Murder in the Cathedral

By T.S. Eliot


Welcome to the enchanting world of “Murder in the Cathedral” by T.S. Eliot 📖✨. This play, first performed in 1935, is not just a piece of literature; it’s a journey back in time, exploring themes of martyrdom, faith, and the eternal battle between church and state. T.S. Eliot, an eminent figure in modernist literature, weaves this historical narrative with poetic brilliance, taking us to the heart of 12th-century England.

The backdrop of “Murder in the Cathedral” is the true story of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose life came to a tragic end in 1170. Eliot, known for his complex poetry and essays, ventures into the dramatic genre with this work, offering a profound exploration of spirituality and ethics. The play is not just a retelling of historical events; it’s an introspective look at the human soul and its struggles with temptation, duty, and destiny.

What makes “Murder in the Cathedral” particularly captivating is its genre – it’s a verse drama, a form that combines the rhythm and depth of poetry with the dynamic action of theatre. Eliot’s mastery of language shines through in the dialogues and monologues, making the characters and their dilemmas resonate with audiences even today.

So, whether you’re a literature enthusiast, a history buff, or someone in search of deeper existential insights, “Murder in the Cathedral” promises a journey that’s as thought-provoking as it is dramatic. Let’s dive into the plot, characters, and themes of this timeless classic, and uncover the layers of meaning that Eliot has intricately woven into this historical tapestry 🏰💭.

Plot Summary

“Murder in the Cathedral” by T.S. Eliot is a gripping tale of power, faith, and destiny, unfolding in four acts and a series of poetic interludes. Here’s how the drama unfolds:

Exposition — The play opens in the Archbishop’s hall on December 2nd, 1170. The Chorus, representing the women of Canterbury, expresses fear and foreboding about the return of Archbishop Thomas Becket to Canterbury after seven years of exile. They sense the coming of a great change or calamity.

Rising Action — Thomas Becket arrives, pondering over his past conflicts with King Henry II and the reasons for his return. He is visited by three Tempters, each offering him a path away from his impending doom: the pursuit of pleasure, political power, and alliances with the barons against the king. Becket rejects them all, stating his commitment to serve God above all else.

Climax — A fourth Tempter appears, suggesting that Becket seek martyrdom to achieve eternal glory and sanctity. This tempter’s offer forces Becket to confront his deepest motivations and fears. He realizes that the desire for personal glory in martyrdom is a temptation as well. His decision to accept his fate, if it is God’s will, without seeking it for personal gain, marks the turning point.

Falling Action — The scene shifts to the Cathedral, where Becket delivers a Christmas morning sermon, emphasizing the themes of peace and martyrdom. The tension escalates with the arrival of four knights, acting on a misunderstood wish of King Henry II to rid him of the troublesome priest. They confront Becket, accusing him of betrayal and demand his resignation, which he refuses.

Resolution — The play reaches its tragic conclusion when the knights return to the Cathedral and murder Becket at the altar. The Chorus laments the brutal act, recognizing the Archbishop’s martyrdom. In a surprising turn, the knights address the audience, justifying their actions as necessary for the peace and stability of the kingdom. The play closes with the Chorus acknowledging the transformation within themselves and their community, brought about by the sacrifice of Thomas Becket.

Through this narrative, Eliot explores themes of faith, power, and the individual’s struggle with destiny. The play’s structure, with its emphasis on internal conflict and moral choices, highlights Becket’s journey from a political figure to a martyr, emphasizing the transcendental nature of his final act.

Character Analysis

“Murder in the Cathedral” features a compelling cast of characters, each contributing to the rich tapestry of themes and moral questions that T.S. Eliot explores. Here’s a closer look at the main characters:

Thomas Becket — As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket is a complex figure, torn between his duties to the crown and his obligations to God. His return from exile marks the beginning of a final, spiritual journey, culminating in his martyrdom. Becket’s character evolves from a man of power, entangled in political struggles, to a servant of faith, embracing his fate with a profound understanding of his role in God’s will. His internal battle against the temptations reveals his deep commitment to serving a higher purpose, beyond earthly glory or suffering.

