The play begins in the Archbishop’s Hall of Canterbury Cathedral; the date is December 29, 1170. The members of the Chorus—made up of common women of Canterbury—are the first to speak. They say that it’s been seven years since Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has left them, and that—despite his kindness as a spiritual leader—it would be best that he not return, though they do not explain why. The Chorus says that they have suffered since he’s left, but that they are nonetheless content if they are left alone, “to their own devices,” and unbothered by the wealthier members of society (barons, merchants, the king) who can lord their power over the Chorus in a coercive fashion.
The Chorus would rather keep to themselves and remain in the state of relative dissatisfaction and suffering they currently face, just because it’s tolerable. They’d rather that Becket stay away from Canterbury, it seems, because his presence in Canterbury would somehow bring about more suffering and pain for them, to an extreme degree which they couldn’t bear to face. The Chorus wants to be left alone to their own ways of dealing with the somewhat hopeless world around them, because so far they’ve been able get by.
Ultimately, the Chorus conveys a sense of powerlessness as they say that they expect some “malady” to fall upon them. They can only wait in anticipation, since destiny is controlled by God, and—as the poor folk of Canterbury—they have no power to change their lives through the world of politics and commerce. They truly are left to themselves—to their own inventiveness and, ultimately, their faith.
The Chorus occupies the lowest position of power in Canterbury society, both spiritually and politically. Spiritually, they are subjects of the Archbishop and look to him for religious guidance. Politically, they are peasants at the hands of those with earthly wealth and power.
After the 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 the Archbishop does now that he’s abroad in France, with the English and the French king being caught up in a political battle of “ceaseless intrigue.” The third priest comments that he sees nothing “conclusive”—nothing effective, dignified, or merited—in “temporal” (everyday and earthly) political (versus religious) government. He adds that the only law which the keepers of temporal power uphold is that of seizing and maintaining a greedy, lustful power.
A clear sense of the divide between worldly/temporal power and spiritual power in the play first appears here. That the third priest sees no purpose in temporal power instantly lets us know that the priests are aligned with Becket’s spiritual cause, and against the political agendas of the king, insofar as they impinge on the Archbishop’s religious authority. The only motivation behind temporal power, for the priests, is greed.
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 the king has been resolved or not—whether Becket comes in war or in peace. The herald replies by saying that Becket’s return, even though it may seem cheerful and potentially peaceful at first, is really just the beginning of more turmoil.
The herald’s message gives some substance to the Chorus’s desire to remain separated from Becket. And now that the priests have explained the feud between Becket and the Archbishop, we ourselves can come to sense the thickness of the tension between the two authorities.
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 world of political power (Becket was formerly both Archbishop and Chancellor). The second priest develops this, saying that, with the spiritual leadership of Becket back in Canterbury, they can feel confident that they will be guided through whatever political problems the king, barons, and landholders may throw at them, and concludes that they therefore have cause to rejoice. The third priest, more philosophically, says that they must “let the wheel turn” for good or bad—they must let the passage of time and the unfolding of fate operate however it will, and with whatever consequences it brings for their lives, since the nature of good and evil cannot be totally comprehended.
The strength of the priests’ faith in the Archbishop becomes amplified here—despite the potential backlash that Becket’s religious agendas in Canterbury may face from the main forces of political power (the king, barons, and landholders), the priests are confident that Becket and God will guide them and the Church effectively through whatever hardships they may face. Further, the third priest’s opinion about the relationship between good and bad, and the passage of time, suggests that he and the other priests feel that, whatever results from the potential conflict between Becket and the king, it will unfold according to God’s plan.
After the priests’ discussion about Becket’s return to Canterbury, the Chorus weighs in. They say they want the Archbishop to go back to France, thinking his presence in Canterbury will spell only doom. “Living and partly living” for seven years, the Chorus describes their time living apart from the Archbishop as troubling, but at least tolerable. But Becket’s return imposes a “great fear” upon them (the possibility of his death—of losing their spiritual leader). They therefore plea that Becket go back to France. The second priest, hearing the Chorus’s reluctance about Becket’s return, condescends to them, calling them “foolish, immodest and babbling women.” He tells them to put aside whatever unmerited, personal fears they have, and give Becket a “hearty welcome.”
Here, the Chorus’s initial desire to remain in their currently disappointing yet tolerable state of existence acquires more meaning. Becket’s return to Canterbury could spell their ruin, and it seems what they truly fear is his death at the hands of the King. The loss of their spiritual leader and guide would bring their currently tolerable level of suffering to something more overwhelming and extreme. The Chorus is therefore opposed to the priests’ view. Further, the priest’condescension towards the Chorus reveals their general disregard for their opinion.
Becket enters the scene, and tells the second priest that the Chorus is not being foolish, but that they “speak better than they know, and beyond your [the second priest’s] understanding.” He then gives a philosophical description of the relationship between acting and suffering, saying that both are interdependent, “fixed / in an eternal action,” and constitute a fundamental pattern to existence. Becket then likens this pattern to a wheel that turns and yet is still at the same time.
