on November 10, 2001
This 1935 play is a gem in English drama.
First, the tone, the style, the poetry are purely shakespearian. It gives the play a power it would otherwise never have. The biblical inspiration is not at all clear or direct. There are four tempters and temptations whereas Jesus only had three temptations and one tempter.
The play does not only recall the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. It shows he probably sinned, committed the sin of pride or vanity, though with the best intention : to establish the church as the supreme ruler. Yet this event is also the first fight between the English crown and the church, a fight that will culminate under Henry VIII with the creation of the Church of England.
The play is also a clear argumentation in favor of that extreme act for several reasons. One, sympathy for the underdog is not justice. Two, the killers were absolutely disinterested and were to be banished after the act. Three, this murder was necessary to strengthen the King's power, hence the country. Four, Thomas was a « monster of egotism » verging into mania and he committed « suicide while of unsound mind ».
But the play is a lot wider than that. It defends the simple people who suffer all the time. It defends those who possess some fraction of truth, for which it is worth dying if necessary. It advocates the most total and radical freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom to defend one's ideas to the bitter and bloody end that society will necessarily impose.
Finally it shows that England has three levels of power : the King, the barons and the church, and one level of constant fear and suffering, the people, the labourers. Here the church is curbed to the King's power. Later on the King's power will be curbed to the barons' power with John Landless, and that will be the beginning of parliamentary power, of democracy. Thomas Becket refuses to go that way, hence slowing down history by strengthening the King only and leading England into centuries of strife among barons and between two families to control the throne as the only source and center of power. Parliamentarism will only succeed fully in the seventeenth century. Thomas Becket's choice could have been different, from a political point of view that he refuses from the very start.
Was it a sacrifice for nothing ? We can ask the question because the people will go on suffering for ever and ever, no matter what, in this vision of history.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
on November 21, 2000
T. S. Eliot's short play, Murder in the Cathedral, was originally written for the Canterbury festival and tells the story of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett (1118-70) by Henry II's henchmen. It is essentially an extended lyrical consideration of the proper residence of temporal and spiritual power, of the obligations of religious believers to the commands of the State, and of the possibility that piety can be selfish unto sin.
Beckett is one of the more interesting characters from history. Rising from a lowly birth in the Cheapside section of London, largely thanks to the patronage of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1154 he became both archdeacon of Canterbury and Henry's chancellor. Theobald expected him to defend the prerogatives of the Church, but instead he became fast friends with Henry, partook of a sybaritic lifestyle, and extended the power of the State at the expense of the Church. So when Theobald was succeeded by Beckett, Henry expected to have a compliant ally running the Church, but instead Beckett adopted an ascetic lifestyle and became a fearsome defender of the rights of the Church. After dividing on many minor issues, matters came to a head when Henry tried exerting the authority of Crown courts to punish clerics who had been convicted by ecclesiastical courts. Henry determined to reign him in, put Beckett on trial for misappropriating funds while serving as Chancellor, and Beckett was forced to flee to France.
The play opens as Beckett returns to Canterbury in December of 1170, after seven years in exile. Four Tempters approach him, separately, and offer him reasons why he should cease to resist Henry. The first Tempter offers the prospect of physical safety if he will go along to get along :
The safest beast is not the one that roars most loud, This was not the way of the King our master! You were not used to be so hard upon sinners When they were your friends. Be easy, man! The easy man lives to eat the best dinners. Take a friend's advice. Leave well alone, Or your goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone.
The second offers worldly power, riches and fame in the service of the King :
King commands. Chancellor richly rules, This is a sentence not taught in schools. To set down the great, protect the poor, Beneath the throne of God can man do more? Disarm the ruffian, strengthen the laws, Rule for the good of the better cause, Dispensing justice make all even, Is thrive on earth, and perhaps in heaven.
The third offers him an alliance with the barons and the opportunity to work against the King :
For a powerful party Which has turned its eyes in your direction-- To gain from you, your Lordship asks. For us, Church favour would be an advantage, Blessing of Pope powerful protection In the fight for liberty. You, my Lord, In being with us, would fight a good stroke At once, for England and for Rome, Ending the tyrannous jurisdiction Of king's court over bishop's court, Of king's court over baron's court.
