Martyrdom as the Central Theme of T. S. Eliot’s "Murder in the Cathedral" : Critical Analysis

 "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.” -To what extend does the concept of martyrdom dominate the whole atmosphere and action of the play?   

T. S. Eliot has the feelings and sentiments of a devout Christian and through the entire play, Murder in the Cathedral it resounds through the character of Becket who is a veritable martyr. This martyrdom is the pivotal theme of the play around which the other members of the dramatis personae rotate. Now let us study in details: Read More Drama
Although the conflict between Church and state is a recurrent theme in the play, it never assumes major significance. Read More Poetry Moreover, the clash of character and personal antagonisms is deliberately avoided; the king does not appear and the knights are at first not 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 witnessing with their blood. So Becket as a martyr is not primarily one who suffers for a cause or who gives up his life for some religious belief, instead, he is a witness to the reality of God’s powers. Read More Drama

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 emotion the normal dramatic logic of motive, act, and result but an action that depends on Gods will and not on human behavior. Read More Poetry

T. S. Eliot

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 of things which have ceased to tempt him; and the last temptation in so subtle and subjective that no audience can really judge whether or not it is genuinely over come. Although Thomas may say, “Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain”, a question has been raised that can not be answered dramatically. Read More Drama 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 warns us that, ‘a martyrdom is never the design of men’, 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: Read More Drama  “All my life they have been coming, these feet.” When the knights rush to the alter, the murder takes place as a kind of ritual slaughter of an understanding victim, and this episode is not dramatically significant.

Accordingly, Murder In The Cathedral is just not a dramatization of the death of Becket: it is a deep searching study of the significance of martyrdom. Historical detail is severely subordinated to this basic theme. Of the Arch bishop’s former career, Eliot incorporates only what is germane to his pattern of martyrdom and that retrospectively through the first three temptations. Read More Drama What historical detail there is skillfully used to point the main theme and relate it to the historical facts, for example, here we quote 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 acknowledge, should guide the state again.”

Becket finally realizes that the temptations mean present vanity and future torments. This realization helps him to effect expurgation or purification of mind and to safeguard him from such lapses as are repugnant to true martyrdom. Read More Poetry Thereafter in conclusion we find the essential virtue and rectitude of Thomas which turns him to a worthy martyr. The following pronouncements of Thomas stand as eloquent testimony to the spiritual orientation and deep seated conviction of Thomas which constitute the sine qua non of Christian martyrdom:
            “All my life I have waited.
             Death will come only when I am worthy
             And if I am worthy, there is no danger.
            I have therefore only to make perfect my will.”

  Ardhendu De  

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