T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral: Summary & Overview

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  • 0:01 Eliot's Life and Success
  • 1:18 Modernism
  • 2:07 Thomas Beckett
  • 3:06 Action in the Play
  • 4:14 Analysis
  • 5:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will explore T. S. Eliot's 'Murder in the Cathedral.' In addition to looking at the plot of the play, we'll consider Eliot's life and the context in which he wrote. After the lesson, test yourself with a quiz.

Eliot's Life and Success

At the highest point of his career, T. S. Eliot's influence was so great that some critics referred to the period as the 'Age of Eliot.' Although the popularity of Eliot's dramas has somewhat lessened since the mid-20th century, plays such as Murder in the Cathedral nonetheless offer insight into the artistic ideals and beliefs that Eliot held.

T.S. Eliot was born in Missouri in 1888 to a middle-class family. Due to ongoing physical illness, he often found himself isolated and unable to engage with other children, an experience that resulted in him learning to love literature from a young age. While he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Harvard, Eliot published a handful of poems. Eliot moved to England, married, and began producing the poetry that would soon make him famous.

In 1915, Eliot produced the poem 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,' which quickly received positive reviews from many writers and critics and remains one of his most important works. Ultimately, he went on to publish drama, poetry, and critical work that would come to define much of the literature of the era and earn him the Nobel Prize in literature. Eliot died in 1965.


The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century brought tremendous changes to how the world was understood. Developing science and philosophy challenged traditional understandings of how people perceived and interpreted the world around them, particularly with the growing popularity of theories such as Darwinism and Freudianism. Additionally, a more complicated and faster lifestyle, more developed technology and the experience of witnessing the atrocities that occurred during World War I also challenged people to rethink their conception of reality. Faced with this new context, many artists believed that it was necessary to create art that reflected the complicated reality of the world of the early 20th century. This movement came to be known as modernism and is defined by its use of innovative and often abstract art.

Thomas Beckett

Murder in the Cathedral tells the story of Archbishop Thomas Beckett. Beckett lived from around 1120 to 1170. While Beckett served as Archbishop, King Henry II attempted to remove some of the power of the Catholic Church. Although other members of the church would eventually accept these changes, Beckett met Henry's political changes with resistance, which soon resulted in a growing rift between he and the king.

After several failed attempts to win Beckett over, the king convicted Beckett of contempt of royal authority, and Beckett fled. In response to the ruling, Beckett began excommunicating members of the English court from the church, an action that ultimately resulted in four knights tracking Beckett down and killing him. Exactly how implicit the king was in the killing remains debated, and many scholars maintain that the knights misunderstood the king. Following his murder, Beckett was canonized and considered a martyr by the Catholic Church.

Action in the Play

Murder in the Cathedral was first performed in 1935. It uses rhyming verse and is broken into two acts with an interlude between them. In the first act, the audience is introduced to a chorus that sings of the violence that is going to take place. The chorus discusses Beckett along with three priests who ponder the nature of power. Beckett soon arrives and reflects on his impending death. Four tempters soon arrive, each offering advice on what he needs to do with the last one encouraging Beckett to become a martyr for glory, a suggestion that contradicts the actual respectability of giving one's life for a just cause.

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