The play can be said to begin at the climax, for the tension and fear imposed by the state have reached the people at the lowest level. At the beginning of the play, there is a sense of doom that hangs heavy in the air. Everyone fears that Becket's return will result in tragedy, clearly foreshadowing the end of the play from the very beginning. The plot centers on the changed friendship between King Henry II and Thomas Becket. Henry has raised Becket to the post of Chancellor and later makes him the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Chancellor's position is that of the first subject in the Kingdom, controlling the ecclesiastical patronage of the King. The post of Archbishop is the highest religious head, next to the Pope. After becoming the Archbishop, Becket stops supporting the radical changes the King wants to introduce in England. Becket opposes the King's thirst for power, as he tries to raise the standard of the Crown higher than that of the Pope. Before the play begins, Becket has undergone a transformation and has started living a very pious life, giving up all the enjoyment he previously shared with the King.
When disputes develop between the two, Becket flees to France. With this background, the play begins with the news of Becket's return to England after seven long years in France. The people of Canterbury are overjoyed to have him back, and their welcome to him, though a small one, is astonishing. England is eagerly waiting for their beloved religious head that has always strongly supported and guided the poor peasants and countrymen. As the people are busy meeting and welcoming the Archbishop, the three priests have an apprehension that Becket is not fully reconciled with the King.
Both of them are proud and strong personalities; as a result, they may not be able to renew their old tie of friendship. The priests worry that the homecoming may cost Becket his life. The women of Canterbury represent the simple folk of the town. They have lived a hard life, and they know that it is their fate to suffer and struggle whether the King rules or the barons' rule. During the seven years of Becket's exile, their lives have been even more painful. Now since Becket is back home, they are happy; but they feel a curious sense of doom. They gather outside the cathedral and await Becket.
They are asked to put on cheerful faces as Becket arrives. When Becket arrives, the priests greet him and apologize for their simple welcome. Becket informs them that his letters have been interrupted by spies and that his assassins have been waiting for an opportunity to kill him, like hungry hawks. The tempters enter the stage and suggest if Becket pleases the King on his terms, he can become happy and prosperous. The temptations include a life full of fun and feasting; Chancellorship and the status of the post; joining hands with barons to overthrow the tyrannous King; and finally, dying at the hands of the assassins and becoming a martyr.
Becket faces each tempter. The first temptation has no effect on him because he is no longer fascinated by feasting and good times. The second temptation of Chancellorship is also a weak one, for Becket is already a Keeper of "the Keys of heaven and hell. " He is the supreme power in England and, hence, Chancellorship cannot lure him. The third temptation of overthrowing the King for the sake of the Normans is also brushed aside. Becket says that he will not act like a wolf and betray the King. The last temptation is sudden and unexpected.
By allowing the King's assassins to kill him, he can acquire the glory of martyrdom. Becket soon realizes that even the desire of martyrdom if filled with sinful pride and will lead him to damnation. He refuses to commit the sin of cherishing the desire. When all the tempters are sent away, it is clear that Thomas Becket is in grave danger. The tempters comment that he is an obstinate, blind man, bent on destroying himself. As Becket wins over these temptations, tension and fear take over the priests and the women of the chorus. They sense death at the door of the cathedral.
Becket is calm and takes stock of his past life. He remembers how he followed worldly pleasures and accompanied the King in all his enjoyment and ambition. He regrets that in the past he had not become more of a servant of God. Now, he is willing to totally surrender to the will of God. After this realization, Becket delivers a sermon in the cathedral of Canterbury on Christmas morning, 1170. He explains to the people the mystery of Christmas day. He tells them to rejoice in the birth of Christ because the Son of God was born to offer his blood to absolve humankind from sin.
He also tells his listeners to mourn their sinful ways; then Christ will give them courage and strength to endure all suffering. Becket closes his sermon with a discussion of Martyrdom. He says that Martyrdom does not come as an accident; it comes by God's will and design. A true martyr, who is always to be respected, is one who has given up even the wish for glory of martyrdom. Christ was the ultimate Martyr. Becket closes by saying that this is his last sermon and appeals to the people to remember his words. After the sermon, the priests are busy carrying banners of St.
Stephen, St. John the Apostle, and the Holy Innocents. The four knights enter and inquire about Becket, using abusive, rude language. They accuse Becket of being a traitor to the King, which Becket denies. Becket insists that any charge they make must be in public, so that he can refute them in public. The knights accuse Becket of denying the legality of the coronation of young Prince Henry. Becket replies that he wished three crowns to the prince and that he had no role to play in the episode. The knights demand that Becket absolve the bishops that the Pope had suspended.
Becket replies that the suspension was ordered by the Pope, and he can do nothing about it. The Knights then say that Becket should leave the country along with his men. Becket says that he has lived away from his people in Canterbury for seven years, without giving them any hope or guidance, and now he will never forsake them again. He emphasizes that he will bow down to the judgment of the Pope and not the King of England. At this, the knights tell Becket that he is endangering his life, but he does not heed the threat.
The knights leave in a furious state, and the chorus of women sing. The song of the chorus describes the shadow of death all over the world that creates fear and anxiety. Thomas tries to pacify them. The priests request Becket to hurry to the altar and be safe there. They bolt the church doors. The chorus of women and priests are horrified at the idea of the killers coming and attacking the Archbishop. Becket orders them to open the doors, for he does not want to convert the church into a fortress. The knights enter again, calling him a traitor and, while Becket prays, he is killed.
The women of the chorus are stunned. They feel as if the whole world is overtaken by evil and will never be clean again. After killing the Archbishop, the knights address the audience. William de Traci states that they have killed Becket not out of their personal enmity but for the good of their country. The second knight, Sir High de Morville, informs the group that Becket has been killed because he did not support the King's idea of uniting the power of the church and the state under the central government.
Becket has been insistent that the church is higher than the crown. The last knight claims Becket is responsible for his own murder. He tries to explain his reasoning. Before becoming Archbishop, Becket has done a lot for his country, giving it unity, stability, tranquillity, and justice. When he becomes the Archbishop, he acquires a sense of superiority over the crown and becomes "a monster of egotism. " He purposely avoids the knights' questions, argues against them, keeps the church door unlocked, and almost invites them to kill him.
Hence, this knight deems Becket's death to be the suicide of a mentally unstable person. All the knights, however, admit that Becket was a great man, and they had no personal dispute with him. The knights leave after giving this brief explanation of their act of murder. In the end, the grief-stricken priests and the chorus of women lament the death of Becket. They feel that they are all sinners and responsible for the blood of the martyrs. They pray to Jesus to have mercy on them and appeal to "blessed Thomas" to pray for them as well. ~via internet