The scene is the Archbishops Hall in Canterbury, December 2, 1170. A group of Canterburys women find themselves inexplicably drawn to the cathedral, filled with foreboding. Three priests also arrive, wondering about the circumstances surrounding the imminent return of Archbishop Thomas Becket to Canterbury. Becket has been in exile for seven years; now he is to return, supposedly reconciled to the king, whose authority Becket opposed in defense of the churchs sovereignty and the Popes authority. A messenger informs the priests that Becket draws close to the city, urging them to prepare to meet him. He reports that crowds are welcoming Becket with wild abandon and great devotion. He also, however, hints at trouble on the horizon: he relates how Becket told the king, “I leave you as a man / Whom in this life I shall not see again.” The messenger allows that none know precisely what Beckets words meant, but “no one considers it a happy prognostic.” The priests recognize that, “[f]or good or ill,” Beckets return will set a chain of events into motion: “For ill or good, let the wheel turn.”
The women return, imploring Becket not to return, for he brings doom with him. One of the priests admonishes them to keep silent-but he, in turn, is himself admonished by the returning archbishop. He tells the priest that the women of Canterbury “speak better than they know” and speaks of suffering: it is necessary “[t]hat the pattern [i.e., of life] may subsist.”-that is, to exist, to continue, to make sense. He knows, as do the women, that his return will bring suffering, even if he does not know exactly what shape that suffering will take.
Beckets suffering begins when four figures of temptation appear to him. The first advises Becket to abandon his serious insistence on ecclesiastical independence and authority in favor of a life of pleasure, like the life he knew and enjoyed as the kings chancellor. The second urges Becket to acquire and exercise temporal power to achieve his aims. The third appeals to Becket as “a rough straightforward Englishman,” enticing the archbishop to betray the king. Becket remains steadfast in the face of all these temptations. A fourth tempter, however, comes closest to pulling Becket astray. He urges the archbishop to embrace actively the role of martyr in order to win heavenly glory, asking him, “What earthly glory, of king or emperor, / What earthly pride, that is not poverty / Compared with richness of heavenly grandeur?” But Becket resists this temptation also, knowing that, if he is indeed to become a martyr, it must not be for reasons of personal pride: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Knowing that he is not consumed by pride, confident that he is serving the “greater cause” of God and Gods church, Becket prepares to meet the fate he knows awaits him, confident that “my good Angel, whom God appoints / To be my guardian, hover over the swords points.”
Ostensibly set on December 2, 1170, Part I of Eliots drama effectively stands outside of time. The opening chorus gives voice to the non-temporal qualities of the scene, and, indeed, of the entire play. The women allude to the passage of time-“Since golden October declined into sombre November.”-but state also, “The New Year waits, breathes, waits.” (p. 11). Dramatically speaking, time seems to have stopped; the “wheel” (to use one of the plays dominant images) has ceased turning. This impression of time having stopped probably serves to dramatize the nature of the events about to transpire as a turning point: as the women say, “[d]estiny waits for the coming” (p. 12). As they put it, the women have been “[l]iving and partly living” (p. 19 et al.). In Beckets absence, they have endured seven years of “oppression and luxury. poverty and license.” and a host of other dichotomies; but now that seemingly endless, cyclical repetition of lifes extremities, as well as the mundane existence in between them, is about to come to an end. It is about to be interrupted. In a sense, it has finished; readers may note the ancient, symbolic connotations of the number seven as a number of completion, even of divine wholeness (e.g., the completion of creation in seven days according to Genesis 1; the ancient and medieval designation of the “sevenfold” gifts of the Holy Spirit from Isaiah 11:2-3). The old way of “living and partly living,” then, has come to an end-a conclusion the women are neither entirely comfortable nor overly happy about: as they lament, “We do not wish anything to happen.[A] great fear is upon us. A fear like birth and death” (pp. 19-20). Because the women do not “wish anything to happen,” they are loathe to leave behind their half-existence in which nothing, in fact, actually happened-in which they were simply turned upon the wheel they describe. Beckets return threatens to upset the status quo-a common motif in the Christian tradition, out of which Eliot wrote, following his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927. For example, consider the apostle Pauls apocalyptic conviction that, because of the Resurrection of Jesus, “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 11:31). The imminent end of their worlds present form creates a crisis of anxiety for the Canterbury women. “[W]e are content,” they say, “if we are left alone” (p. 12). They go so far, in their second major speech, to plead with Becket: “O Thomas, return, Archbishop; return, return”-but not the expected plea of returning to Canterbury-“return to France” (p. 18). The chorus thus expresses a common psychological reality: it is often easier to suffer under a known but unsatisfactory set of circumstances than to risk venturing into a new and potentially more satisfactory but unknown set. It is often easier to remain in the past than to move forward into the future. “Now I fear disturbance of the quiet seasons.” (p. 12).
