Murder in the Cathedral


T. S. Eliot

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Murder in the Cathedral Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of T. S. Eliot

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, T.S. Eliot grew up to become arguably the most prominent poet and literary critic in the nineteenth-century English-speaking world. Known widely for such poems as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Waste Land,” and “The Hollow Men,” Eliot was a pioneer of the Modernist movement in literature. He received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Harvard University in 1909, and, after a period of travel and attending graduate school at Harvard, Eliot settled in England in 1914. There, he encountered the poetry of fellow literary giant Ezra Pound, who encouraged and helped him to publish his poems in several magazines. By 1930, Eliot had achieved his own fame as a poetic genius, and would remain in the literary spotlight for the following thirty years, writing poems as well as seven works for the theatre, and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. He died on January 4, 1965, in London.
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Historical Context of Murder in the Cathedral

The play is based on the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by four knights under King Henry II in Canterbury, England, 1170. At the time, the Catholic Church was experiencing significant growth in power in comparison to the English crown, and Becket rigorously defended its rights as a political institution, refusing to budge under Henry II’s authority. A substantial feud began between the two almost immediately after Becket was (warily, since he knew his policies as Archbishop would clash with Henry’s views about the relation between church and state) appointed to the position of Chancellor by Henry. The feud started when Becket tried to take back land that Henry had possessed from the public of Canterbury—and evolved to disputes over whether the Church or the Crown had the power to punish clergymen found guilty of committing crimes, and over money that Becket refused to hand over to the King. Eventually, Beckett left England discreetly and headed to France, only to return seven years later, when the play begins. Becket and Henry had reached an agreement, and they were to resume a peaceful relationship—however, Becket and the Pope disagreed with the King’s decision to have his son coronated by a church other than Canterbury Cathedral (which was the traditional venue for coronation). The Pope therefore suspended the bishops responsible for the coronation—these are the bishops the knights in the play order Becket to absolve.

Other Books Related to Murder in the Cathedral

Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone, which is about a young woman disobeying her uncle the king in order to obey the rules of the gods, explores similar themes about the relationship between a spiritual order and a political order, and the relationship between free will and fate. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales tells the story of a group of people who are travelling to Canterbury to visit the Cathedral where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered. And Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Becket is another play about Archbishop Becket’s murder, as is Jean Anouilh’s Becket.
Key Facts about Murder in the Cathedral
  • Full Title: Murder in the Cathedral
  • When Written: 1935
  • Where Written: Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • When Published: 1935
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Drama, Christian Tragedy
  • Setting: Canterbury, England, in December of 1170, when Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury returned after spending seven years in France
  • Climax: The four knights enter the cathedral and murder Becket
  • Antagonist: The four knights who murder Becket are the play’s antagonists; though technically they serve King Henry II, he never actually appears in the play. (Further, it’s never explicitly confirmed that Henry II ordered Becket’s assassination, or whether the knights were acting on their own intentions.)

Extra Credit for Murder in the Cathedral

Big Star. In 1956, T.S. Eliot gave a lecture at the University of Minnesota to an audience of 13,523 people—a crowd so large that the lecture had to be given in a basketball stadium.

Meow. The musical Cats is based on T.S. Eliot’s book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.