The final Tempter, who may be the Devil himself, offers Beckett the chance to supplant the King, but with a caveat :
Fare forward to the end. all other ways are closed to you Except the way already chosen. But what is pleasure, kingly rule, Or rule of men beneath a king, With craft in corners, stealthy stratagem, To general grasp of spiritual power? Man oppressed by sin, since Adam fell-- You hold the keys of heaven and hell. Power to bind and loose : bind, Thomas, bin, King and bishop under your heel. King, emperor, bishop, baron, king : Uncertain mastery of melting armies, War, plague, and revolution, New conspiracies, broken pacts; To be master or servant within an hour, This is the course of temporal power. The Old King shall know it, when at last breath, No sons, no empire, he bites broken teeth. You hold the skein : wind, Thomas, wind The thread of eternal life and death. You hold this power, hold it.
Supreme, in this land?
Supreme, but for one.
And so Beckett resists this blandishment just as he has the others, but then the fourth Tempter cannily tempts him with his own dream, the desire for martyrdom :
What can compare with glory of Saints Dwelling forever in presence of God? What earthly glory, of king or emperor, what earthly pride, that is not poverty Compared with richness of heavenly grandeur? Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest On earth, to be high in heaven. And see far off below you, where the gulf is fixed, Your persecutors, in timeless torment, Parched passion, beyond expiation.
Here Thomas Beckett realizes the peril of his own soul :
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain: Temptation shall not come in this kind again. The last temptation is the greatest treason To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
If he selfishly seeks martyrdom out of a personal desire for immortality, rather than selflessly accepting the risk of death while defending what he believes is right, then he will commit treason against the very Lord he is supposedly serving.
In Part Two of the play Beckett is confronted and murdered by Four Knights, acting at the behest, explicit or otherwise, of Henry. Beckett had further antagonized Henry, upon his return, by opposing the coronation of Henry's son. This prompted the King to his infamous utterance : "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" On December 29, 1170, four knights of his court assassinated Beckett inside the Canterbury cathedral, turning an already heinous act into a cause celebre throughout Christendom. Eliot uses this section of the play to explore the possibility that Beckett was actually wrong in his argument with Henry.
In their initial confrontation the Knights are quite worked up, but Beckett answers reasonably :
THE THREE KNIGHTS :
You are the Archbishop in revolt against the King; in rebellion to the King and the law of the land; You are the Archbishop who was made by the King; whom he set in your place to carry out his command. You are his servant, his tool, and his jack, You wore his favors on your back, You had your honours all from his hand; from him you had the power, the seal and the ring. This is the man who was the tradesman's son : the back- stairs brat who was born in Cheapside; This is the creature that crawled upon the King; swollen with blood and swollen with pride. Creeping out of the London dirt, Crawling up like a louse on your shirt, The man who cheated, swindled, lied; broke his oath and betrayed his King.
This is not true. Both before and after I received the ring I have been a loyal subject to the King. Saving my order, I am at his command, As his most faithful vassal in the land.
But is that "Saving my order" which sticks in the craw of royalists, the idea that Beckett owes a higher duty to the Church, on some things, than to the Crown. Just as the Knights are about to strike him down they are interrupted by some priests and Beckett has time to prepare himself for the now inevitable end, though the priests urge him to hide :
PRIESTS (Severally) :
My Lord you must not stop here. To the minster. Through the cloister. No time to waste. They are com- ing back, armed. To the altar, to the altar.
All my life they have been coming, these feet. All my life I have waited. Death will come only when I am worthy, And if I am worthy, there is no danger. I have therefore only to make perfect my will.
Beckett can now sense that he is approaching the proper attitude of selflessness, that he is truly accepting martyrdom in defense of the ideas and ideals of the Church, rather than selfishly seeking martyrdom for personal reasons of fame and glory. So when the Knights return and the priests propose barring the doors, he says :
Unbar the doors! throw open the doors! I will not have the house of prayer, the church of Christ, The sanctuary, turned into a fortress. The Church shall protect her own, in her own way, not As oak and stone; stone and oak decay, Give no stay, but the Church shall endure. The church shall be open, even to our enemies. Open the door!
Indeed, so long as the Church stood for a higher set of ideals, separate from petty political concerns, it did endure and served a vital function in society. This endurance depended on the willingness of men like Beckett to sacrifice their all for these ideals, eschewing political power and wealth and running the risk of offending the temporal powers.
Eliot, however, does not leave it at that. He also allows the murd