In another sense, it may be accurate to say that the plays first act is set, not in ordinary time, but in liturgical time. (Indeed, the text very quickly foregrounds the Christian calendar in the audiences mind, with a reference to All Hallows [p. 12], the feast day on which all saints and martyrs, known or unknown, are celebrated.) Beckets impending arrival represents a break in time, a rupture in history and, significantly, this first act is set during early December, what is in the Christian liturgical calendar the season of Advent (from the Latin adventus, “coming” or “arrival”), during which waiting for the second coming of Christ is a dominant focus. Traditionally, then, Advent is a season for waiting: “Concerned with the Four Last Things [i.e., Christs second coming, the Day of Judgment, heaven, and hell], Advent prepares for the parousia [i.e., the Second Coming], as well as for Christmas” (Bowker 22). And while Christians are enjoined to observe Advent with both penitence and expectancy, the Canterbury women observe Beckets “advent” with only dread. In either case, however-whether set in ecclesiastical-theological time or outside of time altogether-the play begins with an undeniable establishment of temporal stillness: “The New Year waits, destiny waits for the coming.” (p. 12). Further potential allusions to Advent occur in the Messengers first speech, as he urges the three priests to “prepare to meet” the returning archbishop (p. 15). Given that the word “angel” derives from the Greek word for “messenger,” one might even view the Messengers speech as an “annunciation” of sorts, preparing the world to meet a coming savior.
The conversation among the three priests prior to Beckets return introduces a contrast between the temporal realm and the spiritual realm. For example, the third priest criticizes temporal authorities (picking up on the chorus words, “Kings rule or barons rule”) for governing by “violence, duplicity and frequent malversation” (p. 14). They obey only the law of brute force; in contrast, the first priest speculates that Becket returns with the confidence of “the power of Rome [i.e., the Roman Catholic Church], the spiritual rule, the assurance of right, and the love of the people” (p. 15). In short, the temporal realm is equated with force; the spiritual, with love. The priests conversation also raises the question of whether true peace can ever be found between these two realms: “What peace can be found to grow between the hammer and the anvil?” (p. 15). Such “patched up” reconciliation as does exist between the archbishop and the king is “[p]eace, but not the kiss of peace” (p. 16)-in other words, it is more of an uneasy, mutual co-existence or toleration than an actual cessation of hostilities and restoration of relationship. Beckets own life, of course, came to an end because of the conflicting, competing interests of the temporal and spiritual realms; thus, Eliots play sounds this theme early on, alerting the audience of the central conflict to come.
The conversation among the priests also raises a second central question: Is Thomas Becket a proud man? And, if so, in what sense? The first priest claims that Becket was proud as secular chancellor, and is still proud as spiritual archbishop. Pride has, the priest says, been a constant in Beckets character, whether he held temporal or spiritual office, for it was “pride always feeding upon [Beckets] own virtues, / Pride drawing sustenance from impartiality, / Pride drawing sustenance from generosity” (p. 17). The priest ties together the themes of temporal versus spiritual power and pride when he states that Becket has always wanted to be in “subjection to God alone.” Is such dedication a form of pride in itself? Should one aspire to be completely free of the temporal realm in order to live entirely in the spiritual? Of course, such questions validity depends upon the validity of the priests assessment of Beckets character, an issue readers can only decide for themselves as the play unfolds.
