Symbolism and Religious Drama: T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral

In 1163, a quarrel began between the British King Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. The men had been good friends, but each felt that his interests should be of primary concern to the nation and that the other should acquiesce to his demands. Becket fled to France in 1164 in order to rally support from the Catholic French for his cause and also sought an audience with the Pope. After being officially (although not personally) reconciled with the King, Becket returned to England in 1170, only to be murdered as he prayed in Canterbury Cathedral by four of Henry’s Knights.
Three years later, he was canonized and pilgrims—Henry among them—have made their way to his tomb ever since. The allure of such a story for a dramatist is obvious: there is a great conflict between human and divine power, a strong central character and a number of complicated spiritual issues to be found in his death. In 1935, T. S. Eliot answered this “calling” to compose a play for that year’s Canterbury Festival; the result was a work that revitalized verse drama—a form that had not been widely employed for almost three hundred years.
Critics praised Eliot’s use of verse and ability to invest a past historical event with modern issues and themes, such as the ways in which lay persons react to the intrusion of the supernatural in their daily lives. In part because it is a religious drama which appeared long after such plays were popular, Murder in the Cathedral is still performed, studied, and regarded as one of Eliot’s major works, a testament to his skill as a poet and dramatist.

In its assessment of Eliot’s importance to modern English literature, A Literary History of England argues that a shift from despair to hope-a change from “the ‘inert resignation’ of those who breathe the small, dry air of modern spiritual emptiness” to something more positive and potentially transcendent-can first be detected in Eliot’s “Ash-Wednesday” (1930), “of which the theme is the search for peace found in humble and quiet submission to God’s Will”.
This theme, clearly an expression of the Anglo-Catholicism Eliot embraced during his life, appears again throughout Murder in the Cathedral. It informs and breathes through the entire text of the play, as the commentary above has demonstrated. In Murder in the Cathedral, the “inert resignation” of modern life manifests itself in the Chorus’ refusal to embrace transcendence: the women of Canterbury are content to go on “living and partly living. ” As they state, even imploringly to Becket, on several occasions, they “do not wish anything to happen. They do not want the wheel of God’s pattern to begin turning. As do all moderns in Eliot’s estimation, they “fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God. ” They are not ready to live, as Becket was, “out of time. “Yet, through Becket as he portrays him, Eliot forcefully argues that such transcendence must be achieved. In keeping with biblical testimony about the nature of spiritual power versus temporal power, however, Eliot posits that transcendence cannot be achieved by force.
It arises, not through utilitarian machinations (such as those the Four Tempters propose to Becket in Part I), but by, in the Literary History’s words, “humble and quiet submission to God’s Will. ” As Becket himself declares, “I give my life / To the Law of God above the Law of Man. ” His triumphant affirmation of faith echoes the words of the New Testament: “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20); or again, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? (James 4:4). Only by valuing “friendship”-i. e. , a total alignment of mind and soul and will-with the spiritual, with God, over such friendship with the world or the temporal order of the status quo, can “peace”-that elusive goal referred to throughout the play: in Becket’s fragile relationship with King Henry; as Becket’s greeting to the Chorus in Parts I and II; as the turning of God’s wheel of providence-be found. In this way, the themes of Murder in the Cathedral aptly crystallize the themes of Eliot’s own life-long work.
The wheel was a symbol, in medieval times, of the “wheel of life” or the “wheel of fortune,” “which never stands still, being constantly subject to the turns of fate” (Dictionary of Symbolism, p. 379). No doubt Eliot draws on these ancient associations in his text’s multiple references to the wheel, but he also subverts them by stating that, in fact, the wheel of fate-or, in Eliot’s Anglo-Catholic worldview, of God’s providence and plan for history-has in fact been standing still during Becket’s seven-year absence from Canterbury. As discussed earlier, the length of Becket’s exile is itself of metaphorical importance, since seven symbolizes totality and completeness. ) Becket’s task is to set the wheel turning again: to take his part, willingly and completely, in God’s “pattern” (another word-image that occurs frequently in the text) so that the wheel can resume turning and that “peace” can replace the mere existence of “living and partly living. “The seasons also carry symbolic freight in Eliot’s play.