The Chorus — Representing the women of Canterbury, the Chorus is the emotional core of the play, providing insight into the communal impact of Becket’s decisions. Initially, they express fear and foreboding, embodying the collective anxiety of the people caught in the crossfire of political and spiritual battles. Their evolution throughout the play reflects the transformative power of witnessing true sacrifice, moving from despair to a deeper understanding of faith and redemption.

The Four Tempters — Each Tempter approaches Becket with a different temptation, symbolizing the worldly challenges to faith and integrity. The first three tempters offer power, pleasure, and political influence, representing common human desires that can lead one astray from their spiritual path. The fourth Tempter’s proposal of seeking martyrdom for glory is the most insidious, challenging Becket to examine his motives and embrace his fate without ego or desire for personal sanctification.

The Four Knights — Acting on what they believe to be King Henry II’s wishes, the knights are the agents of Becket’s martyrdom. Their justification of the murder as a necessary act for the kingdom’s stability reflects the moral ambiguity and the conflict between secular authority and spiritual integrity. They symbolize the destructive force of political power when wielded without moral consideration.

Here’s a summary table of the character analysis:

Thomas BecketInitially divided between secular and spiritual duties, deeply introspective.Transforms into a martyr, fully embracing his spiritual path over earthly power.
The ChorusFearful and anxious, representing the common people’s perspective.Grows to understand and accept the necessity and meaning of Becket’s sacrifice.
The Four TemptersEmbodiments of earthly temptations and moral challenges.Serve to highlight Becket’s spiritual growth and resolve.
The Four KnightsInstruments of political power, blinded by duty to the crown.Their actions prompt a reevaluation of the balance between secular authority and moral righteousness.

This analysis reveals the depth of Eliot’s characters, each serving as a mirror to the complex interplay of faith, power, and individual destiny.

Themes and Symbols

“Murder in the Cathedral” by T.S. Eliot delves into a multitude of themes and employs various symbols to enrich its narrative and philosophical depth. Here are some of the major themes and symbols:


Martyrdom and Sacrifice: Central to the play, the theme of martyrdom is explored through Becket’s internal struggle and ultimate acceptance of his fate. Eliot examines the concept of sacrifice for a higher cause, suggesting that true martyrdom transcends personal glory and is instead a submission to divine will.

Conflict between Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power: The play highlights the tension between ecclesiastical and royal authority, embodied in the characters of Becket and King Henry II. This theme questions where true power lies and the sacrifices required to uphold one’s moral and spiritual convictions against worldly demands.

The Individual vs. the Collective: Through the Chorus and Becket’s interactions, Eliot explores the relationship between individual actions and their impact on the community. The play suggests that individual sacrifices, such as Becket’s martyrdom, can lead to collective enlightenment and transformation.

Temptation and Moral Integrity: The temptations faced by Becket serve as a metaphor for the universal human struggle between following one’s desires and adhering to a higher moral and ethical code. The play posits that true integrity comes from overcoming these temptations and choosing a path aligned with one’s spiritual beliefs.


The Cathedral: As the primary setting of the play, the Cathedral symbolizes the spiritual realm and serves as a constant reminder of the religious and moral dilemmas at the heart of the story. It is both a sanctuary and a place of confrontation, embodying the sacred and the profane aspects of the narrative.

The Four Tempters: Each Tempter symbolizes different facets of human weakness and desire—pleasure, power, rebellion, and glory. Their interactions with Becket are symbolic of the inner battles everyone faces when choosing between selfish desires and higher principles.

The Chorus: The Chorus represents the voice of the common people and serves as a symbol of humanity’s collective fears, hopes, and moral conscience. Their transformation throughout the play mirrors the potential for societal change in the face of individual sacrifice.

The Seasons: Eliot uses the passage of seasons and specific times (Christmas, the arrival of spring) to symbolize cycles of death and rebirth, reflecting the themes of sacrifice and renewal inherent in Becket’s martyrdom.

