftermath. However, to think of Becket's death in terms of its effect is to remain tethered to the physical world, which sees things in terms of cause-and-effect. Our lives have the potential to reach a greater existence if we accept that we can never understand them. We are placed throughout the "wheel" and can never understand its movement because we are not at its center, as God is. Thus, what Becket teaches is neither acting nor suffering (waiting), but rather a mixture of the two: an active patience, a submission to God's will. It is not happiness or comfort that such submission brings, but greater spiritual fulfillment. It is for this wisdom that Becket died, and it is this wisdom which Eliot wishes to impart by dramatizing the ritual of this mythic martyrdom.