Pacher, Michael. Legend of St. Thomas Becket. 1470/80.
- Play title: Murder in the Cathedral.
- Author: T. S. Eliot.
- Published: 1935
- Page count: 86
T. S. Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral specifically for the Canterbury Festival of June 1935. The play is written almost entirely in verse and is Eliot’s dramatic rendering of the real-life events that led to the death of Thomas Becket in 1170. The key historical facts are that King Henry II of England appointed Becket as his Lord Chancellor. Becket was later elected Archbishop of Canterbury and unexpectedly resigned his secular role as chancellor to the King’s disappointment. Thereafter, a conflict between church and state led Becket to flee to France. The timeframe of Eliot’s play is from December 2nd to 29th 1170 when Becket had returned to England from exile. Unfortunately, the archbishop again fell into grave disfavour with King Henry II over the coronation of his son, Henry the Young King. The play charts Becket’s career from king’s loyal servant to devout clergyman, focusing especially on the archbishop’s unfaltering faith during dangerous times. The play is structured as Parts I and II with a mid-section interlude which is a church sermon by the archbishop. The main characters are the all-female Chorus, three priests of Canterbury, four tempters who represent worldly and spiritual concerns, and the four knights who enact the most dramatic events of the play. Eliot’s work may be classified under the genre of miracle play due to the theme of martyrdom but there are also elements of Greek drama, most evident in the role of the Chorus.
Ways to access the text: listening/reading.
As Eliot’s play is written mostly in verse, it is quite pleasant to listen to an audiobook version. One is available on YouTube under the title of, “T. S. Eliot Murder in the Cathedral.” There are eleven chapters in the audiobook, and it has a running time of 1hr and 37mins.
If you would prefer to read the text, then please go to the Open Library which has several copies available for online reading.
Why listen to/read Murder in the Cathedral?
One of the age-old debates about Thomas Becket, also discussed at length in Eliot’s play, is his unusual road to martyrdom. Becket’s most notorious move was when he excommunicated the bishops who crowned King Henry II’s son. In response, the King spoke angry words recorded as, “have I none of my thankless and cowardly courtiers who will relieve me from the insults of one low-born and turbulent priest?” Four of the King’s knights interpreted the words as a direct threat to Becket. The knights went to Canterbury, confronted the archbishop over his alleged treacherous acts and demanded he surrender himself for arrest, but Becket resisted them and was brutally murdered by the knights within the cathedral building. Henry Hart Milman, who penned a biography of Becket, writes of how Hugh of Horsea, one of the Knights’ followers, “set his heel upon his [Becket’s] neck, and crushed out the blood and brains” (119). As Becket died defending the church’s position, he was quickly considered a candidate for canonization. Becket’s route to sainthood was strongly bolstered by the infamy of the murder, by the throngs of pilgrims who soon visited the archbishop’s tomb, and by the attribution of several miracles to Becket after his death. Eliot peruses the historical facts to create an imaginative depiction of the archbishop’s frame of mind prior to his death. It is significant that Becket held steadfast to a particular course of action on his final day when either escape or capitulation to the knights’ demands were both real and credible options.
The play’s selection of characters who are grouped by profession, class, and allegiance, offer interesting and often contrasting perspectives. The language used by each group is distinctive as it reflects their backgrounds and interests. The Chorus is made up of the women of Canterbury and represents the concerns of ordinary folk predominantly from a rural background whose language reflects an affinity with nature and indeed hardship too. Then the priests give voice to clerical concerns. They offer different views on the archbishop focusing on his flaws as well as his leadership powers against the backdrop of a complex political climate. The three tempters expose the perceived weaknesses of Becket to the good life, to power, to treachery. The Fourth Tempter seems to know the secrets of Becket’s own mind. In part II, the four knights who represent the king’s interests, come with accusations against the archbishop, both old and new, and they alone speak in plain prose. Even though the play focuses on a religious theme, Eliot manages to give voice to a wide selection of character’s views, from pauper to king’s representative. Each figure focuses on Becket but only as far as the archbishop impacts on their own lives. The church when led by such a controversial man as Becket is shown to influence all levels of English life from lowly labourers to barons and Kings. The contrasting perspectives reflect the society of the time.
