Places: Murder in the Cathedral

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1935

First produced: 1935

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: 1170

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Canterbury Cathedral

*Canterbury Murder in the CathedralCathedral. Church in southeast England that was the seat of the archbishop of Canterbury and the center of Roman Catholic power in England during the period in which T. S. Eliot’s play is set. In the play, the cathedral quickly becomes a place of temptation. Each of four tempters offers Becket a course of action supposedly intended to save his life. In his resistance the cathedral is shown to be a place of anxiety and confrontation. However, in the process it also becomes a place of strength. Becket’s rejection of the tempters’ invitations underscores an important Eliot theme: Religion’s place in the world is not to secure for its adherents automatic safety, but faith gives direction for decisive action.

In the second part of the play the theme of the cathedral as a place of violence is intensified. Becket’s priests try to protect him from the murderous knights. His instructions to them to open the doors and not make the cathedral into a fortress constitutes a key Eliot theme about the role of place. Even after violence enters the house of prayer, Becket will not allow the barring of the doors. The unbarred doors allow the knights to enter and kill him, but his martyrdom shows that the cathedral is not simply a place of sanctuary, but also a place where one may suffer for the good of all.

After the assassination, each of the four knights attempts to justify the murder of Thomas Becket. Their rationalizations make the cathedral a place where, finally, the audience must bear the burden of the world’s false attempts at justification of its power against faith in God.

BibliographyAckroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. A very readable biography providing useful and interesting details about the making of this play, its critical reception, and its importance to Eliot’s rising career as a playwright. Ackroyd finds the play a success and discusses it in connection with other Eliot works.Adair, Patricia M. “Mr. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” Cambridge Journal 4 (November, 1950): 83-95. A full and penetrating study that regards the play not as a tragedy but as a drama paralleling the setting of Canterbury Cathedral in pointing people to God.Bloom, Harold, ed. T. S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. A collection of eleven important essays by prominent literary critics such as Helen Gardner, David Ward, and Stephen Spender. Wide range and balance of approaches, along with a useful chronology and bibliography.Clark, David R., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Murder in the Cathedral”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. A collection of fourteen essays by prominent critics such as E. Martin Browne, Louis L. Martz, Grover Smith, William V. Spanos, and David E. Jones. Includes a substantial chronology of the author’s life and a concise bibliography.Smith, Carol H. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice: From “Sweeney Agonistes” to “The Elder Statesman.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. Chapter 3 provides a useful summary of the play’s main features and concludes that the play succeeds on the level of poetic rhythm and imagery. A good introduction to the play.
Categories: Places