The image of the wheel—a metaphor for the passage of time, and the way human action can and cannot change the external world—appears here for the first time. Becket’s insistence that the Chorus is speaking from a place of genuine feeling, and are not the fools the priests make them out to be, underscores that the Chorus, just like everyone else, is caught up in the unfolding of fate, over which they have little control.
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. The second priest regrets that he and the other priests were unable to prepare an adequate welcome for Becket, since he arrived with such short notice, but the Archbishop says he is more than grateful for whatever accommodations the priest will provide, adding that these are small concerns compared to the greater distresses facing Canterbury.
While the priests care about superficial matters regarding Becket’s arrival at Canterbury—such as his accommodations and the way his followers (the Chorus) vocalize their reaction to his return—Becket seems unconcerned. He cares only about the spiritual needs of Canterbury as a whole, and not his material comfort or the fact that the Chorus holds a contrary opinion about his return.
Becket informs the priests that he evaded being killed on the way to Canterbury, because “rebellious bishops” who would have sent spies after him failed to intercept letters he’d sent—letters describing where he’d be going once he left France. In response, the first priest asks Becket if anyone might be following him, and his answer is unusual: Becket describes his enemies like a “hungry hawk” preying on him, but does not make any conclusive statement about whether he feels safe or not. Instead, he says the “end will be simple, sudden,” and “God-given,” though whether he intends this “end” to be the death of his enemies or himself is unclear.
The calmness of Becket’s reply to the first priest’s question reveals his lack of concern about the way the future unfolds. He doesn’t say how he thinks the “end” should occur—whether he outlasts his enemies or they outlast him—rather, he says that the “end” will be wholly given, or determined, by God; he therefore seems to feel that, however the future unfolds, it will have spiritual merit, because it will be the realization of God’s will.
The first tempter, a former friend of both Becket and the king, enters the scene. He says he hopes that, despite the seriousness of Becket’s current situation, Becket will nonetheless excuse him for the cheeriness and comparably trivial nature of the topic he wants to discuss. The tempter tries to get Becket to remember when he and the king were good friends, and says that friendship shouldn’t let itself be undone by the passage of time. He also thinks that Becket should drop his problems with the king, claiming that mending their relationship will have a trickle-down effect on solving the problems of the Church.
The first tempter is just concerned with restoring the happiness and enjoyment of life in Canterbury’s past—he’s not invested in any higher spiritual goals. He thinks that restoring happiness—through the mending of Becket’s relationship with the king—is the sole solution to the problems facing Canterbury. The first tempter seems unwilling to think that happiness should be sacrificed for spiritual progress or any kind of higher ideal.
When Becket concedes that the first tempter is discussing a past worth remembering, the tempter says he’s also talking about the “new season”—about the joys of the incoming spring. But Becket replies that neither he nor anyone else knows about the future, and further, that whatever has happened in the past cannot happen again.
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. Still, he leaves Becket on relatively friendly terms, saying that if Becket will think of him during prayer, he’ll think of Becket “at kissing-time below the stairs.”
By calling them “higher vices,” the first tempter equates Becket’s religious endeavors to merely alternative ways of seeking pleasure. He tries to bring Becket’s sense of spiritual superiority to down to the level of simply desiring happiness.
The second tempter enters the scene, and reminds Becket of how they met many years ago. He says that Becket made a mistake when he resigned from the office of Chancellor, to which Henry II appointed him along with the role of Archbishop. This tempter says that the power of the Chancellor is much greater, and more real, than that of the Archbishop. While the power of the Chancellorship is in the present, he says, the holiness of the Archbishop is “hereafter.” Becket responds by calling the Chancellorship a “punier power” compared to his own as Archbishop, and says that those who have faith in political, worldly orders not controlled by God only “breed fatal disease.” The second tempter leaves, calling Becket a sinner.
The second tempter totally dismisses spiritual power as a valid form of authority that has any effects on the world, claiming that the office of the Chancellorship (a form of worldly or temporal power) holds a more effective power than the Archbishop. This tempter therefore represents an extreme way of thinking about the relation between worldly and spiritual powers. He thinks the spiritual should be totally shunned, whereas the fourth tempter argues for the opposite.
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. He says that country lords like himself are the people who truly know England and its needs. He then starts his proposal to Becket by claiming that, once real friendship ends, it can never be recovered, so there’s no hope for Becket to reconcile with the king. But other “friends,” the tempter says, can be found in Becket’s situation: the country lords like himself—the English barons. He then proposes that Becket help him in a plot to overthrow King Henry II—that Becket procure the Pope’s blessing for a coalition of the country-lord middle class, formed with the aim of ending the king’s “tyrannous jurisdiction.”
The third tempter argues for a total overthrowal of the king—of the prevailing seat of worldly power in England. Yet this tempter’s proposal is by no means motivated by spiritual goals—he simply wants to replace one worldly power with another one (a government ruled by the class of country lords). In this way, his proposal contrasts with the fourth tempter’s, who argues that Becket should shun the worldly for spiritual reasons. Compared to the second tempter, the third tempter has less lust for authoritarian power, and less disdain for the Church; however, he still sees spirituality as coming second to worldly affairs.
