Violence and the Sacred: MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL

Violence and the Sacred:

Murder in the Cathedral

Laurence Coupe

The English Review 6, 2 (November 1995), pp. 28-31


Is it possible that, with Murder in the Cathedral, T. S. Eliot achieves the impossible: a perfectly coherent religious play for the twentieth century? Laurence Coupe expresses doubts about the coherence, but still finds the play compelling.


Two years before T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral was staged for the Canterbury Festival of June 1935, he gave a lecture on the Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold. Arnold had proclaimed: ‘No one can deny that it is of advantage to a poet to deal with a beautiful world.’ Eliot disagreed: the task of the poet was ‘to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.’ When, having established his reputation in secular verse, Eliot turned to creating a religious drama, he did not necessarily abandon this threefold principle. Though Murder in the Cathedral is designed to celebrate the ‘glory’ of God and his world, it does so in the context of the ‘boredom’ and the ‘horror’ of human experience.


Greek form, Christian meaning

The first ‘character’ we meet in the play is collective: it is ‘a Chorus of women of Canterbury’. This is a convention borrowed from classical Greek tragedy. The women fulfil the traditional function of reporting events so far:

Seven years and the summer is over,
Seven years since the Archbishop left us,
He who was always kind to his people.

This reportage is, of course, really only a reminder: as with Greek tragedy, the story is already known, and we are starting very near its end. Sophocles is not setting out to surprise his audience by the audacity of his plot with Oedipus Rex; he is retelling and restructuring familiar material. Similarly, Eliot is addressing people who know full well that in 1170, in the very cathedral where they are gathered, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, returned from exile in France after refusing to surrender church authority to state power, only to be murdered by King Henry II’s knights.


In both cases — Sophocles’ and Eliot’s — the fact that there is a chorus with whom to iden­tify and that the outcome is known offers the advantage that the audience is a truly informed one. On the other hand, the suspense we may feel when watching Shakespeare, as an Othello or a Macbeth agonises and blunders his way through his dramatic crisis, is missing. Here there is no significant choice. Oedipus has already married his mother and killed his father when the play begins: all that remains is for him to realise that it is this double error which has brought the plague on Thebes. Thomas has already made the decision to return to England and so to certain death: as he says himself, ‘I have therefore only to make perfect my will.’


But there is one major difference between the two dramas, and that is Eliot’s Christianity. The play is taking place in a church: the Chorus is also a choir; there are three Priests standing by; Thomas will be attacked spiritually by four Tempters before he is attacked physically by four Knights. Moreover, the play incorporates liturgical prayers and chants (Te Deum, Dies Irae etc) and is divided into two by the sermon which Thomas delivers on Christmas Morning. Thus the audience is also a congregation, and what is at issue is not only a reminder of an important story, but a demand for a reaffirmation of faith.


The Chorus acknowledges itself as ‘type of the common man’, of the ‘small folk’ who ‘do not  wish anything to happen’, but it is ‘drawn into’ a larger ‘pattern’ and ‘forced to bear witness’. The demand is for us to make the same commitment. Like the women of Canterbury, we have been content with the ‘boredom’ of existence – ‘living and partly living’ — because, in Thomas’s words, ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’ Now we, must be prepared to face the ‘horror’ that they face when they realise the murder has been committed:

We are soiled by a filth that we cannot clean, united to a supernatural vermin.

It is not we alone, it is not the house, it is not the city that is defiled,

But the world that is wholly foul.

Only then may we appreciate their final praise of God, when they see the world anew, having understood the meaning of martyrdom. Realising that ‘Thy glory is declared even in that which denies thee’ — the very darkness declaring ‘the glory of light’–  they reflect:

They affirm Thee in living; all things affirm Thee in living; the bird in the air, both the hawk and the finch; the beast on the earth, both the wolf and the lamb; the worm in the soil and the worm in the belly.

Blood for blood, death for death

If Murder in the Cathedral is ultimately a Christian ritual, and concerns the victory of the spirit, it gains its powerful effect from being rooted in the imagery of the earth. The opening of Part II is typical in its emphasis on the importance of the seasonal cycle and the desperate need for rebirth. The chorus cries out from the depths of the winter:

What sign of the spring of the year?
Only the death of the old; not a stir, not a shoot, not a breath.
Do the days begin to lengthen?
Longer and shorter the day, shorter and colder the night.


