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 completely subject to the passage of time. Worldly power is therefore open to change, and the effectiveness of its laws is never guaranteed. In contrast, spiritual power in the play refers to a code of laws that spring from God, are eternal, and to a significant degree are beyond human comprehension. From the beginning to the end, Murder in the Cathedral explores how people should navigate between these two powers, through Becket’s interactions with the four tempters, the four knights, and in Becket’s own evolving understanding of his martyrdom—his willingness to die for God.
The four tempters’ dialogues with Becket may be interpreted as attempts to persuade him to adopt certain conceptions of how temporal and spiritual power should be balanced. The first tempter treats spirituality as a kind of decoration on worldly power—as something that can inspire joy and merriment by bringing happiness to the state and, in the process, fix Becket’s conflicted relationship with the king. The second tempter, however, sees spiritual power as utterly ineffectual, and argues that to truly effect change Becket should focus less on religion and return to his former political role as Chancellor. The third tempter sees spiritual power as basically just another form of worldly power—or something that can be put to work to achieve worldly ends that have no spiritual grounding. He argues that Becket should use his role as Archbishop to help empower the lower class of country lords to overthrow the king. The fourth tempter has the opposite opinion of the second: he argues that Becket should devote himself solely to the realm of spiritual power, and shirk the temporal, through martyrdom. Thus, the four tempters all argue for certain ways of how the two forms of power should be thought together or apart.
In the second part of the play, the four knights—representatives of the king and therefore of the king’s worldly power—confront Becket. The knights’ conception of the relationship between worldly and temporal power leads them to call Becket a traitor: they think he’s betrayed the worldly authority of the English crown through an overzealous loyalty to the spiritual authority of the Pope (who has condemned the king). The knights therefore see worldly and temporal power as separate entities that exist in a kind of natural opposition, an opposition where both powers to some extent restrict one another. The knights (and, by extension, the king) believe that Becket has pushed too far in supporting the Pope’s condemnation of the English king; they thus believe he has become a traitor.
Becket’s own view about the relationship between the two powers is revealed by his reply to the knights. He responds by declaring that there is a higher order responsible for the king’s condemnation: “It is not Becket who pronounces doom, / But the Law of Christ’s Church, the judgment of Rome.” This Law, applied by the Pope, is believed by Becket to stem wholly from God (the Pope was believed to be God’s mouthpiece). Becket therefore appeals to the realm of spiritual power as if it had absolute priority over the dimension of worldly authority. To Becket, worldly power is a puny, false conception of power; real power stems from a higher source, beyond human comprehension, and based in God.
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power ThemeTracker
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power Quotes in Murder in the Cathedral
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.