Murder in the Cathedral: The Constant Battle between the Two Antipodes Essay

May 6, 2022 by Essay Writer

Updated: Dec 10th, 2019


In this essay, I discuss how the play “Murder in the cathedral” explores the conflict between action and suffering. Despite the fact that religion is not the thing that one can speculate on, Eliot has managed to do it in his play, the publication date of which was 1935. What he tried to depict was the clash between religion and faith that had lasted during the XII century and continued spreading its metastases further on in the times of the Inquisition.

Murder in the Cathedral Essay: Introduction

The plot of the play is simple. Real historical figures serve as the main characters of Murder in the Cathedral. Being devoted to the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, the play suddenly sharpens the conflict between religion and faith in a person.

The idea that T. S. Elliot was trying to convey in the play is the tragedy of a man torn by inner contradictions. Killed by order of his royal majesty King Henry II, the one who used to be his friend, Becket had tried to hush down the thirst for the royal power, but the sin turned out to be stronger than the King himself. The peculiar fact is that the play contained so many debating issues that some of its parts had to be cut out. Otherwise, the censors would not bear it.

Analysis of the Conflict

Reflecting on the conflict described by Eliot, I would like to make a commentary that it had three significant ideas underlying it. These ideas are fully displayed by the Murder in the cathedral characters.

The first one is the conflict between the church and the state. Although it might seem not entirely applicable to the modern days, it still has a point. The church is a body of a certain power, and the clash of the interests between then church, the government, and the citizen is inevitable. The rest is a matter of time.

“When writing Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot concentrated on death and martyrdom.” (Kaltenbacher 7). That was the XII century understanding of the role of the church, the martyrdom that would end in the heavenly bliss.

The nature of the conflict is triple in this case, as Eliot presumes. He sees it as the conflict between a man and the church as the earthly representative of God, the relationship between a man and God, and the relations between a man and his inner personality, where everything that we hide from the rest of the world is stored.

What lies on the surface is the contradictions between citizens, the church, and the monarchy. Eliot depicts it very brightly, speaking through the eyewitness of the tragic incident in the church, Edward Grim. In fact, he was the man who originally described the accident.

Murder in the Cathedral is a tragic theater that explores the conflict between the values of the world – as represented by the murderous knights and King Henry II – and the values of the spirit. (Detweiler 134). That is why the part played by the knights in Murder in the Cathedral is so important. What Detweiler wants to emphasize in his critical essay is the actual idea of the Biblical innocent man with his virtues as the biggest riches one could ever possess and the vulgar striving for money, which was the trait of character of King Henry II. On the background of this conflict, there are ordinary people – nether sinners like the knights nor saints like Becket. Indeed, one couldn’t overestimate the significance of the chorus in Murder in the Cathedral. However, such a conflict between the temporal and spiritual world the play, very obvious and understood, seems to be the basis, but not the core of it.

The head idea of Eliot’s poem still looks for me more like a problem of a man trying to understand himself, not the relationship between a man and the clergy. Although the latter was of a great influence nine hundred years ago, to the writer of the XX century, they would seem pathetic in their trying to behold the power over the people belonging to their confession. There is certainly something more than meets the eye.

The modern way to consider the play presumes that it is the struggle of God and the devil within a man that Eliot was trying to show the reader. As the Tempters come to the archbishop trying to tempt him into a sin and make him sell his own soul for the treasures they promise to give him, they laugh at the spiritual glory that Becket is striving for and are convincing him that the earthly paradise they promise is much better than the doubtful bliss that might await for him somewhere at the end of his life. Yet Tomas Becket keeps his word and does not roll into the abyss of sin, declaring his famous quote:

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason. (Eliot 54)

In these lines, we see how the author of Murder in the Cathedral emphasizes and explores the conflict between action and suffering inside a person.

I would like you to pay attention to the following passage:
Think of glory after death
When King is dead there’s another king
And one more king is another reign
King is forgotten, when another shall come
Saint and martyr rule from the tomb. (Eliot 47)

This is the very fight between the evil and the good that hides in each man’s soul that Eliot was describing. The need to stay clear and the desire to make the things be as a man wants them to are incompatible, and the archbishop fully realized it. He could have saved his own life and retreat from his moral and spiritual position, but as a martyr, he chose death as the most honest and decent way out. The issue of the poem is the battle within the archbishop’s soul, while the conflict with the King serves as a kind of setting for the poem.

Murder in the Cathedral Essay: Conclusion

As Tiwari claims in his commentary, “Becket exemplifies the true meaning of humility, sacrifice, and sufferings in his life and martyrdom.” (90). Further on, Tiwari develops this idea into the parallel to the sufferings of Christ that Eliot might have meant.

In summary, the Murder in the Cathedral analysis shows that there was the only battle in the play that mattered. It was the battle between the devil and God in a human soul. Unfortunately, we are composed of both. It is us to decide who will win in this battle.

Works Cited

Detweiler, Robert, David Jasper. Religion and Literature: a Reader. London: Westminster John Knox Press. 200. Print.

Eliot, Thomas S. Murder in the Cathedral. New York, NY: Hardcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1964. Print.

Kaltenbacher, Cornelia. The Function of the Chorus in T. S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”. Germany: GRIN GmbH, 2004. Print.

Tiwari Shubha, Subha Tiwari, and Tiwari Maneesha. The Plays of T. S. Eliot. Web.

New York, NY: Atlantic Publishing and Distributions, 2007. Print.

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