Murder in the Cathedral

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Themes and Colors
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Temptation Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Murder in the Cathedral, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon

Both political and religious loyalty (loyalty to God) are examined in the play, as well as the way those loyalties do or don’t inspire guilt. When Becket found himself caught between serving his king as chancellor or serving the Church, he chose the Church. He also refused to acknowledge the prince’s coronation. In the play, Becket defends his actions towards the king by claiming that it was not he but the Pope (and therefore God, since the Pope was believed to be infallibly speaking for God) who has made these decisions, but the furious king does not accept this reasoning. By extension, it’s clear that the king does not see Becket’s loyalty to God as being able to coexist with his political loyalty to the king. The king thinks solely in terms of political loyalty, and can only view Becket as a traitor. The king does not, for example, see Becket’s political refusal to obey as something that might help the king to better align himself with the Church or with God—he’s focused solely on his own political power.

The king’s knights, meanwhile, also describe their actions in terms of loyalty. When they turn to the audience to justify their murder of Becket, the knights say that they were simply following the orders of the king. They did not want to murder him, but were politically obligated to—it was an act of loyalty to the king. They justify the murder by offering political arguments about Becket’s renunciation of the chancellorship, as well as his abandonment of the political policies he formerly held (Becket had begun espousing the belief that there was a spiritual order higher than the king’s rule).

It’s therefore tempting to see the knights’ loyalty and Becket’s loyalty as similar. After all, the knights simply followed the order of their king (seemingly, though this is never explicitly stated), while Becket simply followed the dictates of his Pope and his religion. The distinction between Becket’s loyalty and the knights’ loyalty blurs in this sense: both are loyal to a power that demands total submission. However, the play does present a different, and very clear, distinction between Becket’s loyalty and that of the knights: the degree to which both parties feel guilt over their actions. Becket is confident in his loyalty to God – and dissension from his king – and feels no moral qualms over it. The knights, on the other hand, do feel such qualms. They even admit that, to ease their conscience, they had to drink alcohol before acting. They feel guilty, and offer justifications and explanations to the audience in order to assuage their own sense of guilt, and, perhaps, to try to save themselves from being seen as villains.

Through these very different responses – the guiltlessness of Becket and guiltiness of the knights – the play suggests that loyalty is only as worthy as the thing to which it is given, and, perhaps, that one can only find peace by giving one’s loyalty, one’s self, to something that does not sting one’s conscience. The play ultimately seems to suggest that Becket’s loyalty is the most worthwhile—and that only God can honor the radical submission involved in both his and the knights’ loyalty.

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Loyalty and Guilt ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Loyalty and Guilt appears in each Part of Murder in the Cathedral. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Loyalty and Guilt Quotes in Murder in the Cathedral

Below you will find the important quotes in Murder in the Cathedral related to the theme of Loyalty and Guilt.
Part 1 Quotes

We do not wish anything to happen.
Seven years we have lived quietly,
Succeeded in avoiding notice,
Living and partly living.
There have been oppression and luxury,
There have been poverty and licence,
There has been minor injustice.
Yet we have gone on living,
Living and partly living. . .
But now a great fear is upon us . . .
. . .We
Are afraid in a fear which we cannot know, which we cannot face, which none understands,
And our hearts are torn from us, our brains unskinned like the layers of an onion, our selves are lost
In a final fear which none understands. O Thomas Archbishop,
O Thomas our Lord, leave us and leave us be, in our humble and tarnished frame of existence . . .

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Thomas Becket
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

The Chorus has just heard about Thomas Becket’s arrival in Canterbury. They are wary about his return—they’ve spent seven years suffering, but it’s been livable, manageable. Yes, there have been difficulties, but nothing they couldn’t face. Becket’s presence in Canterbury might spell a much graver doom that they couldn’t handle—the possibility of Becket’s death. If the Chorus lost their archbishop, they’d be thrown into a spiritual despair that would overwhelm them. Even though he’s been away for seven years, the sheer fact that Becket existed in the world gave them comfort, and buffered them from having to be purely independent in their spiritual lives. Becket’s erasure from the world threatens to bring them into a horrifying relationship with fate and God—one they feel, as common folk, unprepared to face. They’d therefore rather Becket stay away and alive, so they can at least retain the hope of being spiritually guided.


