In Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, what is the significance of the act of prayer among Thomas More and his family, and of the prayer itself, when considered in the light of the rest of the play?
Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons concerns the historic Thomas More's disapproval of King Henry VIII's desire to break from the Roman Catholic Church. Henry VIII desired to do so in order to secure a divorce because his present wife, Queen Catherine, was barren, and he wanted a son. Knowing that his mistress Anne Boleyn was pregnant, he wanted to marry her instead. As Lord Chancellor, Thomas More had the second highest ranking state office, and he had duties under what was then the Catholic Church to appoint clergymen. As Lord Chancellor, he was also a very devout man, so when in the play he speaks of praying, he generally means it literally. However, the immoral state of England's government under King Henry VIII does not escape More, so he also uses the idea of praying ironically in order to show the uselessness of prayer in such an immoral state of decay.
Queen Catherine had first been the wife of King Henry VIII's brother, so when his brother died, in order to be able to legally marry her, Henry VIII had to petition permission from the Pope or be charged with incest. Trouble is, Catherine proves to be barren. In the opening scene, Cardinal Wolsey is speaking with More to try and win More's approval for the king's desire to break from the Church. As part of his argument Wosley points out the fact that Catherine is barren. He further points out that if the king does not have a son, then the Tudor dynasty shall end with the king's death. Wolsey then firmly states, "The King needs a son," and asks More, "What are you going to do about it?" More's reply to that question is the first instance in which More refers to prayer; he says, "I pray for it daily." In speaking of praying that the king have a son, More is being very sincere; his answer is a sincere reflection of his devoted faith.
However, his next reference to prayer is used ironically. More cannot help but see multiple levels of immorality in Henry VIII's actions: (1)The king had to ask the Pope to issue a dispensation to permit him to marry Catherine in the first place; (2) he has impregnated a mistress; and (3) he is now, as More phrases it, asking the Pope to "dispense with his dispensation," all for the sake of having his way. More importantly, More sees that if the king continues on this path of immorality, then the entire state will fall to chaos, and his prayers will have little effect in repairing the chaos. Hence, he uses the term "prayers" ironically in his following speech:
Well ... I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties ... they lead their country by a short route to chaos. ... And we shall have my prayers to fall back on.
In other words, though More is a man of faith, he knows that prayers alone have no way of repairing an immoral, chaotic government. Yet, at the same time, a government can only be strong when it follows the tenants of its religion.