AD's English Literature : T. S. Eliot’s 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

T. S. Eliot’s 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



Although the conflict between church and state is a recurrent theme in the play, it never assumes major significance. Moreover the clash of character and personal antagonisms is deliberately avoided; the king does not appear and the knights are at first presented as individual characters but act as a gang; subsequently it is stressed that their actions have not been motivated by personal passions.

The central theme of the play is martyrdom, and Eliot’s concept of martyrdom is the term as it was originally used. In its strict, ancient sense, the word martyr means witness and the Church did not at first confine the term to those who had sealed their witness with their blood. So Becket as a martyr is not primarily one who is murdered for a cause, or who gives up him life for some religious belief; instead, he is a witness to the reality of God’s powers.


The actual deed by which Thomas is struck down is not important as a dramatic climax. The audience is warned again and again that it is not watching a sequence of events that contains the normal dramatic logic of motive, act and result but an action that depends on God’s will and not on human behavior.

Thomas Becket
Moreover, Thomas himself can hardly be said to be tempted for the play opens so near its climax that the temptations are hardly more than recapitulations that he should seek martyrdom is so subtle and subjective that no audience can really judge whether or not it is genuinely overcome. Although Thomas may say, “Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain”, a question has been said and raised that can not be answered dramatically. We either have to accept Eliot’s interpretation that Thomas dies with a pure will or ignore the whole problem of motives as beyond our competence.

The martyr’s sermon warms us that “martyrdom is over the design of man” and that a Christian martyrdom is neither an accident nor “the effect of a man’s will to become a saint.” Becket has only to wait for his murderers to appear: “All my life they have been coming, these feet.” When the knights such to the alter, the murder takes place as a kind of ritual slaughter of a nesting victim, and this episode is not dramatically significant.

Accordingly, Murder In The Cathedral is not just a dramatization of the death of Becket: it is a deep searching study of the significance of martyrdom. Historical details are severely subordinated to this basic theme. Of the archbishop’s former career Eliot incorporates only what is germane to his pattern of martyrdom and that retrospectively through the first three temptations. What historical detail there is skillfully used to point the main theme and relate it to the historical facts? Here is an example from the second Tempter’s speech:
         “Your Lordship has forgotten me perhaps. I will remind
          You
           We met at Clarendon, at Northampton,
            And last at Mountmirail, in Maine…..
            …… you master of policy
            Whom all acknowledged, should guide the state again.”
  Throughout most of his career as a dramatist Eliot has been preoccupied with the theme of spiritual election through it is only in this play that sainthood is in the foreground. In his later plays, the theme has been pushed farther and farther into the background as he has sought to portray the contemporary world and show the relationship of sainthood and martyrdom to the lives of the ordinary men and women of today. But form the outset to show this relationship was one of Eliot’s chief aims as a dramatist.

Let us conclude our essay by the speech of Mr. Browne: “The death of Thomas as given by Mr. Eliot in the verse play is the sublimity of a ground and inspiring martyrdom. With a divine awe we stand and witness his ghastly but not ghostly murder on the holy floor of the House of God; and then as soon as the bloody deed is over we see before us another resurrection with a saintly hallow round his face Becket like Christ of the old rises and prepares his march to Heaven”.   


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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

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