These themes and symbols intertwine to create a richly layered narrative that challenges the audience to reflect on their own beliefs and the tension between spiritual values and worldly concerns. Eliot’s use of these elements underscores the timeless relevance of the play’s moral and philosophical questions.

Style and Tone

T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” stands out for its distinctive writing style and tone, which contribute significantly to the mood and atmosphere of the play. Here’s an exploration of these elements:

Poetic Language: Eliot employs a highly poetic language throughout the play, blending traditional verse with modernist sensibilities. This choice enhances the lyrical quality of the dialogue, imbuing the narrative with a timeless, almost ethereal atmosphere. The poetic form allows for a dense layering of meanings and a nuanced exploration of themes, making each line resonate with symbolic significance.

Chorus Speeches: The use of a chorus, drawing from ancient Greek theatre traditions, is a stylistic choice that adds to the play’s solemn and ceremonial tone. The Chorus’s speeches, often in the form of lyrical and reflective passages, serve to comment on the action, express collective fears and hopes, and bridge the gap between the audience and the characters. These speeches are pivotal in setting the emotional tone and providing insight into the communal impact of the unfolding drama.

Sermonic Tone: Becket’s Christmas sermon, a key moment in the play, adopts a sermonic tone that elevates the narrative from a historical recounting to a theological and philosophical meditation. This shift in tone underscores the spiritual dimensions of the play, inviting the audience to reflect on the nature of martyrdom, faith, and sacrifice.

Contrasting Voices: Eliot masterfully contrasts the solemn, reflective voices of Becket and the Chorus with the more pragmatic and worldly voices of the Tempters and the Knights. This stylistic variation highlights the central conflict between spiritual ideals and temporal power, enriching the play’s exploration of moral and ethical dilemmas.

Ambiguity and Complexity: The writing style is marked by its complexity and ambiguity, characteristic of Eliot’s modernist approach. Dialogues and monologues often contain multiple layers of meaning, inviting deep analysis and interpretation. This complexity mirrors the internal conflicts of the characters and the overarching themes of the play, engaging the audience in an active process of meaning-making.

The combination of these stylistic elements creates a unique tone that is contemplative, solemn, and intensely atmospheric, reflecting the play’s deep engagement with existential questions and the human condition. Eliot’s innovative use of language and theatrical forms makes “Murder in the Cathedral” a powerful and enduring work of literature.

Literary Devices used in Murder in the Cathedral

In “Murder in the Cathedral,” T.S. Eliot masterfully employs a range of literary devices that enhance the play’s thematic depth and emotional impact. Here are the top 10 literary devices used, each highlighted for its contribution to the narrative:

  1. Symbolism — Eliot uses symbols extensively to imbue the narrative with deeper meanings. The Cathedral itself symbolizes the Church and spiritual authority, while the four tempters represent different forms of earthly temptation. Such symbolism enriches the play’s exploration of moral and spiritual conflicts.
  2. Allusion — References to historical events, Biblical stories, and theological concepts are scattered throughout the text, providing a rich context that deepens the audience’s understanding of the characters’ struggles and the play’s themes.
  3. Foreshadowing — The Chorus’s initial fear and foreboding serve as foreshadowing, hinting at the tragic events to come. This device creates an atmosphere of tension and anticipation, preparing the audience for the play’s climactic resolution.
  4. Irony — The use of irony, especially in the knights’ justification of Becket’s murder, highlights the moral ambiguities and the conflict between human law and divine justice. This contrast between the knights’ perceived duty and the play’s moral stance invites reflection on the nature of righteousness and sacrifice.
  5. Repetition — Eliot employs repetition, both of phrases and structural elements (such as the temptations faced by Becket), to emphasize the play’s central themes and to mirror the ritualistic aspects of religion and ceremony, reinforcing the play’s spiritual atmosphere.
  6. Monologue — Becket’s reflective monologues provide insight into his internal struggles and moral convictions. Through this device, Eliot allows the audience to engage directly with Becket’s contemplative journey, highlighting his transformation from a political figure to a martyr.
  7. Dialogue — The dialogues between characters, especially between Becket and the tempters, are crucial for unfolding the narrative and exploring the play’s philosophical questions. The interplay of voices brings to life the conflicts and debates at the heart of the play.
  8. Imagery — Vivid imagery, particularly in the Chorus’s speeches, evokes the sensory experience of the cathedral’s setting and the emotional landscape of the characters. This device enriches the play’s mood and helps convey its themes on a visceral level.
  9. Personification — Eliot personifies concepts such as temptation and fate, giving them a presence that interacts with Becket. This technique dramatizes the abstract struggles faced by the protagonist, making the play’s philosophical explorations more tangible.
  10. Paradox — The play is filled with paradoxical statements, especially in Becket’s reflections on martyrdom and destiny. These paradoxes highlight the complexity of faith and the inscrutable nature of divine will, encouraging deeper contemplation of the play’s themes.