As noted above, the Chorus second major speech is an ironic plea for Thomas return: they wish him to return, not to Canterbury, but to France, for they fear an upheaval in the world they have known, even though it is but a world of “[l]iving and partly living” (p. 19). They state they have existed in this limbo for seven years-more than a straightforward temporal reference, the number seven, which commonly signifies completeness and wholeness in religion and mysticism, the number seven may here mean that the time allotted for this quasi-life has reached its end; Beckets return will, as the Third Priest says, “for good or ill, let the wheel turn” (p. 18). For an audience versed in the Bible, the womens speech at this point may evoke the book of Ecclesiastes, with its famous passage on the cyclical nature of time: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl. 3:1). The writer of Ecclesiastes (traditionally identified as King Solomon, but in the text identified only as Qohelet, “the Teacher,” 1:1 and passim.) points to a series of antitheses to support his thesis that “there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9): he recites a litany of “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted,” and so forth (see 3:2-8). The Teacher wishes to be freed from this “wheel” of time (not his phrase, but Eliots), because he sees it as, in effect, a curse upon humanity: God, Qohelet declares, “has put a sense of past and future into [human beings] minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (3:11). In other words, God implants a sense of temporality in humanity, and then frustrates human desires to make sense of temporality. The Canterbury women, however, in contrast, long for no such resolution. As does Qohelet, the women intone a litany of antitheses-e.g., “Sometimes the corn has failed us, / Sometimes the harvest is good, / One year is a year of rain, / Another a year of dryness” (p. 19)-thus demonstrating that they share the common human experience of sensing temporality. When an event looms, however, that could potentially serve as a moment that reveals the “pattern of time” (p. 13), they reject it. They do not wish to know, as Qohelet says, “what God has done.” Instead, they implore Thomas to go away, for he brings a “doom on the house, a doom on [himself], a doom on the world” (p. 19). In this speech, the word “doom” may carry overtones not only of a disastrous end but also of the words medieval definition of “fate,” good or ill. Beckets arrival in Canterbury is, as the women rightly perceive, the arrival of nothing less than fate itself; yet it is an arrival they reject, preferring instead to go on “living and partly living.”
From Beckets first entrance, Eliot begins developing him as not only a Christ-figure in general but also as an analogy of Jesus Christ himself. Priests do, of course, physically represent or “stand in for” Jesus in many Christian traditions; so Becket is a Christ-figure in that sense already. But Eliot wishes to draw tighter parallels. Beckets first spoken word, for instance, is “Peace” (p. 21)-a greeting Jesus commonly uses in the gospel narratives, especially after his Resurrection (e.g., Luke 24:36; John 20:19). Ironically, however, Jesus used this greeting to allay his followers fears, but Becket can be seen as confirming the fears of those who follow him: like the women, he realizes that his return will initiate suffering. This suffering, however, is necessary-even as Jesus suffering was “necessary” (Luke 24:26). Beckets suffering, like Jesus, will have a salvific dimension: it will allow “the wheel”-the order, the pattern of life-to “turn and still / Be forever still” (p. 22). This admittedly difficult, oxymoronic statement may mean that, whereas Canterbury, as symbolized in its women, has been stagnant for the past seven years, stuck in a “peace” that really is no peace, Beckets impending suffering and death will move Canterbury and its inhabitants to a new state of being-i.e., Beckets death will cause the wheel to turn-and yet this new state of being truly will be peace.
The mere fact that Becket enters Eliots drama as one who returns further develops the characters as a Christ-figure; cf. this commentarys previous discussion of Advent as a time of preparation for Jesus Parousia, or “second coming.” Note also the Second Priests protestation, “Forgive us, my Lord, you would have had a better welcome / If we had been sooner prepared for the event” (p. 22). Beckets rooms have not been made ready, even though the priest promises he will make them so. This exchange may bring to mind Jesus parables of his own return: for example, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Luke 12:40). Notably, the phrase “Son of Man” has already surfaced in Eliots text, when the Chorus asks, “Shall the Son of Man be born again in the litter of scorn?” (p. 13). Thus Eliot has already explicitly invited his audience to view Beckets return as an eschatological event-that is, an event which inaugurates the eschaton, the “end times,” the “last things.” Eschatological events mark the end of an old world and the birth of a new. By foregrounding biblical material surrounding the Parousia, Eliot creates the expectation that Beckets impending suffering and death will be just such an epochal event. The archbishop himself calls it an “end”: “End will be simple, sudden, God-given” (p. 23). Becket advises the priests to “watch” for the “consummation” of his story (p. 23)-an echo not only of Jesus admonitions to his disciples to watch for the last day (e.g., Mark 13:37; Luke 21:36) but also of his request that the disciples watch with him in Gethsemane prior to his arrest (Matt. 26:35-46 and parallels), a time during which Jesus was tempted to abandon his saving mission.
