Murder in the Cathedral: Essay Q&A
1. Compare the parallels between the presentation of Becket's return to Canterbury in Part I and the accounts of Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem in the New Testament. What do these parallels suggest about Becket's significance within the play?
Becket's return to Canterbury is clearly framed in terms that allude to Jesus' "Palm Sunday" entrance into Jerusalem. For example, the Messenger's description of how the crowds are greeting the returning Becket-"with scenes of frenzied enthusiasm, / Lining the road and throwing down their capes, / Strewing the way with leaves and late flowers of the season"-is surely intended to remind Eliot's audience of Jesus' so-called "triumphal entry" into the holy city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: "Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields" (Mark 11:8; see also parallels in Matthew 21 and Luke 19). In some Christian liturgical traditions, Palm Sunday is also called "Passion Sunday," to indicate that it is the beginning of Jesus' sufferings. Thus, Eliot strongly associates Becket's "triumphal entry" into Canterbury with Jesus' "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem-a seeming victory procession that leads to martyrdom and death, and can therefore be considered victorious only in hindsight, through the eyes of faith, on the far side of resurrection. (A further allusion to the Palm Sunday narrative, incidentally, occurs when the second priest tells the women to keep silent, earning himself a rebuke from Becket. In a similar way, Jesus rebuked the religious authorities of his day for ordering the crowds who welcomed him to keep silence: Jesus told them, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out" [Luke 19:40].) Overall, these parallels are meant to establish Becket as a salvific Christ-figure whose death will bring the blessing of transcendence to humanity.
2. How are the temptations faced by Becket in Part I echoed in the speeches of justification offered by the knights in Part II? What significance do these echoes possess?
William de Traci calls himself one of "four plain Englishmen" (p. 79), which echoes the Third Tempter's protestation, "I am a rough straightforward Englishman" (p. 31). Hugh de Morville represents the temptation of collapsing all authority into a central focal point: he explains that King Henry made Becket chancellor to create "a union of spiritual and temporal administration, under the central government" (p. 81). De Morville's argument thus echoes the Second Tempter's appeal to Thomas to renounce his archbishopric and to regain the chancellorship "[f]or the power and the glory" (p. 29). Brito, who says Becket sought a martyr's death because of his ego, also resurrects the Fourth Tempter's attempt to seduce Becket to martyrdom by appealing to his pride. Readers should note a difference amongst the similarities, however: whereas Becket was being tempted in Part I, the audience is being tempted in Part II! The doubling of these roles is one more way for Eliot to make clear all human beings' complicity in rejecting transcendence by refusing to submit to the spiritual order.
3. The Catholic Encyclopedia offers additional insight into the three liturgical feast days that preceded Becket's death. It states that the dates of these festivals "have nothing to do with the chronological order of the event; the feast is kept within the octave [eight-day period] of Christmas because the Holy Innocents gave their life for the newborn Saviour. Stephen the first martyr (martyr by will, love, and blood), John, the Disciple of Love (martyr by will and love), and these first flowers of the Church (martyrs by blood alone) accompany the Holy Child Jesus entering this world on Christmas day"
(http:www.newadvent.org/cathen/07419a.htm). How does this information inform your understanding of Becket's Christmas sermon in the Interlude?
As Eliot wrote in Becket's Christmas sermon, mourning and rejoicing (note the repeated refrain, "Rejoice we all, keeping holy day") commingle at Christmas; birth and death jostle for worshipers' attention; martyrdom-witness-takes precedence in the church's marking of the time. Understanding the significance of these three festival days increases our appreciation of the martyr's purpose, as exemplified in Becket's own death: to make transcendence available to human
4. When the Four Knights mock Becket before slaying him, they chant a sing-song like piece of doggerel which compares Becket to Daniel. Research the biblical character of Daniel. How does a greater understanding of Daniel lead to a greater understanding of Becket, as Eliot presents him?
The titular hero of the biblical book of Daniel, who remains steadfast to God (in the context of Eliot's dichotomy, read: spiritual) in the face of pressures to assimilate to a pagan (read: temporal) culture. Ezekiel 14:14, 20 also praise Daniel as an exemplar of righteousness, even as Becket is as he faces death. Ironically, of course, Daniel, according to the Bible, was delivered from the lions' den as a consequence of his faithfulness to God. No such physical deliverance awaits Becket. The archbishop does, however, seem to mirror the attitude of Daniel's three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who, faced with death in a fiery furnace for refusing to worship an idol, declared, "If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us. let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods." (Daniel 3:17-18). Becket, like Daniel's friends, is ready to die for God (the spiritual): "Do with me as you will" (p. 76). Thus, the knights' invocation of Daniel at this point in the text creates a wealth of allusive value that illuminates Eliot's themes.
5. How does the Chorus' final speech before Becket's death sum up and illuminate the themes of the play to that point?
The impending moment of Becket's martyrdom takes on an existential significance as the Chorus reflects upon what awaits humanity after death. The Chorus identifies Death as "God's silent servant," and acknowledges, in orthodox fashion, that Judgment awaits mortals "behind the face of Death." The Chorus then, however, strikes a decidedly unorthodox tone in affirming that "behind Judgment [is] the Void, more horrid than active shapes of hell" (p. 71). In terms that again echo Eliot's earlier work, The Waste Land, the Chorus describes this Void as: "Emptiness, absence, separation from God; / The horror of the effortless journey, to the empty land / Which is no land, only emptiness, absence, the Void." (p. 71). Ironically, however, it is this very "Void," free of distraction, with no opportunity to avoid a truthful gazing upon oneself, that Becket is embracing in choosing to die a martyr's death. This speech of the Chorus thus seems to emphasize, once more, a distinction in Eliot's mind between men like Becket-the "saints" who cause the wheel of God's pattern in time to turn-and ordinary mortals, who are content-even though they deny it!-to merely exist, to be only and always in Advent, only and always waiting, only and always "living and partly living." Truly, we cannot bear too much reality! We do not wish to stare into the void, the abyss. But Eliot, like other existential thinkers of the twentieth century, understand that peering into that abyss is fundamentally a salvific, liberating act, signified in Eliot's play by the "saving" consequences of Becket's death for a world that would rather not be saved.