Murder in the Cathedral

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.

As a play based on the actual historical conflict between the Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury and the English King Henry II, Murder in the Cathedral explores the relationship between two forms of power: worldly and spiritual. Worldly power refers to any power that is wielded over the everyday world of human affairs, particularly political power. The play refers to this power as “temporal,” highlighting its fleeting nature and the fact that it is…

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As Murder in the Cathedral unfolds, Becket, the priests, and the Chorus all undergo spiritual evolution with regard to how they view fate and their relation to it. By the end of the play, all three must endure some kind of sacrifice as a result of this evolution. At the beginning of the play, Becket somewhat selfishly desires martyrdom in order to reap the spiritual benefits associated with it: sainthood, spiritual glory, and…

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The concept of temptation as something that causes people to deviate from the divine unfolding of fate—at least as Becket sees it—permeates Murder in the Cathedral. The four tempters and priests both try to “tempt” Becket away from his fate, though in two very distinct ways.

The priests also try to “tempt” Becket—though less obviously than the actual “tempters”—by trying to keep Becket alive. They refuse to unbar the doors of the church at…

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At the core of Murder in the Cathedral is a contrast between a higher power beyond human comprehension and the earthly realm of everyday human affairs. This realm of human thought is fraught with opposites—with oppositional thinking that pits good against evil, holy against unholy, high against low—while the divine realm of spiritual thinking is concerned with a oneness and wholeness that transcends the partial nature of human categories. Eternity—the everlasting, indivisible dimension of spiritual…

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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…

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