Similarly and appropriately, then, Becket is tempted at this point to abandon his mission. The Four Tempters who present themselves were intended, Eliot revealed in a prefatory note to the third edition (1937), to be “doubled” with the roles of the Four Knights; i.e., the same actors were to play the parts.
The First Tempter calls Becket back to the hedonistic life he lived while he was King Henrys chancellor: “[S]hall we say that summers over / Or that the good time cannot last?” (p. 24). Attentive readers and audience members know that, of course, the summer has long been over (see the Chorus words on p. 13, “What shall we do in the heat of summer / But wait in barren orchards for another October?,” words that describe the womens present situation). Becket cannot retreat into the past, as the Tempter advises him to do. The Tempter presents a symbolic vision of the passing seasons that is at odds with the scheme established earlier in the drama: where the Tempter declares that, in the reconciliation with the king, “Spring has come in winter,” bringing rebirth with it (p. 24), Becket knows that the vision is but a “springtime fancy” (p. 26)-that is, a fantasy, a fiction, an illusion-and adheres to the already-established motif of the seasons as markers of a seemingly endless cycle of barren waiting-a cycle that his impending death will, however, break. Notably, the First Tempter, like the First Priest (p. 17), accuses Becket of pride-specifically, self-righteousness: “You were not used to be so hard upon sinners / When they were your friends” (p. 25). He brands Beckets principles as “higher vices / Which will have to be paid for at higher prices” (p. 26). In keeping with his frivolity (his “humble levity”), he departs Becket with an ironic and sarcastic anticipation of Beckets canonization to come: “If you will remember me, my Lord, at your prayers, / Ill remember you at kissing-time below the stairs” (p. 26). It is a mocking allusion to the plea of people who pray for the saints intercession; Ora pro nobis (Pray for us). This first temptation has no unambiguous parallel in those faced by Jesus, although Jesus was tempted to focus on physical needs when tempted to turn stones into bread (Matt. 4:1-3; Luke 4:1-4).
The Second Tempter would have Becket shift from pursuing and using spiritual to temporal power: “You, master of policy / Whom all acknowledged, should guide the state again” (p. 27). He thus reintroduces the conflict between temporal and spiritual power into the play. He argues that only power matters, not “holiness,” because power can shape the world today, not in some “hereafter” (p. 27). This argument has some appeal to Becket because he has been established as the champion of the lowly; the Tempter tells Becket that he could again use the power of the chancellorship to “set down the great, protect the poor, / Beneath the throne of God can man do more?” (p. 28). The Tempter thus invokes the old, morally fallacious argument that ends justify means. As Becket moves closer to falling into the Tempters trap, the Tempter tells him that the price of such power is the “[p]retence of priestly power”-he would have to give up his claims as archbishop to spiritual authority. Only in so doing will Becket receive “the power and the glory” (p. 29)-a phrase from the traditional, doxological conclusion of the Lords Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” These words have the effect of jolting Becket out of his near-submission to the Tempter. They serve to remind him of where his true loyalties lie. They may also be Eliots echoing of such biblical commentary on the nature of power as 2 Cor. 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Such “weak” power is the only power Becket has been called to wield, and he will do so in facing his martyrdom. All worldly power is as nothing compared to the power of God, as Becket knows: “[S]hall I, who keep the keys / Of heaven and hell”-a reference to the power of pardon Jesus grants to the Church (see Matt. 16:19; 18:18)-“.Descend to desire a punier power?” (p. 30). Becket makes clear the distinction between temporal and spiritual power: it can only guarantee order “as the world knows order” (p. 30)-the unavoidable implication being that “order” as the world defines it is not true order at all, just as “peace” as the world defines it is not true peace (see Beckets earlier greeting of “Peace” as well as Jesus words in John 14:27). Beckets second temptation has a clear analogue in Scripture, when the devil tempts Jesus to rule over all the kingdoms of the earth, in return for worshiping him (Matt. 4:8-10; Luke 4:5-8).
