Plot construction : Murder in the Cathedral

Also Read

Introduction :-


      Murder in the Cathedral was written by Eliot for a special occasion the Canterbury festival. Basically the plot is concerned with the death, and martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Though the basis of the plot is constructed on a historical event, Eliot is not so much concerned with the historical aspect as with its spiritual implications. On a superficial level the essential action of the play can be stated as "a man comes home, foreseeing that he will be killed, and is killed." But Eliot has re-enforced this with the pattern of myth - the passion of christ, his death and rebirth corresponding to the yearly cycle of the disappearance of the seed into the ground and its re-emergence as new life in the Spring. This cycle of death and regeneration is part of the "eternal design" that Eliot is concerned with and he cuts down the historical element to its bare essentials.

Though the basis of the plot is constructed on a historical event, Eliot is not so much concerned with the historical aspect as with its spiritual implications.
Murder in the Cathedral

Dramatic Intensity Murder in the Cathedral :-


There is a concentration on the events of the last few days of Thomas's life. The play begins with Thomas's return to England. Historical information is given incidentally. Dramatic intensity is heightened by the exposition concentrating on the present situation. The speeches of the Chorus, the Priests and the Messenger serve to inform on the present happenings. Necessary historical facts are Conveyed without delaying the beginning of the action or interrupting ts movement once it has begun. Historical background is thus smoothly and naturally blended with the action, occurring as it does in Becket's encounters with the Tempters.

Element of Tragedy in Murder in the Cathedral :-


The play cannot be said to be a tragedy in the usual sense of the term. The death of Becket, though it results from human sin, does not result from the flaw that the play ascribes to Thomas-pride. He Overcomes spiritual pride and he chooses martyrdom for the right eason. Grover Smith compares the plot of this play to the "moral quest theme of the moral interludes or the tribulation theme of the Book of Job.

The ingredients of tragedy are present but apportioned allegorically - to the different characters. Moral flaw in the form of original and particular sin is manifested in the Tempters' suggestions; a catastrophe affecting the victim is the martyrdom of Becket. and justification of this is manifested in the damnation of the Knights and the exaltation of Becket and the potential salvation of the Chorus. The knights are sin, the Chorus suffering and Becket is martyrdom - in simple terms. The plot has two aspects. In one aspect it presents the characters as symbolic, allegorical and therefore static figures. On this level, Becket's rejection of the temptations serves as a validation and intensification of his status as an appointed martyr. In the other aspect of the plot, the characters are individuals capable of development Becket's initial desire is not perfect. From this he rises to a greater good. He goes down materially but morally he is elevated.

Conflicts in Murder in the Cathedral :-


The conflict in this play is not a personal conflict nor is it between the church and the state though the latter is implied. There is a conflict between two sets of values - worldly and material on one hand and spiritual on the other. An air of tension has been built up by the early speeches of the Chorus. Becket's words convey that his values are different from those accepted by the other characters. In fact, there are different levels of moral refinement on which the. different characters exist.

The dramatic conflict is of course an internal one in Part I - it is the struggle in Becket's mind. It is externalised in the dialogue with the Tempters. The action is on the plane of the medieval morality, play, on the plane of abstraction.

The conflict, say some critics, ends with Part I and there is no strife if we consider the play from the "realist point of view of action, which inclines towards a complicated, contrived plot, made to look probable by all available devices. The structure of this play is simple and has more in common with the ancient Greeks and the ritual of medieval plays. In that light the lack of dramatic development in the plot becomes unimportant.

However, one cannot say that there is no conflict at all in Part II. There is a conflict of sorts between the Knights and Becket. The structure of the play becomes clear in the light of the overall pattern imposed on it. The internal Conflict in Part I presages the outward conflict in Part II, where, for Becket and the Knights "the tension exploits physical power, not psychology, As Grover Smith points out. Part I sets forth the motif of suffering, through Becket's decision not to act; Part II presents the motif of action; through Becket's act of suffering, others are saved. Action and suffering constitute the "internal rationale" of the drama which on the surface is the story of Becket's death.

