Murder in the Cathedral

The public desire for heroes in the present day is a keystone for understanding alienation in society. Not because we are to learn about modern-day political heroes or glorified humanitarians – rather due to delving into the actuality of what brings about a hero, a cause, an aptly described moral to the eye of the world we live in.

An author who attempts at such an ambition is inevitably aiming for a reality seen beyond these eyes. When he or she portrays a hero in all earnest, he/she is reducing the glory and enhancing the reality of what is to be faced if one is to truly understand heroism, bravery and courage. A similar homage paid to Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by T.S. Eliot is described in the play Murder in the Cathedral. Standing off in its own right the play proclaims clearly that “Human kind cannot bear very much reality” (Eliot, p. 69). It is then undertaken by the author to produce this reality to the reader as he journeys into the realms of challenging the society and most impressively, a ruler.

The character of Beckett, not only the Archbishop, but also the Chancellor to King Henry, is based on the real life Thomas Beckett and his path to confront the king in order to prevent him from moving beyond the law of God, and as he justifies, “It is not I who insult the King. And there is higher than I or the King” (Eliot, p. 65).

The play commences itself as Beckett returns to Canterbury after his exile from France. He has evidently angered the Archbishop and has cornered himself into the alienation from the system. He is brought about several trials, each of which cleverly propound the significance of a rebel and reformatory. Eliot’s purpose in heightening the secular-versus-Anglo-Catholic theme of the play could have been his own influence of his beliefs, as he himself became an Anglican priest and a British subject (Ackroyd, 1985). Nonetheless, the portrayal of Beckett describes a crucial collective struggle for understanding that it is not a kingdom of a king but God which is to be established. The lines in the play that embody this message say, “Temporal power, to build a good world, to keep order, as the world knows order. Those who put their faith in worldly order not controlled by the order of God, In confident ignorance, but arrest disorder, Make it fast, breed fatal disease, degrade what they exalt” (Eliot, p. 30).

The battle between the good and evil is the base for all heroic stories known to man. However, the true capability of the author is aptly portrayed when he reflects the crusade in terms of equally palpable terms for the evil as well as the good. Eliot describes the public sentiment towards the church and that approving of the King is the duty of every subject yet, “You argue by results, as this world does to settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact, for every life and every act consequence of good and evil can be shown” (Eliot, p. 73).

Eliot brings about the fine distinction of this conflict and elevates Beckett to the point of necessity without deeming him supernatural, as he meets his denouement in a set of circumstances that he might have even bought upon himself. Beckett however clears the distinction that, “A Christian martyrdom is never an accident, for Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of man’s will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men” (Eliot, p. 49).

The suffering is clearly alienation as well as resisting the many temptations offered to him in order to deflect him from his mission. “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason” (Eliot, p. 44).

The forced exile, the obvious persecution and the tyranny of power are the obvious flaws in the government of King Henry a once comrade, now turned enemy of Becket. The universality of these flaws is seen in the weakness of not only the individual falling prey to power, but to an entire society submitting its will to a monarch or a ruler, based on automated reflexes and not cognizance. Beckett’s role emphasizes this for his society, the people around him that it must not be assumed that the King is the Supremacy. It is the law of God that is to direct the King, who in turn directs his subjects. Beckett’s lines “But if you kill me, I shall rise from my tomb to submit my cause before God’s throne” (Eliot, p. 66) plainly speak of this theme. He submits himself to God’s will and purports all his energy and life’s work into the singular effort he puts against the monarch. For a man in his position and credibility, his struggle rose to a higher meaning than a simple sacrifice or a man-on-a-mission. He rose to the level of a saint, a symbol of truth and courage. He admits this position by speaking thus, “For wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has given his blood for the blood of Christ, there is holy ground. And the sanctity shall not depart from it, though armies trample over it, though sightseers come with guide-books looking over it” (Eliot, p. 87).

The poetry exists in the play not only in Eliot’s blank verse, but in the spiritual, moral and social struggle of a lone man against the ruler of the time. It bears for the generations a message not only crucial to clergymen but to voices throughout history – that have been hushed through fear.


Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York. Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Eliot, T.S. Murder in the Cathedral. Washington: Harvest Books, 1964.