The Third Tempter styles himself “an unexpected visitor,” but Becket claims he has, in fact, been expected (p. 31). This Tempter tells Becket to betray the king with whom he has so recently been reconciled: “Other friends / May be found.” (p. 33). But Becket also resists this temptation to expedient friendships on the basis of his faith: “If the Archbishop cannot trust the Throne”-i.e., if he has cause for fear from the king (which, in fact, he does)-“He has good cause to trust none but God alone” (p. 34). This third temptation perhaps parallels the temptation Jesus faced to ally himself with the common people against the religious leadership by throwing himself from the Temple (Matt. 4:5-7; Luke 4:9-12); but at any event, Beckets repudiation of the temptation echoes Jesus repudiation of any help but God in the face of temptation (Matt. 4:10; Luke 5:8). As have the other tempters, the Third Tempter leaves Becket to his fate, declaring, “I shall not wait at your door” (p. 34)-an allusion to the depiction of sin in Gen. 4:7: “[S]in is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” At this point, it would appear that Becket has done so.
The Fourth Tempter comes closest to luring Becket away from the mission he knows he must fulfill. No doubt his unexpected arrival accounts for some of his power over Becket-as the Archbishop says, “I expected / Three visitors, not four” (p. 35), perhaps because Jesus only wrestled with three temptations in the Gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke (cited numerous times above)-but much of this Tempters near-success must also be attributed to the fact that he seems closest to being Becket himself. When Becket asks the Tempters identity, he does so in a way that indicates this truth: “Who are you, tempting me with my own desires?” (p. 39). Or again, when Becket accuses this last Tempter, “You only offer / Dreams to damnation,” the Tempter responds, “You have often dreamt them” (p. 40). He even uses Beckets earlier words against him (“You know and do not know, what is to act or suffer,” etc., pp. 40-41). Thus, the Fourth Tempter would seem to be Eliots way of externally dramatizing Beckets inner struggles. The Tempter strives to persuade Becket to pursue the path of martyrdom, but for ultimately selfish reasons: for instance, “think of glory after death. Think of pilgrims, standing in line / Before the glittering jewelled shrine.” (pp. 37-38)-the last perhaps a sly reference to Chaucers Canterbury Tales as well as the historical fact of the multitude of pilgrims who traveled to Canterbury to do homage at Beckets shrine. “King is forgotten, when another shall come,” the Tempter tells Becket; but “Saint and Martyr rule from the tomb” (p. 38). The appeal is to more than Beckets alleged, much-talked about pride; it is an appeal to a desire to break free of the “wheel” (p. 38) of time itself. This alternative is imagined as Becket, in effect, canonizing himself: the Tempter asks him the rhetorical question, “What can compare with the glory of Saints / Dwelling forever in presence of God?” (p. 39). The Tempter, in other words, tempts Becket to seize the honor of sainthood for himself. He wants the archbishop to be proud-to embrace a martyrs fate for an ulterior motive. Interestingly, to do so would be for Becket to be an anti-Christ figure, as Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (Phil. 2:6)-or “grasped,” in other translations.
Yet that wheel, that pattern, is an order to which Becket firmly belongs. He cannot escape from it, any more than can the women of Canterbury; he, however, knows that his purpose is not to escape it but to interrupt it; as discussed above, his role is to bring an “end,” a true “peace,” a state of life-no longer “living and partly living”-in which the wheel once again turns, in which the unjust status quo has been disrupted. As far as becoming a saint is concerned, Becket knows that, like the office of high priest as described in the New Testament, sainthood is not an honor one presumes to take for oneself (see Heb. 5:4)-one must be called to it, as God is calling Becket. For all of his supposed “pride,” then, Becket sees this fourth temptation for the temptation to pride that it is: “I know well that these temptations / Mean present vanity and future torment” (p. 40). He does not seek to make his role in Gods pattern anything but what God means it to be. Becket is accused of being proud-by the Fourth Tempter, by the priests-but he is actually anything but.
Thus, Beckets final speech in Part I-which includes the famous couplet, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason” (p. 44)-expresses his coming to terms, humbly and appropriately, with his fate. Becket recognizes, as did the apostle Paul before him (e.g., Romans 7:7), that “[s]in grows with doing good” and the “[s]ervant of God has chance of greater sin” (p. 45). Nonetheless, he must strive to “serve the greater cause” (p. 45), regardless of how it looks to others (e.g., “What yet remains to show you of my history / Will seem to most of you at best futility,” p. 45).