Murder in the Cathedral: Finding the truth

One of the aspects I enjoy most about writing this column each week is rediscovering a classic text. The classic being revived this week is T.S. Eliot’s dramatic work Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot, known as a world renowned poet and playwright, takes his talent to a new level in this work. Murder in the Cathedral is often categorized as dramatic verse, a unique combination of a poem and a dramatic play. Authors will attest that it is difficult to write a full length dramatic work. They will continue to testify to the difficulty of forming poetic lines into a dramatic format, creating a continuous poem and a continuous play. A reader and an author can then appreciate the work and skill level of Eliot, who successfully combined both styles of writing. The result is a continuous 88 page poem broken down into dramatic acts and scenes found in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. This combined form allows Eliot to create a fact based character of mythical proportions.

Murder in the Cathedral tells the story of Archbishop Thomas Becket who preaches a sermon declaring/predicting his own murder and martyrdom. Eliot based the character Becket on the authentic Archbishop of Canterbury, also named Thomas Becket, who was murdered in 1170. The setting of the play takes place between December 2nd and December 29th 1170, when Thomas Becket returns after seeking refuge in France for seven years. When Becket returns, the reader realizes Becket has not escaped the dangers he hoped to leave behind. Becket is then tempted by four differing “Tempters.” The four Tempters promise Becket forgiveness of past transgressions and removal of dangerous threats. Becket turns down their temptations of physical safety, of fame, of friendship and of glory. Then on Christmas Day, Becket delivers a sermon defining peace and commemorating saints who have been martyred. The sermon serves as a prediction of Becket’s own death to come.

Soon “Knights” enter town demanding Becket pledge his allegiance to the King and not to God and the Church. Becket refuses. The Knights allege Becket has committed treason against England while in exile in France, which Becket denies to no avail leading the Knights to murder him. The Knights’ murder of Beckett fulfils his Christmas day prophecy. Becket’s congregation mourns his death while others question his intentions based on the idea he predicted his death. However, people take solace in the fact faith will prevail because of Becket’s example of strong conviction.

In literary circles, it is often discussed that Becket’s character is a symbolic Christ figure resisting the temptations of the devil. As is also the case with Christ, Becket is killed for his faith and unwavering devotion. Others have viewed Eliot’s work from a political perspective centered on the resistance to the Fascist movement in 1935.

Considering the multiple commentaries on Eliot’s work, how can modern readers relate to Murder in the Cathedral in new and inventive ways? Personally, the idea I take away each time I read or discuss this work can be located deep within the text. A few pages before Becket is murdered, he employs the use of soliloquy to present the reader with a profound message regarding humanity. Becket asserts during the closing of his soliloquy, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Blink while reading Murder in the Cathedral and you might miss this quote altogether.

In my opinion this quote is the theme of Eliot’s story, the moral of Becket’s existence and universally the idea behind life in general. Becket is correct; humanity cannot handle much reality. As human beings, we are influenced by many internal and external factors to define reality accurately. Internally, reality is construed by our perception and memory and imagination allows humanity to cloud events creating and changing reality. Externally, humans allow affiliations within their families, friends, religious groups and other associations to affect how they view reality. Further, often to maintain a content equilibrium, man blocks out reality which is capable of causing a great deal of sorrow. Even in Thomas Becket’s life, reality is transformed as his motives and death are questioned, while those who maintain a strong sense of faith and conviction continue to uphold Becket and their beliefs. For a 21st century reader, who is constantly dealing with internal and external influences, if truth is reality and reality is a true representation then Eliot’s dialogue created for Becket continues to still be precise: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality!”