Murder in the Cathedral


T. S. Eliot

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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.
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon

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, since the Pope was believed to be infallibly speaking for God) who has made these decisions, but the furious king does not accept this reasoning. By extension, it’s clear that the king does not see Becket’s loyalty to God as being able to coexist with his political loyalty to the king. The king thinks solely in terms of political loyalty, and can only view Becket as a traitor. The king does not, for example, see Becket’s political refusal to obey as something that might help the king to better align himself with the Church or with God—he’s focused solely on his own political power.

The king’s knights, meanwhile, also describe their actions in terms of loyalty. When they turn to the audience to justify their murder of Becket, the knights say that they were simply following the orders of the king. They did not want to murder him, but were politically obligated to—it was an act of loyalty to the king. They justify the murder by offering political arguments about Becket’s renunciation of the chancellorship, as well as his abandonment of the political policies he formerly held (Becket had begun espousing the belief that there was a spiritual order higher than the king’s rule).

It’s therefore tempting to see the knights’ loyalty and Becket’s loyalty as similar. After all, the knights simply followed the order of their king (seemingly, though this is never explicitly stated), while Becket simply followed the dictates of his Pope and his religion. The distinction between Becket’s loyalty and the knights’ loyalty blurs in this sense: both are loyal to a power that demands total submission. However, the play does present a different, and very clear, distinction between Becket’s loyalty and that of the knights: the degree to which both parties feel guilt over their actions. Becket is confident in his loyalty to God – and dissension from his king – and feels no moral qualms over it. The knights, on the other hand, do feel such qualms. They even admit that, to ease their conscience, they had to drink alcohol before acting. They feel guilty, and offer justifications and explanations to the audience in order to assuage their own sense of guilt, and, perhaps, to try to save themselves from being seen as villains.

Through these very different responses – the guiltlessness of Becket and guiltiness of the knights – the play suggests that loyalty is only as worthy as the thing to which it is given, and, perhaps, that one can only find peace by giving one’s loyalty, one’s self, to something that does not sting one’s conscience. The play ultimately seems to suggest that Becket’s loyalty is the most worthwhile—and that only God can honor the radical submission involved in both his and the knights’ loyalty.

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Loyalty and Guilt ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Murder in the Cathedral related to the theme of Loyalty and Guilt.
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:

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:

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:
Part 2 Quotes

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:

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: