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.
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon

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 historical renown. Over the course of the play, though, Becket comes to view his martyrdom not as something he chooses (in terms of its actual unfolding in his life, or the potential impact it may have on the world), but rather as a path he’s fated to follow according to God’s plan. With this new understanding, Becket sacrifices his own personal aspirations and ambitions in order to accept martyrdom as a role designed for him by God—a role which only God can ultimately understand.

Becket’s martyrdom is the pivot around which the priests’ and the Chorus’s understandings of fate revolve. The priests begin the play in welcoming anticipation of Becket’s return to England—they want him to stay, and they do not want him to be killed or allow himself, through martyrdom, to be killed. They try to protect him from the king’s knights, thinking that preserving Becket’s life will be better for the Church, the church-going public, and England as a whole. They think that safeguarding Becket is part of a faithful relationship to God’s plan, to fate. Yet, by trying to protect Becket, the priests—at least from Becket’s view—are turning him away from his fated path, his martyrdom, because they are trying to shape or change the divine outcome of events. The priests come to understand this by the end of the play—they come to treat Becket’s martyrdom as pre-destined, as having a purpose behind it which they needn’t know, and they thereby sacrifice their own conception of fate in favor of a more divine view.

In contrast with the priests, the Chorus—made up of common women of Canterbury—does not want Becket to return from his exile in France. The Chorus says they are “living and partly living,” existing in a world over which they have no control, and where the whims of either the King or of nature can overwhelm them—but they’d rather cling to this way of life than risk losing the hope (however imaginary) they’ve invested in the form of their still-living spiritual leader, Becket. They’d prefer to remain with their current lives because they are familiar and at least tolerable, rather than fall into the spiritual despair that Becket’s death could cause. The Chorus therefore begins the play in direct opposition to fate: they do not want to endure the unfolding of Becket’s fated path, his martyrdom. They’d prefer he continue to exist as an idea, as a glimmer of hope in what for them is a hopeless world. To lose that glimmer would unleash hopelessness to its fullest possible extent. As the play progresses, the Chorus continues to see Becket’s likely martyrdom not as the unfolding of God’s plan, but as a personal tragedy for them, as a fault of the world in which they live—as if the world lorded Becket’s death over them with a personal vengeance. The Chorus never accepts that they must submit themselves to God’s plan—they’d rather have their spiritual leader for themselves. Therefore, when Becket is killed, they are thrown into a terrible despair verging on madness.

Ultimately, Murder in the Cathedral seems to celebrate Becket’s self-sacrifice and submission to fate. The priests ultimately come around to seeing things Becket’s way, and the Chorus suffers for not doing so. And yet the play also offers some means of questioning this conclusion. Can Becket’s martyrdom truly be an act of God’s will if it results in the despair of the downtrodden? And if so, what does that say about God’s will? It’s not clear that the play itself is actually endorsing such questions, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth asking.

The four tempters all try to tempt Becket away from his fate by proposing that he adopt various views about how to balance his role as an individual of everyday society with his role as a religious figure. The play even treats the fourth tempter’s proposal—that Becket become a martyr because, as a spiritual role, it’s associated with the highest glory (saintliness)—as a “temptation,” even though Becket himself seems at first to be pursuing exactly this path. But, in Becket and the play’s ultimate logic, such advice is a temptation because the fourth tempter frames martyrdom as glorifying the individual, even if that glory is earned through dying “for God.” Becket, in contrast, comes to believe that he should not seek to understand or think about the impact of his martyrdom – to his own legacy or to the world – in any way. He accepts it unquestioningly, without effort to shape or control it, as part of God’s plan.

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Fate and Sacrifice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fate and Sacrifice appears in each Part of Murder in the Cathedral. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fate and Sacrifice Quotes in Murder in the Cathedral

Below you will find the important quotes in Murder in the Cathedral related to the theme of Fate and Sacrifice.
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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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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