Murder in the Cathedral: The Constant Battle between the Two Antipodes

The conflict between a man and religion that has been brewing in the XII century has been perfectly described by T. S. Eliot in his poem Murder in the Cathedral. Despite the fact that religion is not the thing that one can free speculate on, Eliot has managed to do it. What he tried to depict was the strong opposition that had shot through the XII century and continued spreading its metastases further on in the times of the Inquisition.

The plot that the poem is based on being rather simple, devoted to the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, it suddenly sharpens the problem of the relationship between a man and the spiritual part of his life.

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The idea that the author was trying to convey was the suffering of a man torn by the contradictions stirred in his soul. Killed by the order of his royal majesty King Henry II, the one who used to be a friend to the poor martyr, Becket was trying to hush down the thirst for power that the king was possessed with, but the sin turned out to be stronger than the king himself. The peculiar fact is that the play contained so debating issues that some of its parts had to be cut out, otherwise the censure would not bear it.

Reflecting on the conflict described by Eliot, I would like to say that it had three major ideas underlying it.

The first one was the conflict between the church and the state. Although it might seem not quite applicable for the modern days, it still has the point. The church is a body of certain power, and the clash of the interests between then church, the government and the citizen is inevitable, the rest is a matter of time.

“When writing Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot concentrated on death and martyrdom.” (Kaltenbacher 7). That was the XII century understanding of the role of the church, the martyrdom that would end in the heavenly bliss.

The nature of the conflict is triple in this case, as Eliot presumes. He sees it as the conflict between a man and the church as the earthy representative of God, the relationship between a man and God, and the relations between a man and his inner personality, where everything that we hide from the rest of the world is stored.

What lies on the surface is the contradictions between citizen, the church and the monarchy. Eliot depicts it very brightly, speaking through the eyewitness of the tragic incident in the church, Edward Grim. In fact, he was the man who originally described the accident.

Murder in the Cathedral is self-consciously tragic theate3r, exploring the conflict between the values of the world – as represented by the murderous knights and King Henry II – and the values of the spirit. (Detweiler 134)

What Detweiler wants to emphasize is the actual idea of the Biblical innocent man with his virtues as the biggest riches one could veer possess and the vulgar striving for money, which was the trait of character of King Henry II. However, such idea, very obvious and understood, seems to be the basis, but not the core of the poem.

The head idea of Eliot’s work still seems to me more like a problem of a man trying to understand himself, not the relationship between a man and the clergy. Although the latter were of a great influence nine hundred years ago, to the writer of the XX century they would seem pathetic in their trying to behold the power over the people belonging to their confession.

There is certainly something more than meets the eye.

The modern way to consider the play presumes that it is the struggle of God and devil within a man that Eliot was trying to show the reader. As the Tempters come to the archbishop trying to tempt him into a sin and make him sell his own soul for the treasures they promise to give him, they laugh at the spiritual glory that Becket is striving for and are convincing him that the earthly paradise they promise is much better than the doubtful bliss that might await for him somewhere in the end of his life. Yet Becket keeps his word and does not roll into the abyss of sin.

I would like you to pay attention to the following passage:

Think of glory after death

When King is dead there’s another king

And one more king is another reign

King is forgotten, when another shall come

Saint and martyr rule from the tomb. (Eliot 47)

This is the very fight between the evil and the good that hides in each man’s soul that Eliot was describing. The need to stay clear and the desire to make the things be as a man wants them to are incompatible, and the archbishop fully realized it. He could have saved his own life and retreat from his moral and spiritual position, but as a martyr he chose the death as the most honest and decent way out. The issue of the poem is the battle within the archbishop’s soul, while the conflict with the king serves as a kind of setting for the poem.

As Tiwari claims, “Becket exemplifies the true meaning of humility, sacrifice and sufferings in his life and martyrdom.” (90). Further on. Tiwari develops this idea into the parallel to the sufferings of Christ that Eliot might have meant.

There was the only battle in the play that mattered, which was the battle between the devil and God in a human’s soul. Unfortunately, we are composed of both. It is us to decide who will win in this battle.

Works Cited

Detweiler, Robert, David Jasper. Religion and Literature: a Reader. London: Westminster John Knox Press. 200. Print.

Eliot, Thomas S. Murder in the Cathedral. New York, NY: Hardcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1964. Print.

Kaltenbacher, Cornelia. The Function of the Chorus in T. S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”. Germany: GRIN GmbH, 2004. Print.

Tiwari Shubha, Subha Tiwari and Tiwari Maneesha. The Plays of T. S. Eliot.

New York, NY: Atlantic Publishing and Distributions, 2007. Print.


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