One of T.S. Eliot’s masterpieces, Murder in the Cathedral is a drama of the return to England and martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket. From the historical events, Eliot creates a piece of writing that is simultaneously, and in equal proportions, a prayer, a study in the psychology of both the murderer and the martyr, and a meditation upon the proper relationship between church and state. The result is one of the greatest works of 20th century literature in the English language.
Eliot begins shortly before Thomas’s return to Canterbury following seven years in France. A feeling of trepidation is already in the air. The players, like the audience, know already what is going to happen.
Upon Thomas’s return, he is haunted by four successive temptations. The first three are the obvious temptations of anyone in his position: power, ease, and treason. The fourth, however, comes as a surprise even to Thomas: the temptation to do the right thing, to embrace martyrdom, but for the wrong reasons. Thomas conquers each temptation in turn. The “Interlude,” a homily by Thomas upon martyrdom, finally shows that he has conquered the fourth temptation.
After the murder of Thomas, the knights who have killed him each in turn step forward to justify themselves to the audience. Just as Thomas’s homily revealed the mind of the martyr, the mind of the murderer is revealed in the defenses given by each knight for his actions. The audience is asked to decide who was in the right, if anyone. Perhaps, Eliot seems to indicate, both Henry and Thomas, as well as the knights, were doing their duty, however much the particular duty of each might bring them into conflict with the other.
The book concludes, as it ought, with a prayer to God as well as to St. Thomas, the martyr, not with an invocation of the king. “Blessed Thomas, pray for us.”