Major Themes of Murder in The Cathedral

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      Eliot's writing has often been an examination of contemporary society, particularly its cultural, moral and religious characteristics. His criticism has behind it, a moral, and increasingly, religious point of view. He felt a sincere dissatisfaction with the general spiritual slackness of the times. A sense of disillusionment and debasement is expressed in poems like The Waste Land and The Hollow Men. The later poems like Ash Wednesday and The Four Quartets represent a gradual emergence and advance towards religious conviction. There is a view that we as individuals and as a society should take religion seriously. Men should live more nearly by Christian doctrine in their personal and social life. If we note that the themes of his plays are but an extension of the themes of his poetry, his dramas become an attempt to convey these themes to larger audiences. Common to all Eliot's plays, but especially obvious in Murder in the Cathedral, is a preoccupation with the nature of sainthood, and the ability of the saint's sacrifice to benefit the lives of others.

Historical and political material has been slashed down to the minimum and the action of the play is confined to the days immediately before and after the crucial event of Becket's martyrdom. Eliot's chief concern is with martyrdom and Becket's struggle for sainthood.
Murder in the Cathedral

Concern with the Spiritual Aspect:-

      The subject of the play is clearly historical but Eliot deals neither with the personal conflict between Henry II and Thomas Becket nor does he lay emphasis on the historical struggle between the church and the state, a conflict significant in the Middle Ages. Historical and political material has been slashed down to the minimum and the action of the play is confined to the days immediately before and after the crucial event of Becket's martyrdom. Eliot's chief concern is with martyrdom and Becket's struggle for sainthood. As D.E. Jones says, "the play is not just the dramatization of Becket's death; it is a deep Searching study of the significance of martyrdom." The conflict between church and state thus does not assume major significance. Clash of characters is not present; personal conflict is scrupulously avoided and Henry does not even make an appearance. The Knights are hardly presented as individuals in their own right.


      Eliot's use of martyrdom is in the sense of its original meaning. In that sense, it means "witness". Becket as a martyr is not primarily a man who suffers for a cause, or who sacrifices his life for some religious belief. He is a witness to the reality of God's powers. There is a continuous warning against looking at the play as if the sequence of events contained the normal dramatic logic of motive, act, and result. The action is to be seen as something enacting from God's will which is the center of that eternally moving wheel, on whose circumference are the creatures of this earth, both acting, and suffering (It is worth remembering that the word 'suffer implies patience or bearing patiently, rather than pain).

      Both action and suffering on the wheel's circumference are linked to the Supreme Will at the "still point" and they are part of the eternal design, the eternal pattern. Martyrdom has to be understood and realized in this light for it to be efficacious.

Development of the Action:-

      Part I portrays the temptations which the martyr must undergo; firstly the temptations that lure him to compromise and avoid martyrdom; secondly the temptations to seek martyrdom for the wrong reason. From the beginning of the play, an atmosphere suitable for the spiritual subject has created a sense of foreboding, of some impending disaster. Thomas now faces the temptation to ignore martyrdom. Temptations of the past revive the appeal of sensuous pleasures, the lure of temporal power such as that of Chancellorship, and a possibility in the future of gaining power by beating Henry at his political game by allying himself with the barons. These temptations are to a large extent retrospective in nature and as such are easy for Thomas to overcome. In any case, he is bent on martyrdom and now the deep-rooted but severely suppressed desire for achieving eternal glory comes to the foreground. Thomas has simply refused to acknowledge this thought for what it is and thus is surprised at the visit of the fourth Tempter This tempter in three speeches, lays before Thomas the "glory after death" whereby as saint and martyr he can "transcend the transience of the authority of kings and rule from the tomb. He would enter the company of saints, "dwelling for ever-presence of God"

This is the greatest temptation, the greatest treason:

"To do the right deed for the wrong reason."

Recognition of Pride:-

      As the implication of this strikes Thomas, he is aghast and cries out in near despair:

"Is there no way, in my soul's sickness,

Does not lead to damnation in pride?

Can I neither act nor suffer

Without perdition?"

      Thomas has now realized that he was possessed by the deadliest of sins-spiritual pride. He was approaching martyrdom in the wrong spirit. What then is the right way in which he should approach what may soon befall him? His motives have been mixed and impure. The last words or the fourth Tempter are an ironic reference to the very words Thomas spoke about the Chorus:

"You know and do not know,

What it is to act or suffer.

