The second part of the play starts in the Archbishop’s Hall, on December 29th, 1170. The Chorus begins by lamenting the fact that their suffering seems to be never-ending, and there are very few signs of hope. They say that peace in the world is uncertain, unless humankind remains connected with the peace of God, and also that human warfare defiles the world, while “death in the Lord renews” the world. They end by saying they are still waiting for change, but that “time is short” while “waiting is long.”
By insisting that humankind must remain connected to God in order to have some certainty about the existence of peace in the world, the Chorus invokes the worldly/spiritual distinction Becket discussed in his sermon. They reveal their faith in God by saying that spiritual death (sacrifice of their pride to their faith) “renews” the world, and that this is the only real source of peace.
The four knights enter the scene, and tell the first 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 serious matters, but the knights insist that they do their business with Becket immediately. Becket then enters the scene, and welcomes the knights, saying to the priests that moments which we foresee can arrive at unexpected times. He tells the priests that on his desk they will find his papers and documents signed and in order. The knights tell the priests to go away so that they can speak with Becket alone.
When Becket tells the priests, out of the blue, that they can find his papers on his desk, we can tell that Becket is fully prepared for either his arrest or his murder by the knights. He’s left behind all the important paperwork that the priests will need to access when he’s gone in order to, presumably, continue to run the Cathedral. His comment about the unexpectedness of predicted moments also hints at his anticipation that this could very well be the moment of his martyrdom.
The knights accuse Becket of betraying the king. They say that, as Archbishop, his duty is to carry out the orders of the king, and that he is fundamentally a servant of the king. But Becket, they say, has cheated the king and lied to him, overstepping the bounds of his authority.
The strong alliance between the knights and the king is revealed here. Like Becket serves the Pope, they serve the king before anyone else, and they believe that Becket has disrespected the more superior power of the crown.
Becket says that the knights’ charges are untrue, and claims to be the king’s most loyal and faithful subject in the land. He then asks what the real business is which the knights said they had, or if they just came to scold him. They admit that they have something to say, and Becket responds that their message should be announced in public since it was ordered by the king. He says that if they make any charges, he will refute them publicly. The knights then try to attack Becket, but the priests and attendants return before they can do it privately.
Becket is not intimidated by the knights, and goes so far as to tell them how they should do their job—if they make charges, they should be made publicly. He also unflinchingly asserts his confidence by claiming he will definitely refute any charges they make, without even knowing what they are yet. The knights are clearly nervous about attacking Becket, and don’t quite know how to coordinate their attack at first.
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 soiling Henry II’s reputation in the eyes of the French king and the Pope. The second knight adds that the king, out of charity, offered clemency despite all of this, and the fourth knight says that Becket showed his “gratitude” only with further dissent, by refusing to acknowledge the legality of the coronation of Henry’s son.
The knights all see Becket as a traitor to the crown who had demonstrated absolutely no gratitude for what they perceive to by the king’s kindness in dealing with his religious fanaticism. They also think Becket masterminded the soiling of the king’s reputation, and not that the French king and the Pope were equally, if not more involved.
Becket replies by saying it was never his wish to dishonor the king; he says he admires the king and the role of the crown, and that he was only ever following the orders of the Pope—orders he does not have the power to change.
Becket disowns any responsibility for the king’s lowered status—and even goes so far to say that he never intended it, even though he blatantly executed the orders of the Pope. Instead, he paints himself as an instrument of the Pope.
The first knight accepts Becket’s explanation, but says that, regardless, the king’s orders are that Becket and his servants depart from England. Becket rejects this, saying that he will never again be separated from his congregation. The first knight then says that Becket is insulting the king by refusing his command, but Becket claims he’s not the one personally insulting the king—it’s rather a power higher than himself and the king: the Law of Christ’s Church and the judgment of Rome. Becket says that if the knights kill him, he’ll rise from his tomb and submit his cause before God’s throne. Before they leave, the knights threaten to kill the priests and attendants if Becket is not at the Cathedral when they return.
Becket’s total submission to the Pope—and therefore to God, since the Pope was viewed as God’s mouthpiece—is another instance where we see how he views his own will as being subsumed in a higher power, in the divine will of God. He views his whole being as the executor of this higher law, and therefore denies the first knight’s accusation that he, personally, is responsible for effects his actions have had on the king. Even though he performed them (like denying the prince’s coronation), they were not sourced in his own, human will.
After the knights exit, the Chorus gives a long account about how they’ve sensed death in the natural 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 its forces are beyond their control. They therefore consent to Becket’s martyrdom, and ask him to forgive their prior ignorance and desire for him to stay out of England.
The Chorus has undergone a substantial transformation—they now have sensed that they are woven into the fabric of fate along with Becket and his imminent martyrdom, and consent to their involvement. They submit themselves to fate, even though for them, it spells a grave despair—the despair that in the play’s beginning they were worried about falling into.
The four knights arrive at the Archbishop’s Hall, and start to break in. The priests barricade the doors and try to force Becket into hiding, but Becket resists; he says that all his life he has been waiting for this moment. The priests ask Becket what would become of them if he died, but he has no answer—he just says that the outcome is “another theme” to be unfolded in time’s patterning, and that the only way he can defend God’s Law is to “meet death gladly.” Disregarding Becket’s command, the priests drag him off to hide him from the knights.
The priests are still radically opposed to Becket’s martyrdom, fearful of losing him as the leader of Canterbury Cathedral. Becket cannot give them any guidance about their lives after his death, so he just appeals to fate—to the working out of their lives in time. The priests won’t accept this, however; they refuse to submit to the vision of fate which their leader professes. In a way, then, they are even more “tempting” than the tempters themselves, as the priests actually force Becket to seek safety.
The Chorus then laments that Becket’s death will bring them face to face with a spiritual reality which he had previously helped with to deal with and, to an extent, diverted them from. The Chorus fears that their souls will be unmasked, nothing preventing the “soul from seeing itself, foully united forever, nothing with nothing.” They pray to God to help them face Becket’s death.
Becket’s authority as a spiritual leader has always, whether he was present in Canterbury or not, given the Chorus a sense of protection from the power of God and fate which they dread. Now, however, they’ll be forced to be their own spiritual leaders.
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 the doors open, saying that the church should stay open, even to its enemies. The priests argue, however, that the knights are not like ordinary men; rather, they’re beasts with no respect for the sanctuary, and just like the doors would be barred against the lion or the wolf, so they should be barred against these knights.
The priests continue to resist giving in to Becket’s martyrdom. They go against everything for which Becket stands, and refuse to conceive of the church as an open space that even enemies have the right to enter. They refuse to see the cathedral as a spiritual entity that is open to fate, but instead think of it as a worldly stronghold to keep out anything that might pose a challenge to it.
Becket orders them again to unbar the door, and accuses the priests of thinking about this situation in too worldly a manner, shirking a more divine view of the relationship between good and evil. He then says that his decision to commit himself to his martyrdom is something that happened outside of time, and not in the worldly order of events. He concludes that the only legitimate way to conquer his enemy is by suffering in the name of the Cross, and again orders the priests to open the doors.
By claiming that his decision to commit to his martyrdom occurred outside of time, Becket hints at a resolution of the paradox between freely submitting oneself to fate and being designed by God to be a martyr—that the very instance when he officially merged with God’s will, realizing his fate to become a martyr, actually happened outside the bounds of ordinary human time.
The doors are opened, 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 he is ready to give his blood to pay for the death of Christ, to give his own life for His. The knights tell Becket to absolve everyone he’s excommunicated, resign his powers, give the king back all the money he’s taken, and become obedient to the crown again. In response, Becket again affirms his readiness to die; the knights all shout at him, calling Becket a traitor, and then kill him.
Becket faces his death unflinchingly and with the utmost confidence that he is following the will of God. By refusing to absolve anyone or resign his position, he dies never giving the king, knights, or bishops who are against him the satisfaction of feeling totally justified in their actions. His belief in God comes before every worldly, political commitment he’s ever had, and he dies with it being the absolute priority of his being.
The Chorus cries out that the air and the sky be cleaned, and say that they wanted to avoid this outcome—they didn’t want anything to happen, but just to continue their old way of life. They say that 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 and wrong.”
The overwhelming suffering that the Chorus was wary of at the beginning of the play has been fully unleashed upon their lives by fate. Whereas their suffering before was at least definable and had a sense of limit, now it is infinite and endless, stretching out beyond the limits of normal time.
