Murder in the Cathedral is divided into two parts (both of which are in verse) with a sermon given by the character of Thomas Becket (in prose) between them. The play shows influences of Ancient Greek drama (with its inclusion of a Chorus) and of medieval morality plays in which personifications of vices appear as characters.
A performance of the play was shown on BBC television in 1936, the first year that television was broadcast in the United Kingdom. It was adapted as a black and white British film in 1951. An Italian opera based on the play, Assassinio nella catedrale, with music by Ildebrando Pizzeti, was first performed in 1958.
The play opens on December 2, 1170. The Chorus of women of Canterbury gather at the Cathedral. They lament the difficult lives which they have to lead and have a premonition that something terrible will happen soon. They worry that Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, may soon return from his seven year exile in France, which would anger King Henry II. Three priests also comment that they miss their Archbishop but worry about what would happen if he were to return.
A herald announces that Thomas Becket has returned to England and is on his way to Canterbury. He regrets to say that Becket and the King have not been reconciled and he fears that violence will follow.
The priests and the Chorus talk about how they are certain to suffer when Becket returns. One of the priests tells the Chorus that they should pretend to be happy when Becket comes back to Canterbury. At that moment, Becket arrives unexpectedly. He tells the priest that he is wrong and that the women are right to worry, since nobody knows God’s plans.
Four Tempters appear, one after the other, to tempt Becket. The First Tempter says that Becket should return to the secular life of pleasure that he led as a young man. The Second Tempter tells Becket that he should become Chancellor of England again, saying that he can do more to help the poor in a political position than in a purely religious one. The Third Tempter suggests that Becket form a new government composed of the nation’s barons, allowing him to effectively rule England. Becket finds these temptations easy to resist because they are things which he has already experienced.
The Fourth Tempter’s proposition is quite different. He suggests that Becket should seek to become a martyr. In death, his cause would be recognized as just and his enemies would be condemned. His name would long outlast those of the men that killed him. Becket recognizes this as the worst temptation of all, that of “doing the right thing for the wrong reason”. He says that he will not try to become a martyr but will accept his fate, whatever it is.
On Christmas Day 1170, Becket delivers a sermon in Canterbury Cathedral. He says that Christians should both mourn and celebrate the death of Jesus. They should mourn the existence of the sinful world that made Jesus’ death necessary and celebrate being able to transcend that world as a result of that sacrifice. He says that, similarly, the sacrifices of true martyrs should be both mourned and celebrated. According to Becket, true martyrs submit completely to the will of God and find freedom in doing so.
Becket concludes the sermon by telling his congregation that he believes he may not live long enough to speak to them again.
The second part of the play opens in the Archbishop’s Hall on December 29, 1170. The priests comment that all the days since Christmas have been dedicated to various saints but that December 29 is just an ordinary day.
Four gruff knights arrive and demand to see Becket. When he arrives, they insult him and accuse him of treason. The priests protect Becket, in spite of the threats which the knights make towards them. Becket comforts the Chorus, telling them that although life will become more difficult for them after his murder, they will also find comfort in the fact that they witnessed his martyrdom.
The knights return. Becket refuses to escape. Although the Cathedral doors are initially locked and bolted, the priests agree to open the doors and let the knights come in. The knights demand that Becket lift the excommunications which he has placed on England’s nobles. Becket refuses and is killed. While he is being murdered, the Chorus comment on how much more difficult their lives will be.
After Becket’s murder, the four knights address the audience directly. The language that they use in their speeches is much more straightforward and much more similar to every day modern English than that used in the rest of the play. The First Knight acknowledges that he is not good at speaking and introduces the other three instead. The Second Knight says that they were only following King Henry’s orders when they killed Becket. The Third Knight says that Becket was a traitor and deserved to die. The Fourth Knight says that Becket wanted to become a martyr, consequently, his death was not murder but suicide.
The three priests express their concern about how the world will change after Becket’s death. The Chorus say that they will try to live up to the example which Becket set and ask him and God for mercy and forgiveness.
One of the most unique features of ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ is that it is in verse. Eliot produced a verse drama in an era when such an attempt was highly uncommon.
The play makes use of the chorus just like the Greek dramas. The chorus plays a very significant part in the play by providing necessary links and information the audience. It also guides the emotions of the audience by changing the tone of its own voice as per the situation.
Eliot seems to be following the popular beliefs regarding Beckett’s story without introducing many emotions on his own. Even the debate about whether the King actually ordered Beckett’s assassination or not has been presented in the usual doubtful manner in the play.