The most notable example is the Chorus’ invocations of the passage of the seasons at the beginning of Part I and then at the end of Part II. At the beginning of the play, the passing seasons are in actuality one long season of waiting, one endless Advent. But by the play’s end, after Becket’s martyrdom, the seasons in their cycle have become part of human beings: “Even in us the voices of seasons . praise Thee. ” Eliot’s use of seasonal imagery will no doubt remind readers of his work in The Waste Land (1922).
That epic poem’s first line, “April is the cruelest month,” reinforces the poem’s dominant mood of pessimism in the face of what Eliot sees as the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the then still-young twentieth century. As in Murder in the Cathedral, the passage of the seasons in The Waste Land is not a healthy cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Life has become stuck in “living and partly living. ” Still, even The Waste Land was “not merely a poem of despair of the present but of hope and promise for the future, since at the close the thunder speaks, foretelling the coming of the life-giving rain” (Baugh, p. 586). In a similar way, Murder in the Cathedral ends in hope-although more tempered by a realization of humanity’s reluctance and inability to, in Becket’s words, “bear too much reality. ” Still, the “redemption” of the seasons is an important symbolic motif in the play, as it was in Eliot’s earlier work. Becket’s return to Canterbury is clearly framed in terms that allude to Jesus’ “Palm Sunday” entrance into Jerusalem.
For example, the Messenger’s description of how the crowds are greeting the returning Becket-“with scenes of frenzied enthusiasm, / Lining the road and throwing down their capes, / Strewing the way with leaves and late flowers of the season”-is surely intended to remind Eliot’s audience of Jesus’ so-called “triumphal entry” into the holy city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields” (Mark 11:8; see also parallels in Matthew 21 and Luke 19).
In some Christian liturgical traditions, Palm Sunday is also called “Passion Sunday,” to indicate that it is the beginning of Jesus’ sufferings. Thus, Eliot strongly associates Becket’s “triumphal entry” into Canterbury with Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem-a seeming victory procession that leads to martyrdom and death, and can therefore be considered victorious only in hindsight, through the eyes of faith, on the far side of resurrection. (A further allusion to the Palm Sunday narrative, incidentally, occurs when the second priest tells the women to keep silent, earning himself a rebuke from Becket.
In a similar way, Jesus rebuked the religious authorities of his day for ordering the crowds who welcomed him to keep silence: Jesus told them, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” [Luke 19:40]. ) Overall, these parallels are meant to establish Becket as a salvific Christ-figure whose death will bring the blessing of transcendence to humanity. As Eliot wrote in Becket’s Christmas sermon, mourning and rejoicing (note the repeated refrain, “Rejoice we all, keeping holy day”) commingle at Christmas; birth and death jostle for worshipers’ attention; martyrdom-witness-takes precedence in the church’s marking of the time.
Understanding the significance of these three festival days increases our appreciation of the martyr’s purpose, as exemplified in Becket’s own death: to make transcendence available to human. The titular hero of the biblical book of Daniel, who remains steadfast to God (in the context of Eliot’s dichotomy, read: spiritual) in the face of pressures to assimilate to a pagan (read: temporal) culture. Ezekiel 14:14, 20 also praise Daniel as an exemplar of righteousness, even as Becket is as he faces death.
Ironically, of course, Daniel, according to the Bible, was delivered from the lions’ den as a consequence of his faithfulness to God. No such physical deliverance awaits Becket. The archbishop does, however, seem to mirror the attitude of Daniel’s three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who, faced with death in a fiery furnace for refusing to worship an idol, declared, “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us. let him deliver us.
But if not, be it known to you, O king that we will not serve your gods. ” (Daniel 3:17-18). Becket, like Daniel’s friends, is ready to die for God (the spiritual): “Do with me as you will” (p. 76). Thus, the knights’ invocation of Daniel at this point in the text creates a wealth of allusive value that illuminates Eliot’s themes. The impending moment of Becket’s martyrdom takes on an existential significance as the Chorus reflects upon what awaits humanity after death. The Chorus identifies Death s “God’s silent servant,” and acknowledges, in orthodox fashion, that Judgment awaits mortals “behind the face of Death. ” The Chorus then, however, strikes a decidedly unorthodox tone in affirming that “behind Judgment [is] the Void, more horrid than active shapes of hell” (p. 71). In terms that again echo Eliot’s earlier work, The Waste Land, the Chorus describes this Void as: “Emptiness, absence, separation from God; / The horror of the effortless journey, to the empty land / Which is no land, only emptiness, absence, the Void. ” (p. 71).
