Murder in the Cathedral: Character Profiles

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Character Profiles

The Chorus:  an unspecified number of Canterbury's women, is a corporate character serving the same purposes as does the chorus in Greek drama: to develop and, more importantly, to comment on the action of the play. The women's initial speech fairly defines their dramaturgic role: "We are forced to bear witness." And yet this chorus, like its ancient Greek predecessors, is no mere, dispassionate, objective "eyewitness"; rather, it is a witness bearing testimony to truth-almost as in a legal proceeding, but that analogy fails to capture the nature of the testimony the chorus offers. In commenting upon the action of Thomas Becket's murder, the women are voicing insights into, reflections on, and conclusions about time, destiny, and life and death. In the end, they emerge as representatives of ordinary people-such as those who make up the audience of the play, or its readership-people who, mired in and having settled for an existence of "living and partly living," are unable to greet transcendence when it is offered to them. As they state in the play's final moments, not everyone can bear the "loneliness. surrender. deprivation" necessary to become a saint. Not all can be saints-but all can pray for their intercession.
Thomas Becket:  is the Archbishop of Canterbury, former Chancellor to King Henry II, now estranged from the monarch because he insists upon the right of the Church to rule in spiritual matters-a rule that, in practice, has ramifications for how the king ought to rule in temporal matters. Unlike the Chorus, Becket is able to stare into the existential abyss-that "Void" behind death and judgment, mentioned in Part II, that is "more horrid than active shapes of hell." Becket is often accused of pride in the play, but he is actually humble in submitting himself completely to the will of God as he comprehends it. His death offers a glimpse of how transcendence can be achieved: the only question that remains is whether the rest of humanity is able to trace the same path, to "give [its] life / To the Law of God above the Law of Man."
The Four Tempters: present Becket, in Part I of the drama, with various ways of avoiding his impending death as a martyr. Their temptations correlate, to one degree or another, with the justifications of Becket's assassination offered to the audience by The Four Knights at the end of the play. In a prefatory note to the play's third edition (1937), Eliot indicated that the roles of the Tempters had been intended to be doubled-that is, played by the same actors-as the roles of the Knights, thus underscoring the connection between the two quartets in an even stronger fashion.
The Three Priests:  serve the (admittedly little) dramatic action of Eliot's play, particularly in Part II, when they urge Becket to bar the doors of the Cathedral against the knights-although they characterize them as savage beasts-who seek his life. They could thus be seen as representing the temporal order: indeed, Becket at one point accuses them of thinking only as the world does-"You argue by results, as this world does." On the other hand, the Priests also are capable of offering insight into the spiritual order. For example, the Third Priest affirms the Church's endurance in the face of world built on the ruins of the presumed absence of God; and earlier, he offers a key interpretive insight by stating, "Even now, in sordid particulars / The eternal design may appear." Like so many of us, then, the priests have one foot, so to speak, in the spiritual and the other in the temporal; and they struggle to balance the two orders as best they can, as do we all. Unfortunately, according to the argument of Eliot's drama, there can ultimately be no balancing: peace-that is to say, transcendence-is to be found only in the complete submission to God's design, God's pattern, God's wheel of providence. Mortals, say both Jesus and Eliot, cannot serve two masters-and so the Priests are fundamentally impotent, unable to do anything but to pray to God with heavy reliance upon the intercession of Saint Becket, as they, in their own way but like the Chorus, go on "living and partly living."

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