Martyrdom & the wheel of Fortune.
T. S. Eliot does not present Thomas Becket’s route to martyrdom in the style of a standard hagiographer. That is to say that the play neither idealizes Becket nor does it leave out the paradoxes of the saint’s story. From a strictly historical perspective, many academics grapple with the question of Becket’s transformation from highly ambitious statesman to holy man and their cynicism is not without valid cause. Eliot accordingly presents the protagonist of Murder in the Cathedral as an archbishop with a long history in politics and therefore the writer does not disregard the uneasy overlap of politician turned clergyman. However, the playwright chooses not to approach the difficult issue of Becket’s holiness from an historian’s perspective alone. Eliot introduces the idea of fate into the play, specifically in the form of the wheel of Fortune. This links to the writings of the philosopher, Boethius, which were popular in medieval times, especially his famous text entitled, The Consolation of Philosophy. In this work, Boethius scrutinizes how one may understand the erratic twists of man’s good and bad fortune versus God’s divine plan. Even though Eliot does not make an explicit reference to Boethius, the philosopher’s text is one of the most famous works on the wheel of Fortune. As such, a reader may use The Consolation of Philosophy to begin to understand the nuances in Eliot’s play especially since the wheel of Fortune is a key motif in Murder in the Cathedral. There is also an important ideological alignment between a Christian philosopher like Boethius and Eliot’s careful portrayal of a saint’s life. While somewhat superfluous information – Boethius wrote his famous text while in prison in Pavia, accused of treason for which he was later bludgeoned to death leading eventually to his recognition as a martyr and saint by the Christian church. Indeed, there is an uncanny resemblance at times between Boethius’ philosophy and Becket’s words in the play. Therefore, it seems quite apt to refer to Boethius’s work, not least because a scholar like Becket may indeed have read the work during his life. The comparison of Boethius’ philosophy with Eliot’s play will serve to answer the central question of whether Becket plans his own martyrdom of if God is in control of the plan? To phrase the question in this way may seem stark but it is in fact one of the central issues with which Eliot’s play grapples. It is, incidentally, a fascinating question for a dramatic work to tackle.
In order to put Becket’s thoughts and arguments as explored in the play into some perspective, one may first make recourse to Boethius’s main ideas on fate. The Consolation of Philosophy addresses our understanding of the wheel of Fortune and also God’s level of power over, and intervention in, our individual lives. The book presents its arguments in the form of an extended dialogue between Boethius himself as a character and Philosophy personified as a woman. At one point Philosophy assumes the voice of Fortune to explain:
“Inconstancy is my very essence; it is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever-changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top. Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require” (Boethius 51).
Boethius makes the compelling argument that we voluntarily participate in Fortune’s game, for example, when we give into the alternate feelings of hope and grief. This is summed up in the line, “once you have bowed your neck beneath her yoke, you ought to bear with equanimity whatever happens on Fortune’s playground” (49). In short, the message is that when we pursue and hope for good fortune then our minds are clouded by earthly success and we abandon the Christina path, namely what is true in life. Fortune presides over the fleeting things of mortal life and anything that is so fragile and temporary cannot be true. In quite religious terms, Boethius states that we should pursue the “supreme good” (97) which means lives directed by virtue and not by desire, and thus lives not founded on material possessions or temporal success. Boethius importantly differentiates between “Nature’s fixed order” (90) like the cycle of the seasons or stars’ trajectories which are totally under God’s control, and on the other hand, man, who has free will. The play teems with references to the ever changing yet balanced cycles of nature in contrast to the path of man, which is governed by motivations, both pure and impure. The central paradox explored by the philosopher is that God has providence over all men’s lives and therefore God has foreknowledge of all that will happen in the future, but this does not actually determine men’s lives as they still retain free will. The explanation given by Boethius for this paradox rests primarily on the difference between God who is an eternal being versus man who is mortal and subject to existence within time. As such, God’s knowledge “embraces all the infinite recesses of past and future and views them in the immediacy of its knowing as though they are happening in the present” (131). In accordance with this view, man may exert his free will and alter his own life course, but God always sees what happens as it is happening, as an eternal present. Boethius supplies a complex argument, but this brief overview aids a reader to better understand Eliot’s play and its many references to the wheel of Fortune in conjunction with God’s plan. Eliot explores in great depth the plan of God and Becket’s plan and whether these separate plans are actually identical or at odds.