Crisis of the Play in Murder in the Cathedral :-


The play is a series of episodes linked by choric verse. Wherein these episodes can crisis be found ? It would be a mistake to consider the point of crisis as the moment when Becket overcomes his temptations. That would detract from the overall pattern of the play. Further the crisis would have taken place less than half way through the play. This difficulty would be overcome if we realise that the important episode is really Becket's murder. For the play is concerned not merely with Thomas's martyrdom but with the significance and the meaning of martyrdom. In the first part, Becket's decision implies that one half of the pattern has been fulfilled. The martyr has learnt to accept his martyrdom in the right spirit. But the pattern is not complete - it will be complete only when the Chorus and the Priests, as representatives of the laity and the clergy, recognise the significance and true meaning of Thomas's martyrdom. It is only with Thomas's death, and because of it, that they accept what has happened as God's plan, and accept their part in the pattern of action and suffering.

Episodes of Murder in the Cathedral :-


The main episodes of, the play are the encounter with the Tempters, the encounter with the Knights, the Priests attempt to save Becket, and the second encounter with the Knights which results in the murder of Becket. In the encounter with each Tempter, there is the establishment of a conflict, at which point the temptations are clearly defined. There is a moment of crisis and then a temporary period of rest" as Becket overcomes it. It is clearly to be observed that the temptations become progressively more dangerous, more serious and more difficult to resist. As we move from one temptation to the next, there is a corresponding increase in dramatic intensity.

The coming of the Knights is considered "arbitrary", as there is no logical development here. Again, it is necessary to remember that he play is not to be seen in the light of what is considered normal n the development of a plot. Keeping in mind the overall pattern of The play, the Knights are the "sordid" instruments of eternal design. Eliot's concern is not so much in presenting them in a historical light as in showing them and their action as part of that "eternal design".

Dramatic intensity builds up again as the time of murder approaches. As soon as the murder is committed, there is the Knights' direct address to the audience, their apologia. There is an abrupt transition from the agony of the martyr and the tremendous lament of the Chorus to something in the nature of a political meeting, The passage is often dismissed as irrelevant, and condemned as detracting from the unity of tone and atmosphere of the play. But, in fact this is not so. On careful study it is to be noted that every episode in the play is an integral part of it and the Knight's Apologia is no exception.

Coherent Whole :-


Murder in the Cathedral, the play, is a coherent whole and has to be seen as such if its meaning is to be understood. One cannot see it in terms of two self-contained parts, separated by an interlude which has little to do with anything else in the play. At the end of Part I, Thomas says: "I shall no longer act or suffer, to the Sword's end". The Sermon which follows as the Interlude gives expression to the self-knowledge gained by Becket in Part I. It explains the pattern of martyrdom, "the eternal design" in theological and emotional terms,. Louis Martz points out that it "forms a nodule of theme, symbol, and tradition, of past and present, binding the play's two parts, and binding Becket's search for peace with our own".

The sermon shows him beginning to perfect his will in readiness for the action of Part II. The Knight's Apologia is also related to the overall pattern of the play. D.E. Jones calls it the temptation of the audience, corresponding to the temptation of Thomas in Part I. As Thomas was tempted to achieve martyrdom for the wrong reason, so the audience is tempted to condone the Knights's action and accept the wrong benefits resulting from Thomas's death. For the benefit that is to be acknowledged is spiritual rather than political; and results from Thomas's suffering rather than from the Knights action. The pattern of simultaneous mourning and rejoicing that Thomas Spoke of, in the death of martyrs, as in the Birth and Passion of Christ, is fulfilled with the great hymn of praise and thanks-giving for the new saint.

The play is further unified by the Chorus which provides both a background and counterpoint to the action. It develops in the course of the action, from its initial fear, inertia and reluctance to be involved to their final acceptance of the martyrdom of Becket. The continual juxtaposition of the Chorus's attitude to that of Thomas, adds to the strength of the play's impact. It is through the reaction of the Chorus, to the events of the martyrdom of Thomas, through their opposition and final reconciliation, that a tense and powerful atmosphere is built up and maintained.

Conclusion :-


Comparing the structure of the play to a cathedral, Patricia M. Adair remarked : The drama has the same clarity of design, the same close-knit, shapely structure, the same compelling inevitability which we feel, when, on entering the great west door of Canterbury, we look straight up the soaring arches of the naves through the choir to where the candles flicker before the High Altar.

Previous Post Next Post