You know and do not know, that action is suffering,

And suffering action. Neither does the agent suffer,

And suffering action. Neither does the agent suffer,

Nor the patient act. But both are fixed

In an eternal action, an eternal patience

To which all must consent that it may be willed

And which all must suffer that they may will it.

That the pattern may subsist that the wheel may turn and still

Be forever still".

      This is the mystery of the working of the individual will of man within and at one with the will or purpose of God. God, in the tradition of the Catholic interpretation, leaves man free to act, yet that freedom is the freedom to do his will and to act in oneness with his purpose. Becket had not understood the true implication of the words himself when he spoke to the Chorus. He thought himself to be the source of will and the women as passive recipients of sorrows and benefits, arising from his choice of martyrdom. He has to recognize the meaning of the words and make this perception a reality in his life.


      While The Chorus, The Tempters and The Priests counsel him to avert action he comes to his awakening. The only way in which he can reach the still point of the moving wheel is to yield to the mover, and that point is not himself. He has to lose his will in the will of God. Only by the extinction of self-will, can the mortal sin of pride be avoided at his moment of sacrifice. Except for God, all those who act and those who suffer are inescapably on the circumference of the wheel - the realm of phenomena or physical appearances. Those who consent to the Will of God are as God; they have achieved the "reconciliation of all irreconcilable". The martyr losing his will in God's becomes free from the circumference of the wheel and attains the still point. Thus he can realize the eternal pattern in the flux of time. Eliot says in the Four Quartets that the apprehension of the point of intersection of the timeless with time, i.e., the apprehension of the eternal pattern, is an occupation for the saint:

"No occupation either, but something given

And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,

Ardour and self lessens and self-surrender"

      Having come to the decision that he shall no longer suffer, to the Sword's sent" (which means that he will not act, for God will act through him; he will not suffer, for God will empower him to consent, and what God wills, brings neither pain nor suffering to one who consents to it). Thomas gives his life in this spirit-love ardor selflessness and self-surrender.

The true nature of Martyrdom:-

      It is fully expounded in the Christmas morning sermon in the Interlude that:

"A Christian martyrdom is never an accident...

It is never the design of man, for the true

Martyr is he who has become the instrument of God,

Who has lost his will in the well of God, and

Who no longer desires anything for himself.

Not even the glory of being a martyr."

      Thomas's words at the end of Part I "Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain", have received the formal interpretation and ratification. Part II has a procession of Priests who bear banners of different saints to whom the days belong. This device serves not merely to denote the passage of time but also to keep the theme of martyrdom and sainthood before us. Moreover, the liturgical form and the first Priest's words "He lays down his life for the sheep prepare us for the martyrdom. The murder takes place as a kind of ritual slaughter or sacrifice of an unresisting victim. The martyrdom requires the fulfillment of two aspects. The first aspect has been completed in Thomas's self-realization-in learning to accept martyrdom in the right spirit. This has to be fulfilled by the martyr himself. Every martyr is a witness to the efficacy of Christ's sacrifice gesture of love in response to the divine love revealed in Christ:

"His blood given to buy my life.

My blood given to pay for his death,

My death for his death."

      Thus does Thomas fulfill his part in the eternal design.

Significance, of martyrdom to common man:-

      If martyrdom requires the martyr to have the right attitude to God, it also requires a right attitude on the part of the great mass of humanity. The efficacy of martyrdom is lost if it is not accepted by common men as "the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them back to his ways."

      The death of Becket has not been treated as a historical event in this play, but as a spiritual examination of the nature of martyrdom and this is set against the background not only of the twelfth but also of the twentieth century. The Chorus of the women of Canterbury is representative of mankind "small, folk who live among small things", "type of the common man" and expresses the attitude that the common man has-a fear of involvement, an unwillingness to think beyond the trivial routine. of life Living and partly living". The women are instinctively aware of portending disaster and fear they are being pulled towards events which would bring disruption to their settled ways of life and they are absolutely reluctant to have any part in this. They wish Becket would go back. They want no change - "we do not wish anything to happen". In this respect they speak for humanity in general-most of use are too lazy and unwilling to face any change, especially such spiritual upheaval. They do not wish to leave their daily round and common task". But no one, Eliot wants to show can opt-out of moral responsibility:

"For every evil, every sacrilege,

Crime, wrong, oppression and the axe's edge,

Indifference, exploitation, you and you,

And you, must all be punished,

So must you,"

says Thomas.

