Murder in the Cathedral

Murder in the Cathedral is a renowned play written by T.S. Eliot, a prominent poet, and awarded playwright. First performed in 1935, this play is based on the true events of the assassination of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Eliot masterfully presents this historical event through poetic dialogue, exploring themes of power, religion, and martyrdom.


The play opens with the Chorus, a group of women from Canterbury, who set the stage and provide background information for the audience. They narrate the struggles between political powers and the church during the reign of King Henry II. The central conflict arises when Thomas Becket, a former chancellor turned Archbishop of Canterbury, returns from exile and challenges King Henry’s authority.

As tensions rise, four tempters appear to Thomas, representing worldly desires such as power, wealth, fame, and martyrdom. However, Thomas resists their temptations, choosing to remain loyal to his religious beliefs and duty. The play delves into his internal struggle and the obstacles he faces in maintaining his position.

Ultimately, the climax occurs when four knights, loyal to the king, enter the Cathedral and brutally murder Thomas at the altar. This act of violence shocks the audience, raising questions about the limits of power and the consequences of challenging authority.

Awards, Critique, and Praise

Murder in the Cathedral has received critical acclaim since its first performance. It was awarded the prestigious Tony Award for Best Play in 1936, solidifying its position as a significant work in the theatrical world. Eliot’s poetic language and exploration of complex themes have been praised for their depth and impact.

However, the play has also faced some criticism. Some argue that Eliot portrays Becket as a triumph of stoic suffering rather than a fully realized character. Others suggest that the narrative lacks emotional depth, focusing primarily on the philosophical and religious aspects of the story.

Despite such critiques, Murder in the Cathedral remains a seminal work in both literature and theater. Its exploration of power dynamics, morality, and the clash between church and state invites audiences to reflect on timeless issues that continue to shape society.

Important Characters

Thomas Becket: The central character of the play, Becket is portrayed as a man of strong morals and religious conviction. He undergoes a transformation from a loyal servant of the king to a defender of church autonomy, leading to his tragic demise.

Chorus: A group of Canterbury women who provide narration and commentary throughout the play. They symbolize the collective voice of the people, reflecting their fears, hopes, and doubts.

King Henry II: The monarch who clashes with Becket over his newfound allegiance to the church. King Henry struggles with maintaining his authority while managing the influence of the church in his realm.

Four Tempters: Representing various worldly desires, these characters tempt Becket to sway him from his religious path. Their persuasive arguments serve as a reflection of the challenges Becket must overcome.

Four Knights: Loyal subjects of King Henry, these knights carry out the assassination of Becket on the king’s behalf. They symbolize the consequences of standing against established power.

In conclusion, Murder in the Cathedral is a compelling play that delves into the historical events surrounding the assassination of Thomas Becket. Through its poetic dialogue and exploration of themes, it continues to captivate audiences and provoke thought. Despite some critiques, this work remains a noteworthy contribution to literature, showcasing Eliot’s talent as a playwright and poet.

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