Theme of martyrdom in Murder in the Cathedral

Theme of martyrdom in Murder in the Cathedral

T. S. Eliot writes in Poetry and Drama:

“I did not want to write a chronicle of 12th-century politics; nor did I want to tamper unscrupulously with the meager records. I wanted to concentrate on death and martyrdom”

The theme of martyrdom, in terms of dramatic action, is: “A man comes from foreseeing that he will be killed, and he is killed”. There is no emphasis on history or on the human tragedy of Becket, the play dramatizes the experience of martyrdom. Hence, the inner drama in the Murder in the Cathedral lies in the character of Becket and its development towards martyrdom. Becket returns to England to seek martyrdom. But he is a proud man. The idea of his pride may have come from Morality.

The four temptations presented to Archbishop Thomas in the first Act of Murder in the Cathedral are each an offer of an alternative self-identity to that which results in Christian struggling martyrdom. The temptations – his ‘strife with shadows’ – do not come from some point external to him, but already subsist within him: they are already features of his character that accept he may choose to embrace or reject as his own truth. In the example of Thomas’s rejection of them, Eliot signals that the meaning of Christian identity is not found in capitulating to these temptations. To put it positively, the Christian self is the one who resists these temptations even to the end.

The First Tempter reminds Thomas of his past life of comfort and ease under the protection of his king. The Second Tempter and the Third Tempter share a concern for the assertion of the self through power. For his part, the Second Tempter offers a collaboration with the King with the entirely reasonable argument that the church and the governor and people will benefit from the arrangement. The Third Tempter likewise appeals to a view of the good, by encouraging Thomas to join with him in rebellious political action in the name of the true identity of the nation. The Fourth Tempter is the most surprising, bringing the glory and honor of martyrdom itself as the substance of his temptation. In human terms, he offers Thomas the possibility of narrating himself into the honor of great renown. The Tempter sets before him the promise of heavenly rewards as an enticement to martyrdom, knowing of course that acceptance of the offer will corrupt the idea of martyrdom itself.

Thus, by making the central part of his first act the scene of Thomas’s temptation, followed by his narrating of the self-recognized truth of martyrdom, Eliot successfully sets the theme of martyrdom. Moreover, his giving of sermons immediately after the temptation parallels him with Christ’s sermon on the Mount immediately after His temptation. As Becket elucidates in the sermon: “A Christian martyrdom is never an accident, for saints are not made by accident” nor is a Christian martyrdom the will of a man to become a saint. “A martyrdom is always the design of God,” to lead men back to God’s ways. It is the ability of man to surrender his will to God, to desire nothing for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr. Becket’s purification comes in the temptation episode, and the sermon states what Becket has gained- knowledge of true martyrdom. 

In the cathedral, the Priests tell each other to bar the door and that they will be “safe.” The Priests here are like the Chorus in their opening speech in the play when they hide in the Cathedral for physical safety. What they have to learn is that physical safety has no meaning unless they are protected by God. This is the reason why Becket insists on the doors of the Church being left open. Nevill Coghill gives a valid justification of Becket’s surrender before the Knights and death: “…it is a human action that partakes of both good and evil, as the world judges. To murder a man, not to say an Archbishop, is judged evil by the world, and therefore it would seem wrong for Becket to make such a murder possible by opening the doors. But if martyrdom is “made by the design of God,” it is an act made beyond Time and bears an eternal witness. It is absolute and cannot be judged relatively. Becket’s will is only involved in that he has identified it with or surrendered it to, the will of God.”

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