If Becket’s actions are not interpreted as leading to martyrdom but instead simply to self-destruction then we have the plainest dichotomy between God’s divine plan and a man’s erroneous path. Eliot explores the idea that Becket’s death may not be the result of his spiritual enlightenment. This hypothesis is important in the play as it gives a valid counterview of an historical event that is viewed only, or too often, as the making of a saint. The old saying, ‘forewarned is forearmed,’ is particularly relevant to Becket’s story. Eliot makes clear that Thomas Becket was fully aware of the real and present danger brought about by his return to England. In evidence of this, Becket recalls that upon arriving in England he met, “those who had sworn to have my head from me,” but escaped only because of the intervention of the Dean of Salisbury. In this light, Becket’s death was arguably imminent, and his enemies needed just the slightest opportunity for it to become a reality. Becket was not alone in this knowledge because the Chorus, First Priest and First Tempter all shared similar forebodings and sentiments. The Chorus warn that “Death has a hundred hands and walks by a thousand ways.” What is in question here is Becket’s lack of due caution, his neglect of the most basic instinct toward self-preservation. As Boethius writes, “the chief concern of mortal men is to keep their hold on life” (55). Therefore, the question that must arise for the reader is if Becket wills his own death? Or, to cautiously rephrase, does he allow his enemies an opportunity when he is sure that his life will be the price? As the Fourth Knight later states, when defending his own actions and those of his fellow knights, “there can be no inference except that he [Becket] had determined upon a death by martyrdom.” The knight argues that based on the facts of the case, an onlooker would “unhesitatingly render a verdict of Suicide while of Unsound Mind.” Admittedly, the words of a cold-blooded murderer lack credibility except that the slander is echoed in other parts of the text. For Becket to have put himself in harm’s way, fully conscious of the most probable outcome, would indeed constitute suicide. Naturally, Becket pronounces his fate as the will of God and his submission to that greater power and preordained plan. Yet, Becket also recognizes the inherent difficulty in being profoundly sure of his path. For instance, when the Fourth Tempter advises Thomas to “seek the way of martyrdom” then he responds, “you offer only dreams of damnation.” This is in line with the Catholic teaching that suicide, regardless of the disguise one seeks to put on it, even trying to name it martyrdom, will not stop it being a mortal sin that guarantees damnation.
The Fourth Knight’s accusation that Becket committed suicide is covertly echoed by the Chorus. Indeed, the Chorus make two separate allusions to suicide, firstly, just after the archbishop has taken refuge in the cathedral and then again immediately after his death. In the first instance, the women prophesy the coming of Death, judgement, and then the “Void” which means “separation from God.” The women’s speech is quite mysterious until they say, “dead upon the tree, my Saviour / let not be in vain Thy labour.” Although “my Saviour” would traditionally refer to Christ, the reference to a tree discounts that association as Christ died on the cross. Earlier, the women had pleaded to Thomas, “save us, save us, save yourself / that we may be saved” and therefore he is the women’s saviour as their religious leader for which he must continue to live. “Dead upon the tree” in a religious context is an allusion to Judas Iscariot who hanged himself after betraying Jesus. Thus, the women fear Becket’s death by suicide which like Judas’ death would signal not only a betrayal of Jesus but also an eternal separation from God in Hell, the “Void.” This interpretation is supported by the women’s words just after Becket’s death when they say, “I wander in a land of barren boughs: / if I break them, they bleed” which is an allusion to ‘the forest of the suicides’ from canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno. In this circle of Hell, the souls of suicides are encased in trees and if one breaks off a branch then blood pours out. Furthermore, these tortured souls are never allowed regain their bodies, even at the Last Judgement, and must instead drag their bodies to their individual trees and hang the bodies upon them. This is quite an emotive passage in Dante’s Inferno, but it captures the disdain of God for those who commit suicide. In Eliot’s play, in the aftermath of Becket’s death, the Chorus speak of the need to purify the land after the awful deed, noting specifically the blood, “a curtain of falling blood,” which refers to the bloody murder. However, the blood may also refer to the story of “Akeldama” (potter’s field) which literally means ‘field of blood’ where Judas reputedly committed suicide. The purification needed after Becket’s death is ambiguous and while it certainly refers to some sin, the sin may be murder or suicide. The murder was indeed the bloody deed of the inflamed knights but the references to blood may also be a shrouded reference to Judas. Yet, the earlier allusions by themselves are sufficient to declare that suicide is a solid implication in the text. However, it must be noted that the final interpretation of Becket’s death is made by the church and not the Canterbury women or the knight. The true significance and meaning of his death only begin to solidify in the hours and days afterwards. What the Chorus do is provide the reader with an instinctual response to what has happened, the view of ordinary folk, revealing the possible spectre of death by suicide.
