Interpretation: of Murder in The Cathedral

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      Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral for the Canterbury Festival in June, 1935. It can easily be called the first successful modern religious play. He realized that to follow the dramatic form perfected by Shakespeare would be a folly since that would result in "rather poor imitations of Shakespeare". He went back to more remote drama, such as Everyman and the late medieval morality and mystery plays, and the great Greek dramatists as he remarks in his "The Need for Poetic Drama." Eliot thus fuses certain elements of Christian drama of the Middle Ages with Greek drama and this fusion yielded a new and original form.

      Though essentially religious and theological in the subject, the play is perfectly adapted to a form which is nearest to that of the Aeschylean tragedy. The play proves, that a religious theme need not deter it from becoming a great drama.

Though essentially religious and theological in subject, the play is perfectly adapted to a form which is nearest to that of the Aeschylean tragedy. The play proves, that a religious theme need not deter it from becoming a great drama.
Murder in the Cathedral

Theme of The Play:-

      The title of the play is somewhat misleading since the play deals not so much with the murder of the Archbishop as with the significance of martyrdom. The play is about the spiritual state of a martyr facing death; the spiritual education of the poor women of Canterbury who are witnesses to this sacrifice, and the willful opposition of secular to religious power. The central theme of the play Murder in the Cathedral, therefore, is martyrdom: martyrdom for the right reason and its capacity to fructify the life of common man. As D.E. Jones remarks, the play is "not just a dramatization of the death of Thomas Becket. It is a deep-searching study of the significance of martyrdom. There is no attempt at naturalism or the creation of illusion. The historical detail is severely subordinated to the pattern or design of martyrdom which gives the play its shape as well as its meaning."

Temptation Theme:-

      Closely related to the central theme of martyrdom is that of temptation and it has obvious religious significance. Significantly enough the temptation which is most difficult to resist is that which emanates within, from the root of the subconscious. The first three temptations that assail Thomas are easily overcome for he is more or less beyond what they offer. The fourth tempter reveals a temptation to which Thomas is in danger of succumbing. As soon as Thomas becomes aware of it, it ceases to be a temptation and becomes "the instrument of purgatorial suffering". Out of this suffering comes the desperate questions and appeal of Thomas, leading to the cry: "Can I neither act nor suffer without perdition ?" The fourth tempter replies "action is suffering and suffering action (paradox). After which the Chorus, the priests, and the tempters, in alternation, present a vision of horror: The Chorus finally chants: "Destroy yourself and we are destroyed" Thomas now knows the true meaning of martyrdom. The last temptation was the greatest reason - "to do the right deed for the wrong reason." But he is now free of it. Thus Thomas is ready to face martyrdom for the right reason, having overcome the temptation that could have led him to damnation.

The character of Thomas:-

      Thomas's character undergoes a perceptible evolution in the course of the play. Eliot succeeds in impressing on the reader that this change is both natural and inevitable. As Francis Fergusson says, Becket can be seen as an archetypal figure, the religious martyr. wrestling with an archetypal problem, the subtle temptations of the religious conscience. Truth of character is gained not by a full portrayal of Thomas in all his rich personality, but, as David Clerk remarks, by the precision and sensitivity which delineates the mental struggles of any great and religious man in this archetypal situation.

Other Characters:-

      Theodore Spencer points out that the characters live on different levels of moral refinement, i.e., Becket, The Priests, the Chorus of women, and The Knights have on a descending scale, distinct ideas of reality, ranging from the sharp spirituality of Becket to the depraved worldliness of the knights. These characters, however, exist more or less on a symbolic level and therefore cannot be considered as individuals most of the time.

Classical in Treatment:-

      The material has been carefully selected, pruned and ordered so that there is full concentration upon the central theme. As has been mentioned before, historical and political elements have been relegated to the background and the personal conflict between King Henry II and Thomas has not dealt with directly. The emphasis is on martyrdom, and to this end, Eliot opens his play at a comparatively late stage in the life of Becket, at a stage when he is very near his martyrdom. Necessary information about earlier events is provided through the comments of Chorus and the priests. Everything superfluous is done away with and the result is classical "simplicity, symmetry and regularity of outline." The concentration on the central theme achieves the brevity and effectiveness of a classical tragedy.

The Chorus:-

      An important and obviously Greek element in the play is Eliot's use of Chorus. Made up of the ordinary poor women of Canterbury, the Chorus provides information, comments on the characters and the action from the viewpoint of common humanity, and also creates an atmosphere. Eliot has restored the Chorus of Greek tragedy after centuries, "to mediate between the action and the audience; to intensify the action by projecting its emotional consequences. As a result, the audience sees them doubly, by seeing its effect on other people".

      The Chorus expresses, in the music and imagery of the verse, the suffering which results from Thomas's peril, a suffering similar to his, yet on a different level of awareness. The Chorus also reveals to Thomas the "right reason" for his martyrdom though here again, it does so without truly comprehending anything itself. Their appeal: "Save yourself that we may be saved/Destroy yourself and we are destroyed". Apparently helps Thomas to see the Will of God (as against his own ambitious or suicidal will) in his move towards martyrdom. Eliot has given the Chorus a new significance in the light of Christian dispensation. It represents the great mass of individuals Christ came to save "We acknowledge ourselves as a type of the common men". Some of the greatest plays have given to the Chorus most beautiful poetry. As Helen Gardner remarks, the fluctuations of the Chorus are the real measure of Thomas's spiritual conquests.