Christmas is, of course, also the pagan mid­winter solstice, and so it may seem fitting that the collective mind should turn to thoughts of ritual renewal:

And war among men defiles this world, but death in the Lord renews it,

And the world must be cleaned in the winter, or we shall have only

A sour spring, a parched summer, an empty harvest.

Thus we have to view Thomas simultaneously in two perspectives: as Christian martyr and as primitive sacrificial victim.


Eliot, long before he had become a Christian, had carefully studied the work of the Cambridge anthropologist Sir James Frazer. Frazer had argued that the origins of religion lay in fertility sacrifice, but unlike him Eliot thought that this conjecture, far from invalidating Christianity, gave it a greater credibility. It thereby had real foundations in archaic thinking. Hence the women of Canterbury fuse the two languages of fertility and faith:

We thank Thee for Thy mercies of blood, for Thy redemption by blood.

For the blood of Thy martyrs and saints

Shall enrich the earth, shall create the holy places.

For wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has given his blood for the blood of Christ,

There is holy ground, and the sanctity shall not depart from it.

Thomas is in their eyes at once a god of vegetation, dying in winter to be reborn in the spring, and a Christian martyr who repeats the absolute atonement, the ultimate ‘Passion’ on the Cross, of Jesus Christ. He restores the crops even as he redeems the people’s souls.


No blasphemy is intended by Eliot. Indeed, Thomas explicitly argues, in his Christmas Morning sermon, that the essence of Christianity is sacrifice: ‘Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr [St Stephen] follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs.’ As he approaches his own martyrdom, he states the case more vividly in verse:

This is the sign of the Church always,
The sign of blood. Blood for blood.
His blood is given to buy my life,
My blood given to pay for his death,
My death for his death.

The martyr is one who ‘bears witness’ to the Lord’s sacrifice by making his own. All he asks is that we — as represented by the Chorus — are prepared in turn to ‘bear witness’ to him.

Eliot’s ritual

The ambiguity of Murder in the Cathedral — that it ends in death but simultaneously ends in triumph — may be seen as reflecting the ambiguity of Christianity itself. Certainly Eliot is working on the premise that only Christ’s violent death can give life to humanity. We might want to label the play ‘Christian tragedy’, but it is noteworthy that Eliot himself does not do so. Nor, I think, will that often confusing term ‘tragi-comedy’ serve us: Waiting for Godot is now the twentieth-century model of that genre; and in Godot the two structures effectively cancel each other out, the ‘boredom’ over­whelming both ‘horror’ and ‘glory’.


It is tempting, then, to rest content with some such neutral term as ‘religious drama’; but even that raises its own difficulties. We know from Eliot’s own published speculations about the writing of plays that he did not approve of drama which explicitly addressed contemporary social issues, such as communism and fascism, unemployment and war. But did he succeed in producing a work which is exclusively religious? Is the ritual completely self-contained, and convincing as such?

Sacrifice and society

If the main interest of the plot is the martyr’s preparation for death and the people’s gradual understanding of the reasons for his sacrifice, then an important subsidiary interest is the conflict between church and state. Indeed, there would be no Murder in the Cathedral if there had not been that specific historical struggle between the King and his ex-Chancellor in the late twelfth century. Despite the fact that Eliot begins his plot right near the end of the story, he is very careful to get all the background details correct — as for instance in the speeches of the Tempters and the Knights. But more gen­erally the play also acknowledges a social con­text both deeper and wider: one of ‘boredom’ and ‘horror’ but precious little ‘glory’. The Chorus reflects:

There have been oppression and luxury,
There have been poverty and licence,
There has been minor injustice …
Several girls have disappeared
Unaccountably …

This is a world in which everything connects: not only as part of Thomas’s larger cosmic ‘pattern’ – ‘that the wheel may turn and still / Be forever still’ — but as part of a callous political order. The women of Canterbury are victims of habitual violence — exploitation, injustice, abuse — as well as witnesses of exceptional violence.


After the Knights kill Thomas they rationalise their action by appealing to the audience’s common sense: there must be ‘a just subordination of the pretensions of the Church to the welfare of the State’. That being the case, Thomas may be accused of provoking the attack, and our verdict must be ‘Suicide while of Unsound Mind’. This is the very language of the society depicted above by the women of Canterbury. On the one hand we are meant to note the irony: in invoking worldly justice to vindicate their sin they serve as mere agents of the divine plan, since there would be no martyrdom unless there were misguided people prepared to find reasons for murdering Thomas. On the other hand, we may doubt whether the play’s triumphant closure signifies the end of the systematic aggression represented by the Knights, it being the basis of the oppressive regime which they serve.