The thoughts and heartfelt beliefs of Archbishop Becket at the point of his death shall remain a mystery. He may have believed that he was submitting to God’s plan or he may have been sadly tainted by blasphemous desires for glory in death. However, this lack of certainty does not preclude a reader from making educated deductions from the evidence of the play about his true motivations. One may begin with the wheel of Fortune and chart which points on the wheel Thomas Becket has already experienced. As Boethius states, man is enticed to take part in Fortune’s game by earthly, temporal lures. It is the Four Tempters who provide us with a history of Becket’s brushes with Fortune. When the Fourth Tempter visits Becket, he says, “hooks have been baited with morsels of the past,” and such morsels are worth recalling as they represent points on the wheel through which Becket has already passed in time. The First Tempter suggests that now the king and archbishop are reconciled that all may return to “mirth and sportfulness” or as the Fourth Tempter later rephrases it, “wantonness.” Boethius warns about “bodily pleasure” because “its pursuit is full of anxiety and its fulfilment full of remorse” (78). Thomas therefore correctly rebuffs the First Tempter explaining that the stages of a man’s life may not be repeated, adding, “only the fool, fixed in his folly, may think / he can turn the wheel on which he turns.” As a man of God, Becket shuns the bodily pleasures he once enjoyed. The Second Tempter tries to lure Thomas back to his former role as Lord Chancellor. This tempter’s bid is couched in the claim that the chancellor’s job may be used “to set down the great, protect the poor” and the only price for Thomas is his “pretence of priestly power.” The real lure is finally revealed to be “the power and the glory” of the position, but Thomas rejects temporal power, saying “those who put their faith in worldly order / not controlled by the order of God, / in confident ignorance but arrest disorder.” Boethius similarly rejects the pursuit of power when it is wielded for the sake of glory, as is suggested by the Second Tempter, but also because, “if you want power, you will have to expose yourself to the plots of your subjects and run dangerous risks” (79). The Third Tempter seeks an alliance of the church with the English barons in rebellion against King Henry II. The Third Tempter’s argument is that Thomas’ renewed friendship with the king is unstable because, “real friendship, once ended, cannot be mended.” This reflects Boethius’ sentiments, “there is no evil more able to do you injury than a friend turned Foe” (76). Thomas rejects the baron’s treachery, preferring to trust in God. However, the first three Tempters reveal to the audience the lures of Fortune that did successfully entice Thomas in the past, namely bodily pleasures in the form of the good life, political power wielded in service of the King and not for the general good, and even treachery, because while Thomas does not agree to the baron’s plan, he has excommunicated the bishops who anointed the king’s successor and this is the ‘treachery’ for which Thomas is eventually executed. Yet, the final ‘treachery’ is done by Becket in service of the church and Pope. There is a solid argument to be made that Becket, by rejecting the lures of Fortune, has now freed himself from the wheel. If the archbishop is indeed following a virtuous path, then his plan will align with God’s. However, Becket’s relationship to church power is complex because it has been used more than once to thwart and oppose King Henry II. As Boethius points out, all power is fickle and moreover, the question is if Becket has merely renounced secular power for a power that he believes is more formidable.
