Murder in the Cathedral

Thomas Becket Character Analysis

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket was exiled from England by King Henry II due to political conflicts which occurred between them seven years before the beginning of the play. Having spent those years in France, Becket has decided to return to England and take up his old position in the Church. Symbolically hinted at by the fact that he’s the only character given a proper name in the play (even Henry II is just referred to as “the king”), Becket is the central pivot point of Murder in the Cathedral, meaning that every other character can be defined in terms of how they relate to Becket’s character and outlook. Becket’s staunch devotion to God and fate over anything that occurs in the everyday world of human social and political affairs makes him into something of a black hole around which the otherwise ordinary humans surrounding him revolve. The priests, while religious, have an idea of fate that conflicts with Becket’s decision to become a martyr, though they eventually adopt his outlook. The Chorus, however, totally refrains from having a properly religious acceptance of fate and of Becket’s martyrdom, for they fear that their lives will fall into spiritual shambles if Becket dies. The tempters—with their various temptations and arguments—are all defined by how they think Becket should balance and navigate between his religious and political powers. Mirroring the second tempter’s position, the king is totally opposed to Becket’s devotion to God, as Henry II only cares about his own, political power—over and above that of God. The knights follow in the king’s footsteps, murdering Becket because they think his devotion to God is too radical and politically rebellious. Following through with his martyrdom, Becket shuns the world of partial, human values and desires, sending a tectonic shock into the lives around him.

Thomas Becket Quotes in Murder in the Cathedral

The Murder in the Cathedral quotes below are all either spoken by Thomas Becket or refer to Thomas Becket. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harcourt edition of Murder in the Cathedral published in 1964.
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:

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They know and do not know,
what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that acting is suffering
And suffering is action. Neither does the agent suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the action
And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker), The Chorus
Related Symbols: The Wheel
Page Number: 21-2
Explanation and Analysis:

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We do not know very much of the future
Except that from generation to generation
The same things happen again and again.
Men learn little from others’ experience.
But in the life of one man, never
The same time returns. Sever
The cord, shed the scale. Only
The fool, fixed in his folly, may think
He can turn the wheel on which he turns.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker), First Tempter
Related Symbols: The Wheel
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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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:

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Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason . . .
What yet remains to show you of my history
Will seem to most of you at best futility,
Senseless self-slaughter of a lunatic,
Arrogant passion of a fanatic.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker)
Related Symbols: Martyrdom
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

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Interlude Quotes

[On Christmas] we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross. Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overborne by mourning, or mourning will be chased out by joy; so it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker)
Page Number: 47-8
Explanation and Analysis:

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Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples ‘My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.’ Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the King, the house-holder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. If you ask that, remember then that He said also, ‘Not as the world gives, give I unto you.’ So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker)
Related Symbols: Martyrdom
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

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A Christian martyrdom is never an accident. Saints are not made by accident . . . A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker)
Related Symbols: Martyrdom
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

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Part 2 Quotes

It is not I who insult the King. . .
It is not against me, Becket, that you strive.
It is not Becket who pronounces doom,
But the Law of Christ’s Church, the judgement of Rome.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker), First Knight (Reginald Fitz Urse), Second Knight (William de Traci), Third Knight (Hugh de Melville), Fourth Knight (Richard Brito), King Henry II
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent
I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker), The Priests
Page Number: 73-4
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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We did not wish anything to happen.
We understood the private catastrophe,
The personal loss, the general misery,
Living and partly living;
The terror by night that ends in daily action,
The terror by day that ends in sleep;
But the talk in the market-place, the hand on the broom,
The nighttime heaping of the ashes,
The fuel laid on the fire at daybreak,
These acts marked a limit to our suffering.
Every horror had its definition,
Every sorrow had a kind of end:
In life there is not time to grieve long.
But this, this is out of life, this is out of time,
An instant eternity of evil and wrong.

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Thomas Becket
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

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No. For the Church is stronger for this action,
Triumphant in adversity. It is fortified
By persecution: supreme, so long as men will die for it.
Go, weak sad men, lost erring souls, homeless in earth or heaven.

Related Characters: The Priests (speaker), Thomas Becket
Related Symbols: Martyrdom
Page Number: 84-5
Explanation and Analysis:

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Thomas Becket Character Timeline in Murder in the Cathedral

