Murder in the Cathedral is an act of Redemption, Discuss

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      An amusing anecdote regarding one performance of Murder in the Cathedral is often related by critics. It concerns the reaction of a member of the audience who, after seeing the play, expressed his disappointment. He is reported to have said that he came expecting to see a "thriller" dramatized, but his expectations were belied. It speaks of how misleading the title of the play is. When the play is analysed, it is clear that the main concern is not the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The killing of Thomas Becket is fraught with several layers of meaning. Of course, on the surface, it is a murder of a man by four assassins and that is the common man's worldly observation of the event. But the play is not about the physical act of killing or murder. It deals with the deeply religious and spiritual subject of martyrdom. Seen from the thematic point, the death or Thomas Becket is not mere "death by violence" but an act of redemption. The central concern of the play is martyrdom for the right reason and its capacity to fructify the life of common man.

It is not an accident that Eliot ignores, to a large extent, a historical presentation of events. He concentrates on the present situation. While historical references are brought in, (in the Tempters words) they are blended into the main action and are adequately motivated by the purpose of the Tempters. The play is not merely a dramatization of the death of Thomas Becket; it is a deep-searching study of the significance of martyrdom, not only to the martyr but also to common man. Thus the clash of characters and personal antagonisms are deliberately avoided - the king does not appear at all, and it is stressed that the Knights actions have not been motivated by personal passions.
Murder in The Cathedral

      It is not an accident that Eliot ignores, to a large extent, a historical presentation of events. He concentrates on the present situation. While historical references are brought in, (in the Tempters words) they are blended into the main action and are adequately motivated by the purpose of the Tempters. The play is not merely a dramatization of the death of Thomas Becket; it is a deep-searching study of the significance of martyrdom, not only to the martyr but also to common man. Thus the clash of characters and personal antagonisms are deliberately avoided - the king does not appear at all, and it is stressed that the Knights actions have not been motivated by personal passions.

      Martyrdom in its original sense is Eliot's concern in the play. In that sense the term martyr means uvitness. Becket is thus a "witness" to the reality of God's Will; he is not primarily a martyr in the sense of one who suffers for a cause, or one who dies for some religious belief. The actual killing of Thomas is not important as a dramatic climax. The audience is off and again warned that it is not watching a sequence of events that contains the normal dramatic logic of motive, act and result, but an act that depends on God's Will in which the human will is submerged.

      From the very beginning we are aware of the atmosphere as being ripe for a martyrdom. The Wheel of life and the Will of God both bear Becket towards a violent death. But they also determine whether that death will be classified as murder or suicide - both belonging to the world's categories - or whether that death will be a martyrdom enjoyed in God's love. The killing of Thomas is interpreted by the Knights as suicide as they justify their action to the audience. Thomas could have escaped being murdered if he had "seen sense" and not been so "stubborn" is their implication. But to what category does the death of Thomas belong ?

      The challenge of the temptations is very real to Thomas. If he died without realizing the purpose of God, for which he died, it would be a mere murder. If he died, however, for the wrong motives succumbing to what the Fourth Tempter spells out in his subtle speech - it would be damnation and a form of suicide which is going against God's will. Thomas is, however, a true martyr for he has realized the meaning of martyrdom. He overcomes the most dangerous temptation of becoming a martyr from impure motives.

      Some critics have argued that the purification of Becket's will which is the main moral implication of the play - has not come out clearly in the play. This is not an acceptable view. The very limitations of the dramatic technique prevent Eliot from presenting the situation more clearly. As it is, one does not find difficulty in accepting, the words of Thomas, that he has overcome the impurities in his self, and that he has discovered the reality of the Divine Love and Will too which he must submit. In his submission is his action - the achievement of the "still point" where action and suffering, movement and rest, time and timelessness, are all absorbed. He has realized the eternal pattern in the flux of time. "All my life they have been coming, those feet" - Becket has now merely to wait for his killers to appear. That Becket's will has been purified is emphasised in Becket's Christmas sermon which is an explanation of the death that is to come. Christian martyrdom is neither an accident nor a deign of man; it is not the "effect of a man's will to become a saint". It is an act of submerging one's will in the Will of God.

      Eliot's treatment of the purification of Becket's will gets added dramatic interest and validity in the light of the chorus which reflects the fluctuations and finally the overcoming of the temptations. When Thomas dies, it is clear that he dies with a pure will. But that is not enough - martyrdom is not complete unless it serves to remind ordinary men and women of God's love. And here the Chorus serves its dramatic purpose as they are roused out of their spiritual apathy and complacency.

University Questions also can be Answered:

Q. "The murder in Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral is not primarily a murder but an act of redemption" Discuss.

Or

Q. Murder in the Cathedral is not just a dramatization of the death of Thomas Becket; it is a deep-searching study of the significance of martyrdom". Comment.

Or

Q. The wheel of life and the will of God both bear Becket towards the same violent death; they determine, however, whether that death will belong to the world's categories, murder or even suicide, or whether it will constitute a martyrdom enjoyed by God's love". To what extent does Eliot successfully resolve the main moral implication of the play the purification of Becket's will ?

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