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Temporal power, to build a good world
To keep order, as the world knows order.
Those who put their faith in worldly order
Not controlled by the order of God,
In confident ignorance, but arrest disorder,
Make it fast, breed fatal disease,
Degrade what they exalt. Power with the King—
I was the King, his arm, his better reason.
But what was once exaltation
Would now be only mean descent.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker), Second Tempter, King Henry II
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is Becket’s reply to the second tempter, who insists that spiritual power means nothing compared to worldly/temporal political power—the kind of power Becket had when he was Chancellor.

Becket strictly disagrees, calling temporal power a “punier power” than his spiritual command as an Archbishop. Further, he says that worldly power does nothing but “breed fatal disease,” lacking any true connection with the higher, divine dimension of God and fate. Those who invest themselves in temporal power and shirk a genuine relationship with God only cause harm, and degrade the crown they praise and exalt by severing its office from any relation to the spiritual.

Is there no way, in my soul’s sickness,
Does not lead to damnation in pride?
I well know that these temptations
Mean present vanity and future torment.
Can sinful pride be driven out
Only by more sinful? Can I neither act nor suffer
Without perdition?

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker)
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

Becket speaks these lines after talking with the fourth tempter, who tells Becket he should pursue martyrdom in order to gain spiritual glory.

This proposal repulses Becket, for it reveals that he’s not as personally distanced from pursuing martyrdom as he thought, and as he wants to be. The fourth tempter reveals in Becket his own lust and self-serving desire to die in the name of God: to achieve the heavenly glory of sainthood, but not actually sacrifice himself wholly—including his desires and concern for himself—in order to totally submit to, and become an instrument of, God’s will.

Becket’s realization about his desire also exposes the problematic paradox behind free will and sacrifice, or action and suffering. If martyrdom is something the martyr actively wants to perform, then how can it not involve a bit of pride or self-serving desire? And then how can one avoid damnation if martyrdom is in the name of God? Becket eventually resolves this paradox, for he says that the moment he committed himself to martyrdom occurred “out of time,” in an eternal instant—which could be interpreted as an ideal juncture where one is united with and taken over by the will of God.

Part 2 Quotes

I have smelt them, the death-bringers; now is too late
For action, too soon for contrition.
Nothing is possible but the shamed swoon
Of those consenting to the last humiliation.
I have consented, Lord Archbishop, have consented.
Am torn away, subdued, violated,
United to the spiritual flesh of nature,
Mastered by the animal powers of spirit,
Dominated by the lust of self-demolition,
By the final utter uttermost death of spirit,
By the final ecstasy of waste and shame,
O Lord Archbishop, O Thomas Archbishop, forgive us, forgive us, pray for us that we may pray for you, out of our shame.

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Thomas Becket
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

This moment marks a pivotal point in the spiritual evolution of the Chorus. They’re in the Archbishop’s Hall with Becket and the priests, before the priests carry the Archbishop off to the Cathedral.

The Chorus has finally accepted their role in the pattern of fate, and their God-designed relation to Becket’s martyrdom. The thought of Becket’s imminent death has affected their senses and connection to the natural world—they have a heightened perception of their relationship with the environment around them, to the extent that they come to understand that fate is woven through the external world and into their own bodies and minds. They come to a pinnacle of spiritual cognition where they must consent to their position in the grand scheme of God’s will, to the unfolding of destiny. They therefore accept that Becket’s martyrdom is a necessary part of fate, and ask him to forgive them for their previous ignorance and desire for him to stay away from Canterbury.

It is the just man who
Like a bold lion, should be without fear.
I am here.
No traitor to the King. I am a priest,
A Christian, saved by the blood of Christ,
Ready to suffer with my blood.
This is the sign of the Church always,
The sign of blood. Blood for blood.
His blood given to buy my life,
My blood given to pay for His death,
My death for his life.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker)
Related Symbols: Martyrdom
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

Thomas Becket speaks these lines just before the knights murder him. He defends his innocence with regard to the knights’ charges that he’s betrayed the king, appealing to—yet again—a higher, spiritual order beyond the dimension of human thought and events. He has not betrayed the king—he’s submitted himself to a divine process of fate whose unfolding cannot be explained by reducing it to human considerations of betrayal and politics. Becket sees himself as giving his life for Christ, paying for His death—the death which bought Becket his own existence. Wholly immersed in his faith and fated relation to God, he approaches death without fear.