In order to truly judge Thomas Becket’s actions, we should assess his character. For this reason, we must heed the many references in the play to Becket’s pride. In the Catholic church, pride is one of the seven deadly sins and a sin best exemplified by Satan in his rebellion against God. In the Book of Proverbs, one may read that “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18). The First Priest in particular lists Becket’s faults of pride – pride prompted by his early career prosperity but later sustained by the archbishop’s view of his own superior character traits. The First Tempter labels the archbishop as “too proud” and in regard to Becket’s chosen course of action, the tempter cautions, “leave well alone, / or your goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone.” Later, the Four Knights demean the archbishop referring to him as “a louse” who “crawled upon the King; swollen with blood and swollen with pride.” When Becket appears to proudly revel in church power, the Second Tempter warns him that his “sin soars sunward, covering King’s falcons.” Thus, those around Becket recognize his character flaw of excess pride and warn him of coming disaster, just as written in the bible. Yet, Becket shields himself using his clerical position. However, we may look to the 19th century preacher and author, Ichabod Spencer, for a warning to clerics, he writes, “spiritual pride is the worst kind of pride, if not worst snare of the devil. The heart is particularly deceitful on this one thing.” There is evidence of such pride in Becket, for example when he rejects the Second Tempter’s suggestion to return to the role of Lord Chancellor, saying:
“No! 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?
Delegate to deal the doom of damnation.
To condemn kings, not serve among their servants
Is my open office. No! Go.”
The idea that temporal power may be inferior to church power is not the issue here, but that Becket proclaims to hold such power in his own hands, and indeed to swell with pride by the very assertion as evidenced by the haughty language. From the above example, one would correctly conclude that Becket lacks humility which is the only accepted counterweight to the sin of pride. His actions, whatever they may be, will inescapably be tainted by his sin and therefore we are left with Becket’s own testimony alone to convince us that he has found the true path, God’s path.
In Becket’s opening speech in the play, he makes an erudite reference to the workings of the wheel of Fortune. He speaks of how “acting is suffering / and suffering is action” which refers not only to the pattern of fate designed by God but also men’s use of their free will to make themselves submissive to that plan. He states, “for the pattern is the action and the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still be forever still.” The paradox of the wheel both turning and remaining perfectly still apparently refers to two forces, firstly the role of Fortune in the lives of mortal men and, secondly, the role of God who exists outside time, an eternal unchanging presence. Boethius describes God as:
“O Thou who dost by everlasting reason rule,
Creator of the planets and the sky, who time
From timelessness dost bring, unchanging Mover” (83).
As previously explained, Boethius believed that by playing Fortune’s game, man indulges in alternate feelings of hope and grief and thus becomes a victim of Fortune. In contrast, by following God’s virtuous path, the way is straight, and one is free(r) of the tortuous wheel. The paradox of the moving and unmoving wheel metaphor used by Becket may be explained by God at the wheel’s centre point, the fixed point, around which the wheel of Fortune spins. This explains the characteristic stillness of being timeless in connection with the moving/temporal aspect of human life. Boethius uses a similar metaphor, referring to “a set of revolving concentric circles” (112) with the godhead at the centre point and therefore “whatever moves any distance from the primary intelligence [godhead] becomes enmeshed in ever stronger chains of Fate, and everything is the freer from Fate the closer it seeks the centre of things” (112). The core of Becket’s argument is that his actions are virtuous and his suffering submissive to God and this means he consents with his free will to God’s divine plan. This is stated in Becket’s Christmas morning sermon in the cathedral when he says, “a martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God” and that “a martyrdom is never the design of man.” Becket speaks of finding freedom in submission to God. In philosophical terms, Becket’s reasoning matches Boethius’ who writes that “you who are set on the path of increasing virtue … you are engaged in a bitter but spirited struggle against fortune of every kind” (118). However, this is an abstract argument based entirely on Christian faith and clearly contrasts with our impression of Becket who is highly political and may be accused of not just pride but outright hubris. The archbishop’s apparent foreboding or indeed foreknowledge of his martyrdom is also a contentious point because his eventual murder seems little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. Boethius argues that God’s foreknowledge of events does not mean predestination when one considers man’s free will, but the inverse of that argument is that Becket’s free will, his desire, may indeed predestine his end.
