Murder in Cathedral Annotations


Murder in the Cathedral

Seven years and the summer is over

Seven years since the Archbishop left us,

He who was always kind to his people.

But it would not be well if he should return.

King rules or barons rule;

We have suffered various oppression,

But mostly we are left to our own devices,

And we are content if we are left alone.

Chorus, p. 176

Here, the Chorus reveals their complicated feelings about Thomas and the Church. While they lament his absence of seven years, noting that he was good to them, they worry about his return. What concerns them most of all is the idea that their lives, already marred by suffering, will grow more complicated. They do not consider themselves immersed in the political world of kings and barons, and worry that any controversy Thomas stirs up by returning will cause them trouble. This attitude – of miserable complacency over spiritual responsibility – is what will change for them through the ritual of Thomas's sacrifice.


For good or ill, let the wheel turn.

The wheel has been still, these seven years, and no good.

For ill or good, let the wheel turn.

For who knows the end of good or evil?

Third Priest, p. 179

Here, the Third Priest introduces the concept of the wheel and the theme of patience, when he chides the other two priests for conjecturing so excitedly and anxiously about the effects of Thomas's impending return. He is calmer than they, and stresses that they do not understand the way God runs the world. He invokes the image of the wheel, which in medieval theology represents how God sits at the center of a moving wheel while humans are on the edges. Therefore, God understands the meaning and cause of rotations, whereas humans are disoriented by its movement. Stipulating this as truth, the Third Priest insists they ought to show patience and faith rather than concerning themselves with potential earthly causes beyond their control. This philosophy is similar to that which Thomas will manifest in his martyrdom.


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 license,

There has been minor injustice.

Yet we have gone on living,

Living and partly living.

Chorus, p. 180

Here, the Chorus expands upon the extent of its complacency, and begin to expand on the level of suffering they bear. The women of Canterbury admit that their lives are complacent and unhappy – they must accept that their lives are comprised of "partly living." Their persistence is less from strength than from necessity. Their pains are terrible but predictable. Because of this attitude, all things – "oppression and luxury" – are shades of the same lingering trouble. What is interesting is that the Chorus accepts this, and is more terrified of the opposite option, which Thomas's death will give: the option to live a fuller, more engaged and passionate life devoted to God. The cost of this second option would be more pain, since they would have to confront the iniquity of the world head-on.


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 actor 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.

Thomas, p. 182

Thomas spells out one of the play's main conflicts when he chides the Second Priest for speaking harshly to the Chorus right before his entrance. In the quote, he proposes a dichotomy between acting and suffering. The former is action, best understood as an individual's attempt to influence his own fate. The latter is suffering, best defined as "patience to endure" rather than as a sensation of pain. It calls to mind the women of the Chorus, who simply assume that what will come will come. Thomas stresses that these two opposites are interlinked in the order of the universe, and invokes the concept of the wheel to suggest that God alone understands its structure. Ultimately, he will accept in Part I a mindset of active patience, one in which he wills himself to be submissive to God's will. By fully embracing the contradiction, he comes closer to transcending the limits of human existence, thereby nearing the serene existence God enjoys at the center of the wheel.


Real power Is purchased at price of a certain submission.

Your spiritual power is earthly perdition.

Power is present, for him who will wield.

Thomas, p. 186

Thomas easily repudiates all of the first three tempters, but in this response to the Second Tempter, he explains the serenity that allows him to so easily ignore them. He stresses a dichotomy between power and submission. The Second Tempter has offered him palpable power by suggesting he reclaim the mantle of Chancellor. However, Thomas suggests that real power is inexorably linked with "submission." Active power must involve passive submission; the opposites must be embraced. He admits that spiritual power means a difficult life on Earth, but that spiritual power is not compromised. He is no longer interested in the trappings of earthly power, which is why he can so easily defeat the Tempters who offer him worldly temptations. He wishes to "wield" the greater Power known only to those who make themselves available as God's instruments.


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.

Thomas, p. 196

The dramatic crux of Part I occurs in silence for the protagonist. As the Chorus, Priests, and Tempters speak together about the uncertainty of life, Thomas retreats into himself to consider the Fourth Tempter's promise that he could find glory if he wills martyrdom for himself. When he speaks again, beginning a long speech with the above lines, he has firmly committed to dying for the right reason. Thomas's arc in the play (which begins and ends in Part I) is to first acknowledge that his pride is leading him towards "the right deed for the wrong reason," and then to rid himself of the "self," the personality, that is keeping him from being God's instrument. Once he speaks these words, Thomas will not be waylaid from his purpose, and the Chorus becomes dramatically more important.