Becket rejects the third tempter’s proposal, saying that he’d never betray a king. The tempter leaves, and tells Becket that he hopes the king will one day show more regard for Becket’s loyalty.
Becket’s claim that he’d never double-cross a king reveals his conviction that, despite the political/religious conflicts he’s had with Henry II, he doesn’t feel he’s ever forfeited his loyalty to the crown.
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 political power beneath the king, pales in comparison to spiritual power, and affirms the magnitude of Becket’s power as Archbishop, saying that “the course of temporal power” leads only to destruction, instability, and falsity. He further points out the futility and impermanence of kingly rule, since kings just keep dying and replacing one another, implementing new reigns that will never last. The saint and the martyr, however, rule from the grave, the tempter says—and he asks Becket to think about such glory after death.
The fourth tempter embodies everything against which the second tempter stands, asserting that true power is spiritual, not temporal, in nature. Temporal power, lacking roots in the spiritual dimension, leads only to worldly chaos, and is not eternal. But spiritual power, precisely because it rules from beyond the grave—in the “hereafter,” a trait which the second tempter said made spiritual power useless—is why it’s so powerful: it outlasts the temporal, it outlasts life itself.
Ultimately, the fourth tempter tells Becket to follow the path of martyrdom—to make himself “the lowest / On earth, to be high in heaven.” But Becket is repulsed. He acknowledges that the fourth tempter tempts Becket with his actual, personal desires, while the others have only been concerned with the temporal, worldly order of things—things he actively shuns.
The fourth tempter reveals that Becket is maybe not so personally disinterested in his martyrdom as he may think he is or wants to be. Becket actually is quite invested in his martyrdom in a way that is somewhat selfish at this point in the play; he merely wants the spiritual glory martyrdom affords.
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 his desire for glory and renown because of martyrdom). In response, the tempter repeats the same speech about the relationship between acting and suffering (using the image of the wheel) which Becket gave to the priests before.
After the fourth tempter finishes his proposal, all four tempters, in unison, proclaim that human life “is a cheat and a disappointment,” and that everything, for humankind, is either “unreal or disappointing.” They say that humans only pass from unrealities to further unrealities, “intent / On self-destruction,” and that humankind is the enemy of itself and of its own society.
Based on Becket’s insistence in following his own spiritual path away from their worldly temptations (even the fourth tempter invoked worldly desire), the four tempters all conclude that the whole of humankind seeks destruction (like Becket’s martyrdom) and that the things and ideals it values are always illusory (like Becket’s spiritual fanaticism).
After the tempters 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 the irresistible wind.” They want Becket to hold off on immediately implementing his own religious agenda in Canterbury, and wait for the political conflict bred by his presence to cool down.
The priests want Becket to stay alive, and worry that, by entering into conflict with the king, his life will be threatened. They are therefore opposed to Becket’s spiritual path, which might require that he sacrifice his life for God.
The Chorus addresses their Lord, Becket, and says that they are not ignorant or idealistic; they say they know what to expect and what not to, and that they are intimately familiar with political coercion and personal/physical hardships. Yet God always gave them some hope, they say, whereas now a new fear haunts them—a fear which they cannot avoid. They say that God is leaving them, and beg Becket to save them by saving himself, for if their Archbishop is destroyed, then they will be destroyed themselves.
The utter powerlessness which characterizes the spiritual and political position of the Chorus keeps magnifying. It becomes more and more apparent that Becket truly isn’t safe in Canterbury, and that he’s unwilling to tone down his religious fanaticism. Whereas the Chorus always had a sense of hope in the past, living their disappointing but tolerable existence, now they have none in the face of an overwhelming fear (Becket’s death).
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 temptation in so overwhelming a manner as the fourth tempter’s proposal. The fourth tempter encouraged Becket “to do the right deed for the wrong reason”—to sacrifice himself through martyrdom not for a sheer love of, and faith in, God, but rather a selfish desire for spiritual glory and power.
Becket exudes a new confidence in his fated path after having endured the psychological brunt of the fourth tempter’s proposal—realizing that to only seek martyrdom for spiritual glory is to totally miss the point, which is the sacrifice of oneself for the will of God, to become an instrument of God’s will.
Becket goes on to recount how, in his youth, he sought pleasure in all the wrong, superfluously secular ways, through such means as philosophy, music, and chess. He also reveals that he never wanted to become a servant of God, and says that God’s servants risk committing greater sin and experiencing more sorrow than someone who serves a king.
Here, Becket reveals how he’s evolved spiritually—how he wasn’t always so fervently devout, and invested himself in intellectual pursuits rather than trying to foster a pure faith in God; he also alludes to the fact that, because of the pride potentially involved in being a servant of God, there’s greater risk of damnation.
Becket concludes by acknowledging that most people will view his commitment to God and martyrdom as fanatical, but he nevertheless commits himself to his divine cause, and asks an Angel of God to protect him from getting caught in the human divide between suffering and action.
Becket continues to exude confidence and a purity of faith, refusing to cater to those who would say his spirituality is overzealous. To stick purely in touch with his fate, he must avoid getting caught in the dualistic, worldly view of suffering and action.