MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL
Analysis of the Plot
(Based on Aristotle's Poetics)
5TCE - 1314025
Department Of Theatre Studies
The plot is the most important feature of a tragedy. Aristotle defines it to be the arrangements of the incidents, which in this case of Murder in the Cathedral, is not the story itself but the way the incidents occur, depending on it's tightly constructed cause and effect chain of actions. These actions are superior to those that depend primarily on the characters and personality of the protagonist, Thomas Becket.
While analyzing Murder in the Cathedral, we could recognize the influence of Greek tragedy on Eliot's creation of Thomas. Eliot writes his protagonist just like it was prescribed in the Aristotelian conception of tragedy that a 'great' man would brave challenges that attempted to ambush him from accepting his providence. Audiences were meant to respond to the bravery with which the heroes in Greek tragedies accepted their deaths, even though it ended poorly for their heroes. This could make a complete relativity to Eliot's character Thomas, and the series of events that his actions cause leading us to the pen ultimatum.
While the concept of a 'tragic flaw' is often overstated, especially in the case of Thomas, it is worth mentioning that he has often been defined by characteristic qualities that both aid and hampered his journey toward accepting his martyrdom.
Murder in the Cathedral puts the base to the action of Thomas Becket returning from his exile, which paves way for the other agents (characters and the chorus) to perform their respective actions according to their moral and intellectual characteristics, expressed in what they do and say. This, in turn, forms one constituent part of the tragedy, giving space for the ordered sequence of events, which make up the action being imitated. Thus, Aristotle also says, Tragedy, like all poetry, is an imitation.
The plot centers on various matters, the most prominent being the relationship between King Henry II and Thomas Becket. At the beginning of the play, when the herald announces Becket's return, there is a sense of doom in the minds of the women of Canterbury in the Chorus. This foreshadows the end of the play from the very beginning.
The Chorus of Canterbury Women worry that Becket's return could make their lives more problematical, by angering the king. Later on, three priests enter the hall and also lament his absence and debate the ramifications of his potential return. All of this would lead us to what Aristotle calls Unity. This would potentially mean that a plot is not unified because it is concerned with a single person (Becket for instance). An indeterminately large number of things happen to any one person, not all of which constitute a unity; likewise a single individual performs many actions, and they do not make up a single action.
In this play, the Cathedral is one determinate structure- the structure of the various sections of the events. This would only work if the transposition or removal of any one section dislocates and changes the whole. If the presence or absence of something has no discernible effect, it is not part of the whole. Hence the entire play revolves around the cathedral and the politics within. If taken apart, it not only changes the whole, but also dislocates it along the way. This theory could also be closely associated with the theory of deconstruction, as explained by Derrida.
The plot of Murder in the Cathedral also supports the idea of universality. What is plausible is possible; we are disinclined to believe what has not happened is possible, but it is obvious that what has happened is possible- because it would not have happened if it were not. Eliot has produced a mixture of theology and tragedy, and extending this one step further would have the "tragic" hero having little or no hamartia. Here, the plot may be the universalization of a conventional falsehood; hence, as we have seen, Aristotle has no objections to plots based on traditional beliefs about the gods, even though he would dismiss those beliefs on philosophical grounds. Eliot adapts this understanding to a more optimistic, Christian purpose by suggesting that Christians mourn the world that kills martyrs, while celebrating the sacrifice. It is a similar mystery and contradiction, although Eliot's conception is about subsuming one's individuality to God rather than flaunting it in the face of greater forces.
The journey of Becket in order to change himself would lead us to another fact called recognition, which marks the change from ignorance to knowledge. Recognition is best when it occurs simultaneously with a reversal, and Becket's action of reversal proves to be successful at this. Historiography, by contrast, although bound to the truth of what happened, has no commitment to universality; history records what events form a sequence linked by necessity or probability. Aristotle explicitly rejects plots constructed like works of historiography, just as had rejected plots constructed like biographies. Just like in Oedipus Rex, the peripeteia of the play is the Messenger's reversal of intention; in seeking to help Oedipus by telling him that Polybus and Merope were not his real parents, he instead creates the opposite effect, providing the crucial piece of information that will reveal that Oedipus has indeed killed his father and married his mother. In Murder in the Cathedral, the last temptation is sudden and unexpected. This is another step in Aristotle's argument. By allowing the King's assassins to kill him, he can acquire the glory of martyrdom. Plots like these could acquire different, yet inconsistent conclusions. Becket soon realizes that even the desire of martyrdom if filled with sinful pride will lead him to the end. He refuses to commit the sin of cherishing the desire. However, as suggested by Aristotle in Poetics, one could be allowed to reach to different conclusions without contradiction. Plots like Murder in the Cathedral are considered superior, where harmful action is either planned or carried out with full knowledge of the circumstances and consequences. Therefore, the murder of Becket explores this idea of bringing superiority to the plot, regardless of the consequences.
1. T.S ELIOT - MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL
2. ARISTOTLE – POETICS
3. DAVE MALLOY - http://davemalloy.com/cathedral.html
4. SOPHOCLES - OEDIPUS REX