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'