Martyrdom-Central Theme of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral


Eliot had the feelings and sentimental of a devout Christian. His catholic soul did not infrequently bespeak itself through the pronouncements of Becket. Through the entire compus of the play, the echo of his own catholic soul resounded through the character of Becket who was a veritable martyr. This martyrdom is the pivotal theme of the play around which the other members if the Dramatis Personae rotate. His martyrdom is what constitutes the focal point of the entire drama. The priests, the tempters, the knights and the band of poor women of Canterbury – all partake of the prevailing sense of somber gloom, generated by the foreboding or premonition of an impending disaster. All the characters in the drama “are forced to bear witness” to the ghastly deed. Everyone waits for the momentous finale:

 “Some malady is coming upon us. We wait, we wait
And the saints and martyrs wait, for those
 who shall be martyrs and saints.
Destiny waits in the hand of God,
shaping the still unshapen.”




A true and perfect Anglo Catholic as he was, Eliot was vitriolically strident about the spiritual paralysis and moral degeneration of the modern age. According to him, the divorce from the spirituality and the decadence of the moral values are the root causes of social and human disintegration. To Eliot, the only panacea for such dehumanized mankind, for the denizens of the sub human world is a revival of the spiritual values. He sought to inculcate through the media of literature, the spirit of a true Christian martyr.

He proclaimed with a ring of great religious confidence in his voice: “Let there be a dozen of such literary pieces to illustrate before the people the inspiring effect of martyrdom in its noblest sense.”

Thus the poet has expressed his own views on the connotation of martyrdom through the voice of Becket:

 “A martyrdom is always the design of God, for him love
of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back
 to His ways. It is never the design of man, for the true
  martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who
 has lost his will in the Will of God, and no longer desires
anything for himself not even the glory of martyrdom.”

image courtesy: wiki
This is the essence of the play and this is what the dramatist has all along endeavored to highlight. In this connection, Miss Helen Gardner has made a perceptive commentary which merits quotation: ‘The central theme of the play’, she says “is martyrdom and martyrdom in its strict sense. The actual deed by which Thomas is struck down is, in a sense, unimportant. It is not important has a dramatic climax towards which all that has happened leads. We are warned again and again that we are not watching a sequence of events that has the normal dramatic logic of motive, act, result, but an action which depends on the will of God and not on the will of men:

 “For a little time, the hungry hawk
  Will only roar and hover, circling lower,
  Waiting excuse, pretence, opportunity.
  End will be simple, sudden, God-given.”

In Murder in the Cathedral, the playwright had an altogether different objective. Indeed, he was not actuated by any dramatic motive in the strict sense of the term. Eliot has maintained:

“I did not want to write a chronicle of twelfth century
  politics, nor did I want to tamper unscrupulously with
the meager records …. I wanted to concentrate on death
and martyrdom.”

The above observation of Eliot is indeed very much pertinent. Neither to recount heroic episode of the protagonist nor to show the catastrophe on the human tragedy of Becket. He has simply dramatized the experience of martyrdom. The inner or the central point of interest is the gradual development of Becket’s mind towards martyrdom. How Becket successfully passed through many a crucial test and also how he successively overcame the different of temptations have been comprehensively and convincingly dealt with by Eliot. The agents of obstruction repeatedly and concurrently pose formidable barriers in the path of Becket’s progress towards martyrdom. But transcending all hindrances and limitations Thomas became a true martyr. Through incantatory rhythm of verses, the poet-dramatist has again and again shown the spiritual foundation of Becket which stimulated his confidence and ultimately enabled him to accept death and suffering quietly and in the spirit of a true martyr. Even in Part I, we find Thomas explaining to the women of Canterbury :-

“that action is suffering
And suffering is action. Neither does the  agent suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are
fixed in an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed.”

Interspersed in this drama is such poetry of exaltation, of spiritual elevation, which having been set against the dismal atmosphere of dark foreboding and prognostication has heightened the tone and effect of the drama. Becket surrendered his will to the will of God and his total resignation and spiritual transformation have also been manifested as the design of God. A devout Christian as he was, Eliot never shirked from reiterating that

“Christian martyrdom is neither an accident nor the effect of a man’s will to become a Saint.”

It is absolutely a design of gold. But at the same time, it has sufficiently been shown and adequately justified that the essential pre-requisite fro being a true martyr was inherent in the character of Becket. He was simply waiting for the destined moment. That this martyrdom was God-ordained, that it was a will of God has been stressed by Eliot again and again. Simultaneously he has not ignored the issue of dramatic significance. He has thrown sufficient light upon the process of the progressive spiritual uplift of Becket and also on the temptations and seductive designs to which Becket was subjected. The impeccable spiritual uprightness of Becket has also been vividly portrayed. The tempters were all out to sully his spiritual integrity; but he withstood all obstructions and declined to make will impure. Thus he rightly came to realize the subtle motive of the last tempter:

“The last temptation is the greatest treason
To do the right deed for the wrong reason”.

While other tempters, “temporal tempters” came “with pleasure and power at palpable price,” the fourth tempter insinuated him to “Seek the way of martyrdom make yourself the lowest on earth, to be in high heaven”  Thomas did appositely assert:

“You only offer dreams to damnation.”
Subsequently Thomas explicitly states:
 “I well know that these temptations
 Mean present vanity and future torment”.

This realization helped Becket to effect a purgation or purification of mind and to safeguard himself from such lapses as are repugnant to true martyrdom. Thereafter in part II we find the essential virtue and rectitude of Thomas which turned 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”.

Ref:1.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_in_the_Cathedral