Does A Man for all Seasons have relevance in today's world?
Bolt's play deals with a universal dilemma, one still quite relevant in today's world: the problem of standing by one's convictions when the consequences for doing so are dire. Thomas More is asked to endorse the king's divorce of his wife, Katherine of Aragon. More finds himself under immense pressure to do this, because his approval would help guarantee popular acceptance of the move. More, after all, is known as a devout Catholic, and his word carries weight. He is also under pressure because he is a good friend of Henry VIII, and he values the friendship with this powerful and very human figure. However, his conscience tells him the divorce is wrong. The pope also has not approved the divorce, and More, in good conscience, doesn't feel he can speak out against the head of the church.
Pressures increase when More is arrested, imprisoned, and threatened with death if he does not stand by the king. Nevertheless, he refuses to do so. As the More character puts it in the play,
If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly.
As the play's title, A Man for All Seasons, suggests, More's dilemma is one common in "all seasons" or all times. The allure of power, status, and insider status is a constant temptation to people everywhere to do what they need to do to get along, even if they know, on some level, they are doing the wrong thing. Corruption occurs not because people are inherently evil, but because they are offered rewards to do things that may not seem so bad, or that can they can rationalize away as acceptable. People also say and do things they know are wrong because they are threatened with death or suffering. More becomes an example for all times because he resists both the temptation and the pressure to violate his conscience.
We also learn much from the Common Man in the play, and unfortunately it is very easy to be like him. Indeed, the Common Man represents all of us who change our values to suit situations (just as he changes clothes to play one role and then another). Many of us, too, are like Henry, very vain, ready (metaphorically) to dance and show off our legs as does he to prove himself to Margaret when he visits More. If anything is striking about More, it is humility, for he would happily go into obscurity to keep his conscience clear of falsehood or violating his integrity. He is not interested in taking on Henry in a debate; in fact, he tells his wife, “I neither could nor would rule my King. . . . But there's a little . . . little, area . . . where I must rule myself,” and that is what he refuses to give up, that “little area” that is his conscience. So in asking if this is relevant today, we need to consider who has such strength of character, whether in small incidents (peer pressure to do this or that), or in large ones (political pressure to vote for or against a measure in congress, not because it is right but because of lobbying or political favors).
I believe this play does have relevance in any society, in any time period in history, including today. Ultimately, once you break past the constraints of the Tudor society and politics it is specifically discussing, it is a play about conscience and doing what one feels to be right and moral, rather than bending under the pressure of a government or a best friend.
Sir Thomas More, though a dear friend and supporter of Henry VIII, could not condone the idea that Henry was going to divorce his wife, Katharine of Aragon, in order to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. More was a devout Catholic, and says right before his beheading, "I die the king's good servant, but God's first." (I believe that to be accurate from the play - I'm not sure if it is historically accurate, but it does definitely illustrate the character of More.)