The timeline below shows where the character Thomas Becket appears in Murder in the Cathedral. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power Theme Icon
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
The play begins in the Archbishop’s Hall of Canterbury Cathedral; the date is December 29, 1170. The members of the Chorus—made... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
...Chorus’s opening monologue, three priests enter the scene and discuss a feud which occurred between Archbishop Becket and the king some time ago, before Becket’s departure. The second priest wonders what... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
After the priests’ brief discussion, a herald enters the scene, and announces that Becket, the Archbishop, is in England. The first priest asks if the feud between Becket and... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power Theme Icon
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
The priests respond to the herald’s message. The first priest says he fears for the Archbishop and the Church, adding that he always thought Becket was out of place in the... (full context)
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
After the priests’ discussion about Becket’s return to Canterbury, the Chorus weighs in. They say they want the Archbishop to go... (full context)
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
Becket enters the scene, and tells the second priest that the Chorus is not being foolish,... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
The second priest apologizes for the poor welcome Becket received, as Becket walked in on the Chorus saying they didn’t want him to return.... (full context)
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
Becket informs the priests that he evaded being killed on the way to Canterbury, because “rebellious... (full context)
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The first tempter, a former friend of both Becket and the king, enters the scene. He says he hopes that, despite the seriousness of... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power Theme Icon
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Temptation Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
When Becket concedes that the first tempter is discussing a past worth remembering, the tempter says he’s... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power Theme Icon
Temptation Theme Icon
The first tempter gives up trying to convince Becket, saying he’ll leave the Archbishop to the pleasures of his “higher vices,” mocking Becket’s religion.... (full context)
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power Theme Icon
Temptation Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
The second tempter enters the scene, and reminds Becket of how they met many years ago. He says that Becket made a mistake when... (full context)
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Temptation Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
The third tempter appears, and introduces himself to Becket as a “country-keeping lord” and a “rough straightforward Englishman,” and not a trifler or politician.... (full context)
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Temptation Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
Becket rejects the third tempter’s proposal, saying that he’d never betray a king. The tempter leaves,... (full context)
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Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Temptation Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
The fourth tempter enters the scene, and commends the strength of Becket’s will in rejecting the other tempters’ proposals. He says that kingly rule, and all other... (full context)
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Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
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Ultimately, the fourth tempter tells Becket to follow the path of martyrdom—to make himself “the lowest / On earth, to be... (full context)
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Temptation Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
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Ashamed that this fourth tempter has revealed his innermost desires, Becket wonders if it is even possible to escape damnation on account of pride (such as... (full context)
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Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Temptation Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
...give their opinion about the nature of humankind, the priests all plead, in unison, for Becket to not enter a fight he can’t win—to not “fight the intractable tide” or “sail... (full context)
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Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Temptation Theme Icon
The Chorus addresses their Lord, Becket, and says that they are not ignorant or idealistic; they say they know what to... (full context)
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Temptation Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
The first part of the play ends with a monologue by Becket. He’s now certain of his fated path, and proclaims that he will never again feel... (full context)
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Temptation Theme Icon
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Becket goes on to recount how, in his youth, he sought pleasure in all the wrong,... (full context)
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Becket concludes by acknowledging that most people will view his commitment to God and martyrdom as... (full context)
Interlude
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In the interlude, Becket gives a sermon on Christmas morning at Canterbury Cathedral, six days after he’s arrived in... (full context)
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Becket then asks his audience to consider what ‘peace’ means. He draws a contrast between a... (full context)
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Becket turns the congregation’s attention to the concept of martyrdom, noting that, the day after Christmas,... (full context)
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Becket ends his sermon by telling his congregation that he doesn’t think he will ever preach... (full context)
Part 2
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...priest that they have urgent business: by the king’s command, they must speak with the Archbishop. The priest invites them to have dinner with the Archbishop before they attend to more... (full context)
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The knights accuse Becket of betraying the king. They say that, as Archbishop, his duty is to carry out... (full context)
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Becket says that the knights’ charges are untrue, and claims to be the king’s most loyal... (full context)
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The knights then begin to elaborate their charges against Becket. The first knight accuses Becket of fleeing England to stir up trouble in France by... (full context)
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Becket replies by saying it was never his wish to dishonor the king; he says he... (full context)
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The first knight accepts Becket’s explanation, but says that, regardless, the king’s orders are that Becket and his servants depart... (full context)
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...world around them, claiming that their senses have been enhanced by the looming threat of Becket’s death. They tell Becket that they have consented to the unfolding of fate, realizing that... (full context)
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The four knights arrive at the Archbishop’s Hall, and start to break in. The priests barricade the doors and try to force... (full context)
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The Chorus then laments that Becket’s death will bring them face to face with a spiritual reality which he had previously... (full context)
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After the Chorus speaks, the scene changes to the Cathedral, where Becket is with the priests. The priests bar the door, but Becket commands them to throw... (full context)
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Becket orders them again to unbar the door, and accuses the priests of thinking about this... (full context)
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...and the knights enter, a bit tipsy from drinking. The priests still try to force Becket into hiding, and the knights command that Becket show himself. The Archbishop appears, and declares... (full context)
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...their suffering was limited and clearly defined before, but now the despair they feel after Becket’s death seems out of life, out of time, and is “an instant eternity of evil... (full context)
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After the Chorus speaks, the knights, having killed Becket, turn to address the audience. The first knight, Reginald Fitz Urse, says that the other... (full context)
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The third knight, Hugh de Morville, argues that Becket utterly lied to the king and betrayed the power he was given. The king had... (full context)
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The fourth knight, Richard Brito, argues that Becket was fundamentally responsible for his own death. He says that Becket essentially went mad and... (full context)
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...and the priests speak. The first priest says that the Church has been damaged by Becket’s death, while the third priest claims that the Church has actually grown stronger because of... (full context)
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...thought and in action. Further, they thank God for making Canterbury into holy ground through Becket’s martyrdom. The Chorus then asks God for forgiveness, admitting their fear of the surrender which... (full context)