The fact that Becket is aware of the flaws in his own argument, forcing him to defend it to himself and others, is a crucial aspect of Eliot’s play. There are two salient moments when the archbishop critiques his own argument, and these happen during his interactions with the Fourth Tempter and then with the Priests just before his execution. Becket is perturbed by the Fourth Tempter to whom he says, “who are you, tempting with my own desires?” It is noteworthy that this Tempter repeats Becket’s own words back to him, for example, the archbishop’s boast of holding “the keys of heaven and hell” which was Becket’s reproof to the Second Tempter. Then there is the speech on how “acting is suffering” which was part of Becket’s opening speech in the play. Eliot cleverly makes the Fourth Tempter the mouthpiece for Becket’s own personal thoughts. The efficacy of this dramatic technique is that Becket begins to doubt his own logic since it now comes from not only a somewhat ominous figure but also because it is spoken as a temptation. However, if Becket believes the Fourth Tempter to be evil or even an emissary of Satan then the logic would be that Becket’s path to martyrdom is indeed the correct path because only an evil adversary would wish to thwart the creation of a saint! Yet, the scenario is not just a simple case of the tempter using reverse psychology. The elements of the Fourth Tempter’s proposal which would immediately alert a cleric to danger are the focus on the power of saints, for instance, “to bind king and bishop under your [Becket’s] heel.” Then, more blasphemous is the idea of controlling fate itself, “you hold the skein: wind, Thomas, wind / the thread of eternal life and death.” In this way, Thomas would decide his own martyrdom, meaning the time of his own death and the result thereafter. These ‘flawed’ elements of the argument reflect Becket’s own mind and should alert him to the impure desires that may lead him to martyrdom. Thus, Becket becomes acutely aware of the risks of “sinful pride” and says, “can I neither act nor suffer / without perdition?” and the Tempter offers no advice about how the archbishop may avoid damnation but simply restates the logic of fate in a description of the wheel of Fortune. Becket says, “the last temptation is the greatest treason: / to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Despite the flurry of confusion, Becket concludes this particular monologue with the pronouncement that he will submit to God’s will even though others will inescapably view his demise as self-slaughter or fanaticism.
The dramatic moments before Becket’s murder do in fact prove his uncommon bravery and steadfast faith. One may still take the cynic’s view of Becket like William de Traci who says, “you must have noticed what a good show he put up at the end.” However, an archbishop would surely be unable to face his death in such a brave manner if he believed it was a form of suicide given the eternal punishment for such a sin, especially as understood in medieval times. Eliot’s play depicts the events of Becket’s death in a similar vein to historical records which is also a relevant point. As a test of Becket’s sincerity, a reader may focus on two issues, namely Becket’s defence of his course of action and his stated motivation. The archbishop defends his command to unbar the cathedral doors to his fellow priests who oppose him and “argue by results, as this world does, / to settle if an act be good or bad.” Becket echoes Boethius’ philosophy, that “the world does not judge actions on their merit, but on their chance results, and they consider that only those things which are blessed with a happy outcome have been undertaken with sound advice” (41). The merit of Becket’s action is to defend the church by refusing to bow to Kingly oppression, but the result is bloody indeed, and it is that catastrophic result which is the eventual focus of those who would brand him suicidal or fanatical. The archbishop’s stated motivation for allowing fate to run its course is, somewhat ironically, that he has already won. He says, “we have fought the beast and have conquered. We have only to conquer now, by suffering.” Becket recognizes a higher calling, saying, “I give my life to the Law of God above the Law of Man” and this links to Boethius’ claim that “all things are desired for the sake of the good in them” (86) because God represents the supreme good. As such, the archbishop concurs with God’s divine plan for him, offers no resistance, in the secure knowledge that he stands on God’s side. As Boethius writes, God “looks out from the watch-tower of Providence, sees what suits each person, and applies to him whatever He knows is suitable. This, then, is the outstanding wonder of the order of fate; a knowing God acts and ignorant men look on with wonder at his actions” (112). That Becket never falters in his belief, right to the end, is the strongest indication that at least in his own mind, he is right.