Each of these literary devices plays a crucial role in weaving the complex tapestry of “Murder in the Cathedral,” allowing Eliot to explore profound themes with both subtlety and power.

Literary Devices Examples

Let’s explore examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices used in “Murder in the Cathedral” by T.S. Eliot, providing a clear illustration of how these devices function within the play.


The Cathedral

  • Example: The Cathedral serves as a constant backdrop to the narrative, embodying the spiritual struggle and sanctity.
  • Explanation: Represents the Church’s enduring presence and the battleground of spiritual vs. temporal power.

The Four Tempters

  • Example: Each Tempter presents Becket with a different worldly allure.
  • Explanation: Symbolize the various forms of temptation that lead individuals away from their spiritual path.

The Seasons

  • Example: References to seasons and specific times, like Christmas.
  • Explanation: Symbolize cycles of death and rebirth, mirroring the themes of martyrdom and renewal.


Biblical References

  • Example: Becket’s sermon and the tempters’ dialogues are replete with biblical references.
  • Explanation: These allusions deepen the play’s religious and moral dimensions, linking Becket’s story to broader Christian themes.

Historical Context

  • Example: The play’s setting and conflict are rooted in actual historical events.
  • Explanation: Provides a rich backdrop that enriches the narrative’s significance and realism.


The Chorus’s Fear

  • Example: The Chorus expresses fear and foreboding about Becket’s return.
  • Explanation: Sets an ominous tone, hinting at the tragic events to unfold, creating anticipation.


Knights’ Justification

  • Example: The knights claim they acted for the good of the kingdom.
  • Explanation: This rationale starkly contrasts with the moral outrage over Becket’s murder, illustrating the irony of their misguided sense of duty.


“Return to Canterbury”

  • Example: The phrase “Return to Canterbury” is repeated throughout the play.
  • Explanation: Emphasizes Becket’s inevitable path to martyrdom and the cyclical nature of his spiritual journey.


Becket’s Reflections

  • Example: Becket’s monologues delve into his internal conflict and resolution.
  • Explanation: Offers deep insight into his character and the spiritual significance of his choices.


Becket and the Tempters

  • Example: The exchanges between Becket and the Tempters.
  • Explanation: These dialogues explore the nature of temptation and morality, showcasing Eliot’s skill in character interaction to reveal deeper themes.


Descriptive Passages

  • Example: The Chorus describes the Cathedral and the impending doom with vivid imagery.
  • Explanation: Creates a sensory experience that enhances the play’s atmospheric quality and emotional depth.


Fate and Temptation

  • Example: Temptation and fate are discussed as if they have their own wills.
  • Explanation: Dramatizes abstract concepts, making Becket’s spiritual struggle more tangible and relatable.


Martyrdom for Glory

  • Example: Becket’s contemplation of martyrdom as both a temptation and a divine calling.
  • Explanation: Illustrates the complex, often contradictory nature of faith and sacrifice, inviting the audience to ponder the inscrutable aspects of divine will and human motivation.

These examples highlight the intricate layering of literary techniques that T.S. Eliot employs to enrich “Murder in the Cathedral” with depth, nuance, and resonance.