There are, then, two types of violence in the play. There is the endemic brutality of the social order, and there is the decisive act of martyrdom. The latter is meant to release us from the former. The critic Rene Girard would say that the distinction is between ‘impure’ and ‘pure’ violence. Discussing Oedipus Rex in his thought-provoking book Violence and the Sacred (1977), he argues that the ‘content’ which Sophocles inherits is an archaic story about identifying the one man who is responsible for the plague — that is, all the ills of the community — and then removing him. Oedipus is, as we say, the ‘scapegoat’. But the actual tragedy which Sophocles produces is less clear-cut: the impression we get is of a world where everybody is fighting everyone else, and in which Oedipus is not really so exceptional. Oedipus Rex enacts the tension between the desire to go back to one moment of ‘pure’ violence which will solve all our troubles, and the acknowledgement that ‘impure’ violence persists. But what, in this light, may we conclude about Eliot’s drama?

An end to violence?

The paradox of Thomas’s death, in Eliot’s version, is that, as murdered, he dies a criminal, a traitor, a madman; but as martyred, he dies a saint, a saviour, a witness to Christ. To the Knights he is a political embarrassment; to Christians everywhere, from the twelfth to the twentieth century, he represents ‘the Law of God above the Law of Man’. As the Third Priest puts it, on the very day of the death:

Even now, in sordid particulars
The eternal design may appear.

‘Impure’, everyday violence turns, miraculously, into ‘pure’, redemptive violence.


Thus we have to see Thomas preparing him­self for this moment, when sainthood emerges from ‘sordid particulars’. He has to be seen to be ritually tempted, four times — even over­coming the last and most grievous temptation, to ‘do the right thing’ (that is, die) for ‘the wrong reason’ (that is, spiritual pride). He has to be seen to acquire an understanding which takes him beyond the expediency of the Priests, who think that even at the last moment, as the Knights approach, they can bar the cathedral doors and prevent the murder:

It is out of time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that my decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent.

It is by separating himself from the business of not only the state but also the church (as a worldly institution), and steeling himself for sacrifice, that Thomas can become the martyr of Canterbury and saviour of the ‘small folk’. Only then, when ‘boredom’ has turned to ‘horror’, may the ‘glory’ be glimpsed.


But doubts remain. Perhaps they can be clarified by pointing out that the Christianity of Eliot’s play is a very narrow, morbid set of beliefs. It assumes that Christ’s crucifixion was a blood sacrifice. It assumes that only through violent death could humanity be saved. It assumes that that is what God, as angry Father, demanded. But there is another Christianity, recognised by (amongst others) Rene Girard. In this light, the message of Jesus — as opposed to the doctrine of St Paul – is all about an end to the ‘sacrificial’ view of the world. The salvation offered by Jesus comes through general love – a change of heart represented by the Parables and the Sermon on the Mount – not a specific act of violence. Faith centres on Resurrection as a symbol of a new way of living, not Crucifixion and Resurrection as sacrifice and atonement. In this light, we could say that Murder in the Cathedral bears witness to a death-centred doctrine — what we might call a ‘theology of the Cross’ — which is certainly recognisable as Christianity but which is, strictly speaking, a distortion of the spiritual revolution — ‘the kingdom of God’– initiated by the central character of the Gospels.


It is significant that Thomas in his sermon, in offering a hint of what is to come, says: ‘It is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last.’ Sacrifice begets sacrifice. Blood will have blood. It is one thing to acknowledge that for most Christians the possession of faith means being prepared to die for it; it is another to centre Christianity itself on ritual murder. For in the latter case, which I would say is Eliot’s case, there would seem to be no end to the ‘horror’ of violence, since the sacrifice must always be repeated in order to purify the world of the kind of savagery endured by the women of Canterbury.


If I am concluding, then, that Murder in the Cathedral is a play flawed, not by the fact of death but by the dogma of death, then I am also saying that that is what is interesting about it. The impoverished doctrinal theme and the powerful dramatic form work in a strangely productive tension. The resulting experience should provoke an immediate response and merit serious reflection. Christians and non-­Christians alike may feel grateful for that.

Laurence Coupe