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Thomas Stearns Eliot

Image: Lal C. A. March 2006

Thomas Becket (1118-70)

Henry II appointed him his chancellor in 1154.

In 1161was made the archbishop of Canterbury, the most important ecclesiastical officer in England. Much to Henrys surprise and annoyance, Thomas resigned the chancellorship in 1162. The rift grew and in 1164 Becket fled to France to rally support from the Catholic French and also sought an audience with the Pope.

After being officially (although not personally) reconciled with the King, Becket returned to England in 1170.

On 29 December murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four of Henry's Knights.

Three years later, he was canonized. Henry observed penance to placate the people.

The allure of such a story for a dramatist is obvious

The great conflict between human and divine power, [archetypical conflict between good and evil] a strong central character and a number of complicated spiritual issues involved in the martyrdom excellent themes for a verse play.

In 1935, T. S. Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral for that year's Canterbury Festival.

This work revitalized the verse drama that had hardly been used with significant acclaim since Shakespeare.

Treatment of the story

Based on the eye-witness accounts of monks, especially Edward Grim, who himself was injured during the attack.

Eliot has left out sensational details. MC not a chronicle-play of Shakespearean kind that tells an intricate story full of incidents, but a sparer drama, more in the manner of Aeschylus, about a great cause in which incident and idiosyncrasy lose their importance. (Coghill)

Position in Eliots Oeuvre

From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) and The Waste Land (1922) which pose a problem in the purpose of life with vague suggestions of a solution, through The Hollow Men (1925) Ash Wednesday (1980) and Samson Agonistes (1926/7), where these issues reappear in different forms, the solution assumes a solid form in The Rock (1934) and MC, in the shape of Christianity.

These plays trace Eliots journey from a sad, liberal agnosticism, towards the positive grief-in-joy and joyin-grief attitude of Christianity. A whole I planned Prufrock is a man whose lack of confidence prevents him from revealing to a woman the depth of his love for her. He is troubled by a hundred indecisions/And For a hundred visions and revisions," since he knows that he will change his mind a hundred times before doing anything so brave. He asks, "Do I dare Disturb the universe," since he is "not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be." Becket is a man who does "dare Disturb the universe"

The Plot

Greek Elements

Chrous (Shows marked development)

2. 3.

Tragic Hero Hubris (?)

Unities (Times, place and action)


Conflict (Inner, but projected thru the tempters)


Poetic Structure

Morality Play Elements


About situation and more story


Characters not rounded, but personifications of abstract ideas tempters


Flesh vs. Spirit

Obedience. [Closely allied with the theme of flesh vs. spirit is that of obedience, an issue of the play that is seen in Thomas's unflagging devotion to God.]

Contemporary Relevance
In the context of the growing Fascism in Europe what could be the contemporary relevance of the play?

Image: Lal C. A. March 2006