Ironically, however, it is this very “Void,” free of distraction, with no opportunity to avoid a truthful gazing upon oneself, that Becket is embracing in choosing to die a martyr’s death. This speech of the Chorus thus seems to emphasize, once more, a distinction in Eliot’s mind between men like Becket-the “saints” who cause the wheel of God’s pattern in time to turn-and ordinary mortals, who are content-even though they deny it! -to merely exist, to be only and always in Advent, only and always waiting, only and always “living and partly living. ” Truly, we cannot bear too much reality!
We do not wish to stare into the void, the abyss. But Eliot, like other existential thinkers of the twentieth century, understand that peering into that abyss is fundamentally a salvific, liberating act, signified in Eliot’s play by the “saving” consequences of Becket’s death for a world that would rather not be saved. Character profilesThe Chorus is an unspecified number of Canterbury’s women, is a corporate character serving the same purposes as does the chorus in Greek drama: to develop and, more importantly, to comment on the action of the play.
The women’s initial speech fairly defines their dramaturgic role: “We are forced to bear witness. ” And yet this chorus, like its ancient Greek predecessors, is no mere, dispassionate, objective “eyewitness”; rather, it is a witness bearing testimony to truth-almost as in a legal proceeding, but that analogy fails to capture the nature of the testimony the chorus offers. In commenting upon the action of Thomas Becket’s murder, the women are voicing insights into, reflections on, and conclusions about time, destiny, and life and death.
In the end, they emerge as representatives of ordinary people-such as those who make up the audience of the play, or its readership-people who, mired in and having settled for an existence of “living and partly living,” are unable to greet transcendence when it is offered to them. As they state in the play’s final moments, not everyone can bear the “loneliness, surrender, deprivation” necessary to become a saint. Not all can be saints-but all can pray for their intercession.
Thomas Becket is the Archbishop of Canterbury, former Chancellor to King Henry II, now estranged from the monarch because he insists upon the right of the Church to rule in spiritual matters-a rule that, in practice, has ramifications for how the king ought to rule in temporal matters. Unlike the Chorus, Becket is able to stare into the existential abyss-that “Void” behind death and judgment, mentioned in Part II, that is “more horrid than active shapes of hell. Becket is often accused of pride in the play, but he is actually humble in submitting himself completely to the will of God as he comprehends it. His death offers a glimpse of how transcendence can be achieved: the only question that remains is whether the rest of humanity is able to trace the same path, to “give [its] life / To the Law of God above the Law of Man. “The Four Tempters present Becket, in Part I of the drama, with various ways of avoiding his impending death as a martyr.
Their temptations correlate, to one degree or another, with the justifications of Becket’s assassination offered to the audience by The Four Knights at the end of the play. In a prefatory note to the play’s third edition (1937), Eliot indicated that the roles of the Tempters had been intended to be doubled-that is, played by the same actors-as the roles of the Knights, thus underscoring the connection between the two quartets in an even stronger fashion.
The Three Priests serve the (admittedly little) dramatic action of Eliot’s play, particularly in Part II, when they urge Becket to bar the doors of the Cathedral against the knights-although they characterize them as savage beasts-who seek his life. They could thus be seen as representing the temporal order: indeed, Becket at one point accuses them of thinking only as the world does-“You argue by results, as this world does. ” On the other hand, the Priests also are capable of offering insight into the spiritual order.
For example, the Third Priest affirms the Church’s endurance in the face of world built on the ruins of the presumed absence of God; and earlier, he offers a key interpretive insight by stating, “Even now, in sordid particulars / The eternal design may appear. ” Like so many of us, then, the priests have one foot, so to speak, in the spiritual and the other in the temporal; and they struggle to balance the two orders as best they can, as do we all.
Unfortunately, according to the argument of Eliot’s drama, there can ultimately be no balancing: peace-that is to say, transcendence-is to be found only in the complete submission to God’s design, God’s pattern, God’s wheel of providence. Mortals, say both Jesus and Eliot, cannot serve two masters-and so the Priests are fundamentally impotent, unable to do anything but to pray to God with heavy reliance upon the intercession of Saint Becket, as they, in their own way but like the Chorus, go on “living and partly living. ”

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