      The women, much against their will and full of an uneasy, inexplicable fear initially, are drawn to be "witness" to the martyrdom. They fear that they will prove unequal to the test of bearing witness. They fear the involvement with the unknown, the uncontrollable, that will render their ordered life chaotic. They feel a threat to the sense of safety they find in their routine life. They are not aware that this false sense of security should in fact be questioned. Even while recognizing that what is about to happen is the design of God, they think of it as an illness:

"Some malady is coming upon us"...

"For us, the poor, there is no action,

But only, to wait and to witness."

      But the witness, in the Christian sense, means, not just to see, but to be involved. The Chorus's fears increase as the Tempters gather for a united attack on Thomas, and it pleads,

"O Thomas Archbishop save us, save us,

Save yourself that we may be saved;

Destroy yourself and we are destroyed."

They acknowledge that their spiritual welfare depends upon Thomas. Later in Part II, they admit that his sacrifice is necessary :

"The peace of this world is always uncertain,

Unless men keep the peace of God.

And the world must be cleaned in the winter,

Or we shall have only

A sour spring, a parched summer, an empty harvest."

      But they are very much ashamed of their own part in the matter, their passive consent implicit in there doing nothing to prevent the murder. They have consented to the last humiliation. They have now recognized that they will be involved in the sin of murder and acknowledge their responsibility for Thomas's death. But even the evil of their timid passivity will be turned into good for themselves (and all men) through the martyrdom ordained by God. As the Knights come, they are filled, with the consciousness that the Knights are symbols of evil and pollution of all life and nature, The chore passage here presents a "vision of utter evil, all-pervasive and death-bringing. As the moment of Thomas's martyrdom comes nearer, the Chorus portrays a vision of stupendous horror, the horror of the void. At the moment of the murder, they have a glint of rare perception-the recognition that they share the sin of the whole world which has made Thomas's sacrifice necessary

"It is not we alone...

But the world that is wholly foul"

They all have responsibility in that

"Instant eternity of evil and wrong."

      But by the end of the play, however, better understanding has come and they are fully cognizant now of the significance of Becket's death:

"We thank Thee for Thy mercies of blood,

for Thy redemption by blood. For the

blood of Thy martyrs and saints

Shall enrich the earth, shall create

the holy places."

and acknowledge that the sacrifice was made for them:

"We acknowledge that the sin of the world is upon our heads, that the blood of the martyr and the agony of the saints.

"Is upon our heads."

      They have developed from apathy and fear to acceptance under the impact of martyrdom, as D.E. Jones says.

      They have undergone the pain of spiritual rebirth, and have realized the significance of martyrdom. On the plane of reality that the Knights exist, martyrdom means "suicide while of unsound mind;" it goes to show that spiritual experience cannot be interpreted by mere logic and reason. Through the Chorus, in the audience, a right attitude to martyrdom is developed. The benefit of the martyrdom is spiritual and not political as the Knights would make us believe. A martyrdom would be useless if it did not serve to remind humanity of God's love. It is the blood of martyrs that endows "spiritual fertility in a spiritual wasteland."


      Becket's martyrdom is an act of atonement for the inadequacies of the world. He has realized that dying is more important in the eternal dimensions than accepting the reasonable arguments of the tempters. In Becket's martyrdom is seen an "action out of time," i.e. of everlasting significance. And Becket's spiritual conquest is measured in the fluctuations of the Chorus's experiences and remarks. The audience identifies with the Chorus and experiences with the Chorus, "the mystery". "We pass with them through horror, out of boredom, into glory." The ordinary women of the Chorus come to accept in the end their part in the pattern of action and suffering. Thus two halves of a pattern are fulfilled as martyrdom requires, in the play Murder in the Cathedral.

UNIVERSITY QUESTIONS: you may answer too.

1. Murder in the Cathedral is not just a dramatization of the death of Becket; it is a deep-searching study of the significance of martyrdom. Elucidate and justify this statement.

2. The fluctuations of the Chorus are the true measure of Thomas's spiritual conquest". How far is Helen Gardner's statement true

3. Discuss the theme of martyrdom in Murder in the Cathedral.

4 Martyrdom is seen as something recurrently necessary-a sacrifice that begins in pollution and ends in cleansing." Interpret and discuss this comment on the play.

5. "True martyrdom requires the fulfillment of two halves of a pattern." Discuss with reference to Murder in the Cathedral.

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