Have I not known, not known

What was coming to be? It was here, in the kitchen, in the passage,

In the mews in the barn in the byre in the market place

In our veins our bowels our skulls as well

As well as in the plottings of potentates

As well as in the consultations of powers.

What is woven on the loom of fate

What is woven in the councils of princes

Is woven also in our veins, our brains,

Is woven like a pattern of living worms

In the guts of the women of Canterbury.

Chorus, p. 208

One quality Eliot gains by appropriating the structure of Greek tragedy for Murder in the Cathedral is the evocation of the idea of fate, which he uses to reinforce the play's meaning. Here, in an Act II speech of despair as the murder approaches, the Chorus acknowledges that Thomas's impending martyrdom is known to them, which suggests that it was an inevitable occurrence. This imbues it with a mythic power that raises the stakes for this Chorus, who must decide whether to dedicate their lives towards being worthy of the sacrifice. They also stress the existence of fate by suggesting that all humanity is small and powerless against these greater forces. What they have felt in their "guts" is the same feeling that haunts princes. What makes it most complicated of all is that Thomas's death is of course a marvelous Christian sacrifice, and yet it is also a terrible event worthy of being compared to "a pattern of living worms." As Thomas explains in his Interlude sermon, in martyrdom lies the cause for both celebration and mourning.


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.

Thomas, p. 212

Thomas frequently stresses that his decision to accept an active patience by making himself God's instrument is a decision out of time. He is not hemmed in by the limitation of time that humans, on the exterior edge of the wheel, must confront. Here, as he chides the priests for insisting he hide from the knights, he further details the earthly structure that he wishes to repudiate. He notes how humans tend to see events in terms of their effects and to justify whatever happens by its purpose. This focus on efficiency over goodness leads to rationalization, wherein "many deeds are blended" and a human can justify his behavior based on its outcome. The attack has particular resonance considering how well it aligns with the political behavior that has defined Thomas's career as both Chancellor and Archbishop. Thomas wishes to rid himself of such limiting thoughts and attempts to transcend to a higher plane of awareness. The first step, however, is to ignore "the Law of Man," which is too limited to achieve true goodness.


The speakers who have preceded me, to say nothing of our leader, Reginald Fitz Urse, have all spoken very much to the point. I have nothing to add along their particular lines of argument. What I have to say may be put in the form of a question: Who killed the Archbishop?

Fourth Knight, p. 218

In his direct address to the audience after the Archbishop's murder, the Fourth Knight provides a representative example of the rationalizations and cause/effect political systems that Thomas wishes to repudiate by allowing himself to be martyred as God's tool. All four of the knights speak in prose (as opposed to the usual verse) to convince the audience that they are logically not guilty of Thomas's murder, but the Fourth Knight's argument is the most subtle. This conforms to the subtle arguments of the Fourth Tempter, with whom the character would have been double-cast. There is a fascinating disconnect between the Fourth Knight's suggestion – "Who killed the Archbishop?" – and what the audience only moments ago saw enacted on stage. Eliot is allowing the knights to tempt the audience, to give the audience a chance to repudiate these logical, political, cause/effect arguments that Thomas repudiated, to disavow the relativism of modernity in favor of a more serene and pure faith.


Forgive us, O Lord, we acknowledge ourselves as type of the common man,

Of the men and women who shut the door and sit by the fire;

Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;

Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God…

…Lord, have mercy upon us.

Christ, have mercy upon us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

Blessed Thomas, pray for us.

Chorus, p. 221

In its final address, the Chorus reveals that it has indeed changed over the course of the play. At the beginning, the women were most concerned with maintaining their status quo, which involved much suffering but was predictable; it allowed them to ignore the larger world. Through Thomas's example, they have recognized and accepted their share of the "eternal burden": they must endeavor to confront the iniquity of the world and allow themselves to be God's instruments. In their final speech, their only bright and positive speech in the play, they acknowledge their previous shortcomings – they feared "the injustice of men less than the justice of God" – and promise to attempt better. However, they know that most men and women lack the fortitude of Christ or even of Thomas, and that they will need the forgiveness and mercy of both figures. This speech thus ends in one of the most commonly repeated phrases of Christianity: the Kyrie eleison, or "Lord, have mercy upon us; Christ, have mercy upon us; Lord, have mercy upon us."