As the final piece of the puzzle, one may confidently state that the chance sequence of events surrounding Becket’s death were beyond the power of any mortal man to orchestrate. The First Priest’s immediate reaction to the murder is to interpret it as a tragedy, saying, “the church lies bereft, / alone, desecrated, desolated, and the heathen shall / build on the ruins,” Boethius writes that “tragedy commemorates with its tears and tumult – the overthrow of happy realms by the random strokes of Fortune.” However, the martyrdom of one who will become a saint surely cannot be a random tragedy. A tragedy would occur to a man fastened to the wheel of Fortune. It is the Third Priest who sees God’s plan in the mayhem, “let our thanks ascend To God, who has given us another Saint in Canterbury.” Therefore, if Thomas Becket was chosen by God to be a saint, then the intricate web of seemingly chance happenings on the archbishop’s last day are not chance at all. The day’s events represent a pattern; a combination of God’s providence intertwined with the free will of the Four Knights. In fact, one may interpret the knights as mere pawns in the bigger plan. It is helpful here to refer to how Boethius outlines the idea of predestination for great men:
“Some men at the price of a glorious death have won a fame that generations will venerate; some indomitable in the face of punishment have given others an example that evil cannot defeat virtue. There is no doubt that it is right that these things happen, that they are planned and that they are suited to those to whom they actually happen” (114).
The Third Priest does indeed declare that the church is “triumphant in adversity” and in the context of Becket’s death, this means that the evil acts of the knights cannot defeat the virtuous church. This reflects Becket’s earlier sentiment that the church had won and all that was left was for him to suffer God’s plan. Rather than foolishly attempt to explain God’s plan, one may simply remove the burden of responsibility from Becket’s shoulders regarding his death. This may be done by enumerating the events of the day to definitively show that neither Becket nor indeed the knights alone could have foreseen the final outcome. Firstly, the four knights were not under direct orders from the king, this is an historical fact and echoed by an admission of William de Traci in the play. Thus, they arrived in Canterbury having only interpreted the king’s words in a certain manner. This becomes clear when they make ever-changing requests of Becket and his fellow clerics. These may be listed as follows:
- (1) That Becket answer the charges against him “in the King’s presence,” which means to accompany the knights to the King’s court.
- (2) To “depart from this land,” which means a new term of self-exile.
- (3) That Becket’s staff should “take, hold, detain, restrain this man” until the knights return meaning house arrest.
- (4) That Becket commit to “absolve… resign… restore… renew” i.e., the knights’ list of demands that require compliance.
Eliot depicts a tempestuous, volatile situation. When the armed knights return, it is the priests who physically drag Thomas into the cathedral building and barricade the main doors. Then, even though Becket orders his priests to “unbar the door,” he could not have known that the knights would return “slightly tipsy.” The knights make new requests of him and when he does not cooperate then they promptly and brutally kill him. The haphazard nature of the events is clear and involve not one but two separate altercations, the consumption of alcohol, and refusals by Becket to comply with demands. The location of the attack itself is of supreme historical importance and yet Becket was manhandled into that sacred location and therefore had no choice in the matter. In the end, the forces of the king murder the Catholic Primate of England in his own cathedral thus securing his martyrdom.
Eliot presents his audience with a highly sophisticated overview of Becket’s fate, but it is a fate that Becket could never have hoped to control regardless of self-delusion or pride or mad desire. The play is full of strange forebodings of a momentous and terrible act, as if all in Becket’s circle can feel the coming doom. The spectacular murder that occurs on holy ground is the consummation of a divine plan, at least as understood by those of faith. Through the comparative analysis made to Boethius’ philosophy in this essay, it is clear that Eliot based his play on a solid philosophical foundation. The playwright assiduously examines every aspect of Becket’s road to martyrdom, but it is crucially the references to the wheel of Fortune and God’s providence that give needed shape to what may otherwise look like random events. If one word could sum up a miracle play then it would indeed be – faith.
Boethius, Anicius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Victor Watts, Penguin Classics, 1999.
Dante, Alighieri. Inferno. Translated by Robert and Jean Hollander, Anchor Books, 2002.
Eliot, T. S. Murder in the Cathedral. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936.
Milman, Henry Hart. Life of Thomas à Becket. Sheldon and Company, 1860. Project Gutenberg, 2013.