Murder in the Cathedral – FAQs

Q: What is the main theme of “Murder in the Cathedral”?
A: The main theme of “Murder in the Cathedral” revolves around the conflict between spiritual authority and temporal power, exemplified in the life and martyrdom of Thomas Becket. It also explores themes of martyrdom, sacrifice, and the individual’s struggle with temptation and destiny.

Q: Who was Thomas Becket?
A: Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170. Originally a close friend of King Henry II, their relationship deteriorated due to Becket’s insistence on the Church’s rights and independence, leading to his martyrdom.

Q: What is the significance of the four tempters?
A: The four tempters represent different forms of temptation that Becket faces, reflecting broader human struggles. They symbolize personal pleasure and happiness, political power, relying on force for good, and seeking martyrdom for personal glory. Each tempter challenges Becket’s spiritual integrity and dedication to God.

Q: Why is “Murder in the Cathedral” written in verse?
A: T.S. Eliot chose verse to convey the play’s themes and characters with heightened expressiveness and lyrical quality. Writing in verse allows for a more profound exploration of philosophical and spiritual concepts, enhancing the play’s dramatic and emotional impact.

Q: How does “Murder in the Cathedral” relate to historical events?
A: The play is based on the true story of Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. While it takes certain creative liberties, it closely follows the historical conflict between Becket and King Henry II over the rights and privileges of the Church.

Q: What role does the Chorus play in the narrative?
A: The Chorus represents the voice of the common people of Canterbury, expressing collective fears, hopes, and moral conscience. They provide commentary on the events, reflect the community’s reaction to Becket’s martyrdom, and undergo a transformation in understanding and faith through the course of the play.

Q: Can “Murder in the Cathedral” be considered a tragedy?
A: Yes, “Murder in the Cathedral” can be considered a tragedy, as it depicts the downfall of a noble character through a conflict of moral and ethical values, leading to Becket’s martyrdom. The play examines themes of fate, sacrifice, and the consequences of standing by one’s principles, which are common elements in tragic literature.


What is the central conflict in “Murder in the Cathedral”?Between Thomas Becket and the PopeBetween Thomas Becket and King Henry IIBetween Thomas Becket and the Four KnightsBetween Thomas Becket and the citizens of Canterbury
Who represents the common people of Canterbury?The Four KnightsThe Four TemptersThe ChorusThomas Becket
What do the Four Tempters offer to Becket?Money, power, security, and famePleasure, power, rebellion, and martyrdom for gloryForgiveness, peace, solitude, and justiceWealth, health, wisdom, and honor
Why does Becket refuse the temptations?He wants to become King of EnglandHe prefers a life of solitudeHe is committed to serving God above all elseHe is afraid of the consequences
What is the significance of the Cathedral in the play?It is where Becket hides from the knightsIt symbolizes the Church and spiritual authorityIt is simply the setting of the play, with no deeper significanceIt represents the monarchy and temporal power
How does “Murder in the Cathedral” end?With Becket leaving CanterburyWith the knights converting to ChristianityWith Becket’s martyrdom at the altarWith a peace agreement between Becket and the King
What literary device is predominantly used by the Chorus?AllegorySymbolismIronySatire
What theme is explored through the character of Thomas Becket?The corruption of powerThe pursuit of happinessThe conflict between spiritual authority and temporal powerThe value of friendship

This quiz is designed to test your comprehension of T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” focusing on its central themes, characters, and literary elements.


Identify the literary devices used in the following paragraph from “Murder in the Cathedral”:

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


Paradox: The statement presents a contradiction by suggesting that doing something right for the wrong reason is a form of betrayal. This paradox highlights the complexity of moral decisions and the importance of intent behind actions.

Alliteration: The use of alliteration in “greatest treason” and “right deed for the wrong reason” adds a rhythmic quality to the line, emphasizing the critical nature of the statement and making it more memorable.

Symbolism: The “last temptation” symbolizes the ultimate test of moral integrity, representing not just a specific temptation but the culmination of all ethical and spiritual challenges faced by an individual. It stands for the subtle ways in which good intentions can be corrupted by improper motives.