The function of the chorus in T. S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

18 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. T. S. Eliot – A short biography

3. The Chorus in “Murder in the cathedral”
3.1. The idea of “Chorus” in Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”
3.2. The profane function of the Women of Canterbury
3.3. The spiritual or mystical function of the Chorus
3.4. The philosophical function of the Women Chorus
3.5. The dramatic function of the Chorus

4. Conclusion – Personal Notes

6. Consulted works

1. Introduction

1935 is the year of Eliot’s writing “Murder in the Cathedral”, the first religious verse drama in his career as dramatist. Writing his own critical essay on “Murder in the Cathedral”, Eliot focuses on a lot of topics and difficulties, writing a first drama in verse. One of the topics Eliot refers to in his essay “Poetry and Drama” is his reflection on the Women Chorus in “Murder in the Cathedral” and their dramatic function during the play. Reflecting on this topic and giving an answer to the question, if there are other functions, which can be attributed to the Chorus, will be my job in this paper.

But before dealing with the actual topic, I will use this introduction, which I consider the first unit of my paper, in order to give you an overview of the units and topics of the paper.

In the second unit of my research paper I will introduce you into a short biography of T. S. Eliot, showing out the complexity of his life and work, which is also to be reflected in his drama. Further on I will shortly focus on Eliot’s Drama, introducing in the same time “Murder in the Cathedral”, the play I’m going to deal with during this paper. In the third unit I will deal with the actual topic of this paper, showing you what functions the Chorus of the Women of Canterbury fulfil in Eliot’s drama. I will first try to explain the idea of Chorus in the play and its Greek origin, nevertheless differentiating between Eliot’s Chorus an the Greek one. Then I’ll focus on several functions of the Chorus, beginning with its profane or worldly function, continuing with the spiritual or mystical one and ending with the philosophical and the dramatic function. The philosophical meanings, I see in the choric function, are not inspired from any literature, they belong to my own interpretation. The last unit of the paper will give a last overview of the main topic, including my own personal notes and some general and individual conclusions.

2. T. S. Eliot – A short biography

Born in St. Luis, Missouri, USA of a New England family on September 26, 1888, Thomas Stearns Eliot, the greatest and most complex personality in literature, lived his life between two worlds. He spent his childhood in St. Luis, going to the best schools, being further educated at Harvard and graduating in philosophy at the Sorbonne (Paris), Harvard, and Merton College, Oxford. While studying at the Sorbonne, Eliot met Charles Baudelaire and other symbolists, who were to influence his later works. In 1914, T.

S. Eliot settled in England and started his career as a teacher, then as a clerk for Lloyds Bank, while writing poetry in his spare time. Eventually he worked as a literary editor for the publishing house Faber & Faber, of which he later became a director. He founded in 1922 the exclusive an influential literary journal Criterion, which he edited during the17 years of its publication until 1939. In 1927, Eliot became a British citizen and entered the Anglican Church about the same time.

In 1915, Eliot married a British young woman, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, whom he was married to until 1945, when she died, after a long period of increasingly degenerate health. Eliot would not remarry until 1957 to his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, a happy marriage for both. In 1948, Eliot received the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry”[1]

Concerning his literary work, Eliot published in 1917 his first major poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, being encouraged by his friend and mentor, the American poet Erza Pound. “Prufrock” was followed by “Poems, The Sacred Wood” in 1920, “The Waste Land” in 1922, “Poems 1909-1925” including “The Hollow Men” in 1925, “Ariel Poems” in 1927-1930, “Ash Wednesday” in 1930, “Coriolan” in 1931, “Selected Essays” including most of “The Sacred Wood” in 1932, “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism” in 1933, “After the strange Gods”, “The Rock” in 1934, “Murder in the Cathedral”, “Poems 1909-1935” including “Burnt Norton” in 1935, “The Family Reunion”, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” in 1939, “Four Quartets” in 1943, The Nobel Prize for Literature for “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture” in 1948, “The Cocktail Party” in 1950, “The Confidential Clerk” in 1955, “On Poetry and Poets” in 1957 and “The Elder Statesman” in 1959.

Eliot’s Christian development has been reflected in “Four Quartets”. However, Eliot has ever taken care not to become a “religious poet”. In “Murder in the Cathedral”, the religious topic and the martyrdom has been chosen for objective reasons, which Eliot later explained in his essay “Poetry and Drama”[2]. To his explanation on this topic also belongs the dramatic function of the women chorus in the play.

3. The Chorus in “Murder in the cathedral”

3.1. The idea of “chorus” in Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”

The idea of “chorus” in Eliot’s play is taken from the Greek drama. Before speaking of the chorus in Eliot’s “Murder in the cathedral”, I would like to give you a short overview on Greek drama, comparing in the same time the chorus in the Greek drama to the chorus in Eliot’s drama.

The history of western drama begins with the ancient Greeks, about two and a half thousand years ago. By then, drama was more sophisticated than the mere representation of the death and resurrection of a god, but still had its beginnings in crude village ceremonies. The word „tragedy” comes from “tragos”, the Greek word for goat, and the first tragedies may well have been mere dances around sacrificial goats, or songs from a chorus dressed as goats. “Comedy” comes from “komos”, meaning a revel, a rough country party honouring the god Dionysus, the Greek god of vegetation – a suffering god who dies and comes to life again, particularly as a god of wine who loosens care.

The Greek tragic dramatists wrote religious dramas concerned with the moral relation between gods and men, and usually had an instructive moral purpose. Performances were less an entertainment than a religious ceremony. At first, those not actively taking part in such plays were grouped about the performers in such a way as to retain empathetic yet vicarious sensual contact with them. By the time of the Classical period in the 5th century BC, the time of the great tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, all action performed by chorus and actors took place within the orchestral circle.

The actors would wear masks and perform symbolic movements and gestures; a chorus would occasionally cut in on the story and point the moral. Interestingly enough, the stage was at that time a wooden barrier behind which the actors and chorus went to change mask and costume. Only later, during the Hellenistic period, was a raised platform paced


[1] Source of quotation:

[2] Eliot, T. S.; Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot; ed. by Frank Kermode, 1975, ff; Pg. 132-147

Excerpt out of 18 pages


The function of the chorus in T. S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral"
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
T. S. Eliot
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Eliot, Murder, Cathedral, Eliot
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Cornelia Kaltenbacher (Author), 2004, The function of the chorus in T. S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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