The Tempters: in Murder in The Cathedral

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      T. S. Eliot has borrowed the motif of temptation from medieval morality plays. The theme of temptation is also quite appropriate to a play which has a religious subject. In medieval plays, the characters were the personification of vices and virtues. Here, likewise, the tempters are the personification of Thomas Becket's inner self. Eliot projects the internal struggle of Thomas Becket out on stage, by personifying the temptations that assail him. The dialogue between Thomas and the tempters dramatizes the inner struggle, doubts, and uncertainties of the Archbishop. 

      Eliot vividly presents the temptations that a man would have to overcome before he achieves martyrdom in the true sense of the term. The words of the tempters also tell us about the early life of Thomas and his earlier conflict with the evil outside and within him.

      The four tempters are only facets and aspects of Thomas himself. The use of the tempters also enhances the form of the play which can be called a mid-creation between the Greek form of drama and the Morality plays. Eliot's actions are also characterized by the verse they speak, so that there is a marked difference between the lifting cadences of the first tempter, who tries to lure Becket by the memory of old pleasures, and the bluntness and force in the lines of those who tempt by power, either of Chancellorship or of a new alliance with the barons against the King. The fourth and the last tempter is at the peak of the rising scale. The four tempters help in the development of the plot.

The tempters are 'shadows' and not creatures of flesh and blood, but they are real enough because they personify the temptations Becket undergoes. The first tempter is a voice from Becket's past, a reminder of the gay days of his youth. He reminds Becket of the delight companionship with the King, of merry making throughout the years and of sensuous pleasures.
The Tempters

First Tempter: Attractions of Sensuous Pleasures:-

"Thomas's words after he returns to England from France, are

Meanwhile the substance of our first act,

Will be shadows, and strife with shadows."

      The tempters are 'shadows' and not creatures of flesh and blood, but they are real enough because they personify the temptations Becket undergoes. The first tempter is a voice from Becket's past, a reminder of the gay days of his youth. He reminds Becket of the delightful companionship with the King, of merry-making throughout the years, and sensuous pleasures. Now that the King and Becket reconciled, they could go back to that same enjoyment. Becket should be prepared to let the clergy as well as the laity indulge in "mirth and sportfulness".

      Thomas does not have much difficulty in spurring this temptation and it is to be noted that, because of the subsequent temptations both the appeal and the dismissal of this temptation do not involve the personality or spirit of Thomas at a deep level. There is nothing very religious about this rejection; any man of sense knows that with maturity it becomes impossible to return to a way of life that was suitable for youthful years.

Second Tempter: Attractions of Temporal power:-

      The second Temptation is altogether more serious. What this tempter offers is no mean object for any man to aim for. He offers the resumption of the Chancellorship and alliance with the King. His line of approach is forthright. He moves directly to his offer of power. The use of power for good is the central idea of this temptation and measured by earthly standards, it is not a reprehensible aim Becket would be furthering the establishment of the rule of law for the benefit of all. But Thomas has outgrown these dreams; he rejects the lure of this power because he possesses, a greater one:

"Shall I, who keep the keys

Of Heaven and Hell, supreme alone in England,

Who bind and loose, with power from the Pope.

Descend to desire a punier power."

      One thing common to the first two tempters is that they both derive from the past. The third and fourth tempters speak of what lies in the future.

Third Tempter: Suggestion of Treachery:-

      The third Tempter comes - a plain-spoken, "country keeping lord who minds his own business. This "rough straight forward Englishman" claims to be no politician, and yet his subtle arguments rather belie his appearance. This Tempter brings to the surface some obscure desire in Thomas to align himself with, the barons; such a coalition would have strengthened the hands of the Church, extend the power of the Pope and end Henry's tyrannous rule over the barons and the clergy, However, 'Thomas is aware the rule of law is threatened by this knowledge and a disgust at stooping to political manoeuvering, enables him to dismiss the third tempter. The tempter leaves after taunting Thomas about the reward he would be getting from the King for his loyalty.

Fourth Tempter: Subtle and Unexpected:-

      The quiet voice of the fourth tempter comes quite unexpectedly to Thomas. He is unexpected because Thomas never suspected that he had entertained any such idea, it originates in his unconscious. What this Tempter stands for and offers to Thomas is the most serious and the most subtle. He offers, not the past, but eternal glory in the future. He represents that side of Thomas, for so long hidden in the subconscious, which is capable of envisaging martyrdom, but for the wrong reason - self-glorification as a saint and martyr. He could then rule from the tomb. The offer that this tempter holds forth is the greatest temptation and in succumbing to it Thomas would commit the gravest sin, that of spiritual pride. Thomas recoils from it crying out in despair:

"Can I neither act nor suffer

Without perdition"

      At this the fourth tempter echoes Thomas's earlier words, that action is suffering and suffering is action. Ultimately, however, Thomas is able to overcome this greatest and most terrible of all temptations. At last, he is ready to face the future that is in store for him without involving his own desire or will in it and to face it passively. The, tempters have helped Thomas to make up his mind.


      The conflict in the play is an internal one and the stage for the action is the Archbishop's mind. This conflict has been dramatized by personifying temptations and objectifying them. The dialogue between these personified temptations and the bishop brings to light the struggle for self-purification that takes place in Thomas's mind.

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