A Man for All Seasons (first presented as a stage play in 1960) functions on three separate, related levels. It is first a historical drama that follows, rather closely, the story of Thomas More’s fatal collision of wills with his monarch, Henry VIII of England. The piece is also a representation, almost an allegory, of a struggle between two ways of looking at the world, between a secular and a religious view of life. Finally, it is a play about itself: The Common Man frequently comments, analyzes, and considers the actions that have taken place and that are about to occur; his musings become a play within a play.
Historically, the play remains fairly scrupulously within the boundaries of known facts. The characters, with the exception of the Common Man and a few minor figures, are taken from the historical record. Their actions, and even many of their words, have been adapted by Robert Bolt from contemporary accounts of the period. Where Bolt invents dialogue—as, for example, in conversations between More and his wife or daughter—Bolt has taken special care to maintain the sprightly, witty, yet serious tone unique to the England of the period. England at that time was poised between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
The tension between the two periods is revealed within the characters themselves. More, for example, is a man of learning, representative of the rebirth of classical letters and the birth of experimental science. At the same time, he is a profoundly pious and quite orthodox Catholic, unwilling and perhaps unable to surrender or even compromise his beliefs, even to save his own life. He is easily the most complex and intricate figure in the play, and the character created by Bolt in his drama is one of the most finely drawn and fascinating in English theater.
More is not alone in his vivid complexity. The king (Henry VIII, although he is never referred to by that name in the play) is tugged in conflicting directions. Unlike More, however, the king is a more ambiguous figure. He may or may not be devout and religious, convinced that the pope is no more than the bishop of Rome and hence not the supreme ruler of the Church. He is willing to grasp this thorny theological problem only...
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