After the Chorus speaks, the knights, having killed Becket, turn to address the audience. The first knight, Reginald Fitz Urse, says that the other knights are going to give arguments in defense of their decision to murder Becket, and that he’ll introduce each one. The second knight, William de Traci, says that the knights had absolutely no incentive to kill Becket in terms of personal gain. Murdering Becket was simply part of their duty to the king; the knights even had to work themselves up to the task, drinking to ease their consciences. De Traci’s main point is that the audience should realize the knights were totally disinterested in killing Becket.
Interestingly, T.S. Eliot has the knights turn towards the audience members and directly address them. The knights’ arguments largely seem motivated by a desire to not be perceived as villains, as well as a wish to justify Becket’s murder to their own consciences. While the knights do give some well-argued reasons, compared to the certainty which Becket had about his martyrdom, the knights seem not quite at ease with their actions.
The third knight, Hugh de Morville, argues that Becket utterly lied to the king and betrayed the power he was given. The king had appointed Becket to be both the Chancellor and Archbishop, thinking Becket to be exceptionally qualified. And, if Becket had acted according to the king’s wishes, there would have been a nearly ideal state where spiritual and temporal administration were united. But Becket cheated the king, almost immediately resigning from the Chancellorship when he got it, going against all the kings’ policies which he formerly supported, and becoming radically devoted to a spiritual order higher than that of the crown, saying that the two orders were somehow incompatible. He ends by saying that the knights have served the interests of the people and therefore merit applause.
De Morville’s argument is perhaps the most well-reasoned of the knights, making the least appeals to the audience’s emotions. He paints Becket as a pure traitor—a traitor who needlessly betrayed the king since, according to Becket, the king wanted to unify spiritual and temporal power. But Becket wouldn’t even bother meeting the king halfway, and instead invested all his energy into dedicating himself to a higher order over and above any possible reconciliation with Henry II.
The fourth knight, Richard Brito, argues that Becket was fundamentally responsible for his own death. He says that Becket essentially went mad and lost his connection to reason, proving himself to be indifferent to the fate of the country and obsessed with himself. Further, Becket did everything he could to bring his martyrdom about—he had determined he would die a martyr and wanted the knights to make it happen. He actively insisted that he be put in the path of their swords by demanding that the doors of the church be unbarred. Brito ends by saying that it would be charitable to Becket’s memory to say he committed suicide due to “Unsound Mind,” since in the past he had proven himself to be a great man who did good for England.
Brito’s shift to pin the responsibility for Becket’s death on Becket himself is another effective argumentative strategy. By calling Becket a madman, Brito paints him as a threat to the country and a self-absorbed fanatic. Brito is only able to make this claim, however, because he disregards the possibility that Becket was truly following a plan fated by God, for, by arguing that Becket actively sought out his own death, he implies that nothing behind his martyrdom was sourced in a higher power or has divine merit.
The knights exit, 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 the Archbishop’s martyrdom. He goes on to address the knights (even though they’ve departed), and tells them to leave England, saying that they will spend the rest of their lives endlessly trying to justify their actions to themselves, “pacing forever in the hell of make-believe.” Yet, interestingly, he also says that—though their actions are unjustifiable—this was all somehow part of the knights’ fate. The third priest concludes by thanking God for giving them another Saint.
The priests have finally accepted that Becket’s martyrdom was fated, and that it was spiritually right for him to die. His death is not a bad thing for the Church, but rather a spiritual fortification of it—the grounds on which Becket died will be forever blessed, and they should be grateful for having another Saint. Further, the idea that the knights were themselves fated to kill Becket makes the entire play—and not just Becket’s life—into the unfolding of a divine design.
The Chorus ends the play by praising God, saying that He is reflected and affirmed by everything that exists, and that man must constantly acknowledge Him in 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 faith in God requires, and the fear of God’s love itself. They end the play by asking the Lord to have mercy on them and for Becket to pray for them.
The Chorus has undergone a full 180-degree turn from where they began the play, afraid of being caught up in a despairing fate. Now they’ve accepted their fate, the world has changed before their eyes, and in that changing they have seen the presence of God in everything—this is the peace they mentioned earlier in the play, achieved by “death in the Lord.”