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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.