Ritual Element:-

      The play can be approached through a comparison with ritual elements as found in ancient drama. Fergusson considers the basic plot structure to derive from the ritual form of ancient tragedy. The ritual motif endows the play with a kind of secondary pattern - the pattern of myth which reinforces the theological pattern.

Agon and Epiphany:-

      The first part can be said to correspond to the agon, the contest or struggle. The main characters are the Chorus of women, three priests, four tempters and Thomas. The issue is whether Thomas will suffer martyrdom and, if so, how. It is clearly set forth in the scene between Thomas and the tempters, while the priests worry about the physical security of the Church, and the women have dreadful premonitions of violation - "a more metaphysical horror."

      Overcoming the first three tempters, and faced with the fourth, Thomas nearly despairs. Ultimately however, Becket sees his way, clearly. This concludes Part I. The Interlude can be compared to another element of ancient drama, the epiphany. In this case, it sets forth the idea of martyrdom. It corresponds to the epiphany following the Agon, from the point of view of dramatic form. The subject of the Interlude is also another demonstration of the basic idea in the play.


      The element of spectacle dominates Part II of the play. This is connected with an earlier scene. Part II is, from the point of view of Thomas's drama, merely the apparent result of his agon (contest or struggle) with the tempters. He now suffers what he had foreseen at the end of Part I.

      There are various spectacular effects in this part. There is the procession of the Priests with their banners commemorating three Saints' days. The four knights (corresponding as a group to the tempters of Part I) arrive and demand Thomas's surrender to the King and then they kill him while the Chorus laments and the Dies Irae is sung off stage. After the murder, the knights rationalize the deed in a style that denotes commonsense and logic.

      Part I is addressed to the. understanding; Part II is rhythmic, visual, exciting and musical and thus contrasts with Part I. Part externalizes an internal conflict and in Part II the conflict itself is external.

Universality through the Use of Myth:-

The essentially religious theme has been given a universal appeal and interest through the Greek and Christian myth that is provided us an under pattern. The seasonal myth and its parallel with the Christian story of Easter is used (the passion of a god, his death and rebirth, by which the yearly cycle of the disappearance of the seed into the ground and its re-emergence as new life in the spring is assured).

      Eliot sees a parallel to the martyrdom of Becket in the death of Oedipus and to some extent, the death of Christ. Sophocles Oedipus has a similar attitude towards suffering as Eliot's Becket, Both overcome temptations. Both die gloriously and each one's death brings benefit to the people, though on different planes.

      An analogy for Becket's martyrdom can also be found in the death and crucifixion of Christ bringing redemption to mankind. The texture of the play is enriched by this parallelism and Eliot has been able to show that martyrdom is a universal phenomenon, as essential in the ancient past as in the Middle Ages and, by implication, also in modern times. The knights' apologia is addressed in 20th-century idiom and language, directly to the modern audience. Even though the play has a religious and historical subject, their speech serves to impart a secular interest to the play, and brings out the contemporary relevance of martyrdom.

Action and Suffering:-

      The play is a coherent whole illustrating the antithesis of action and suffering, or ignorance and awareness; an antithesis which at times becomes an ironical equation, "between action, suffering and knowledge-ignorance". All the parts are instances of the action suffering, knowing-unknowing formula and it is the germinal idea of the play.

More than Reason can Grasp:-

      Reason by itself is shown to be inadequate in grasping spiritual truth. Reason cannot grasp the truth of the human situation which rests upon "revealed truth" which can only be seen in the paradoxical formulas of theology "at, once reasoned and beyond reason." Mere intellect and logic would reduce martyrdom to "suicide while of unsound mind". Its significance can only be perceived by something beyond mere reason.


      The strength of the play, as many critics have pointed out, lies n its versification, language, diction and imagery. The verse has a certain flexibility and variety. Eliot has developed the style suitable for each kind of scene. The quarrels between Thomas and the Knights, being on a superficial level, are in rhymed doggerel. A more subtle four-stress verse is used for the tempters who bring out the complicated developments of Becket's inner struggle. The Chorus, to whom the greatest poetry in the play is given, speaks in a variety of forms, suited to a particular mood and situation, from the simple three stress lines to very complex pieces for their appeals and praise.

      Rhetorical devices like alliteration, balance and antithesis impart an intensity to the verse which makes it very effective. Sean Lucy says "It is the power of the dramatic verse that gives the play its unique quality of unity and intensity. The language is the verse, which is the atmosphere, which is the meaning".


      No literary work can be completely free of certain demerits. The fault found in this play is the shadowy nature of most of its characters-they are symbolic and not of flesh and blood. Helen Gardner remarks that Thomas Becket is hardly tempted and that there is no time for marked inner development as the play opens very near the climax. Furthermore, there is very little action. These drawbacks can, however, be overruled in the face of the general greatness of the play.


      Murder in the Cathedral shows a path to poetic drama. The play, in spite of its perfections, should be considered not "as the drama to end all dramas but as one example of the art in our confused times". It should be regarded as "employing only one of many possible strategies for making modern poetic drama".

UNIVERSITY QUESTIONS: these are can be answered:-

1. Eliot's invention in plot and character were not equal to the ingenuity and appropriateness of his diction". Discuss with reference to Murder in the Cathedral.

2. Murder in the Cathedral had an outstanding success both as a book of verse and as a stage work. Comment.

3. Do you agree with the views that this play can be seen as an interpretation of modern ideas through a religious and medieval theme.

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