A Man for All Seasons

by Robert Bolt

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In 1533, King Henry VIII of England decided to divorce Queen Catherine in order to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. His reasons were simple: First, after years of trying, Queen Catherine had not provided him with a male heir; second, Mistress Boleyn was pregnant with his child; and third, Catherine had been his brother Arthur’s wife and queen before died. To divest himself of Catherine, Henry was required by the Catholic Church to secure permission from the pope, the same individual who had granted him special permission to marry his brother’s widow in the first place (such a marriage would otherwise have been viewed by the Church as incestuous). When it became clear that the pope would not grant his dispensation, Henry determined that he did not need the pope’s approval, declared the pope to be nothing more than the bishop of Rome, and separated himself and his state from the Catholic Church, creating instead the Anglican Church, or the Church of England, with the king as its titular head. The clergy in England capitulated to Henry’s wishes, the divorce occurred, and the marriage to Anne Boleyn followed.

This historical background forms the context for the action in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. In order for Henry VIII to take his action, he felt compelled to secure the support of the Catholic leadership in England. This he managed as all except one swore an oath of obedience to the king. That one was Thomas More, lord chancellor of England and one of the most highly revered philosophers and lawyers of his day.

The play begins with the sociopolitical intrigues generated by a young and virile king finding satisfaction outside the realm of his castle. Thomas More is summoned to Cardinal Wolsey, the sitting lord chancellor of England, at which point More’s understanding of the tenuous nature of the situation between the king’s desires and the requirements of the church are made clear: When Wolsey asks More what he plans to do about the king’s need for a son, More replies, “I pray for it daily.” When requested to put his private conscience aside in favor of national needs, More states:[W]hen 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.

Thus, from the outset, lines are drawn: The battle of wills (that of Henry VIII and of Thomas More) will commence with one (Henry) rebelling against Catholic strictures and the other (More) doing what he can to support them.

That which is safe becomes the matter as the rush toward a final English break with the Holy See in Rome becomes inevitable. To remain safe, More guards his words and measures every statement in such a way as to protect himself, his family, and his beloved church, while at the same time striving to vouchsafe his very being. He finds temporary refuge in silence, for, as he interprets the law, if anyone is to construe meaning from silence, that meaning must be one of assent. It is upon this interpretation that More resides, unwilling to take the oath of obedience to the King, for as he reasons, man might well lie to himself and others but not to God. An oath is a promise made before God. When swearing an oath, a man takes his soul in his own hands and risks losing it. Therefore, More instead remains silent even when imprisoned in the Tower of London.

It takes a...

(This entire section contains 877 words.)

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lie to break him. Richard Rich, in the service of Thomas Cromwell, who has replaced More as lord chancellor, bears false witness against Thomas More in court, bringing a judgment of death by beheading against him. Even at his sentencing, More expounds upon his situation:I am the King’s true subject, and pray for him and all the realm. . . . I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith, I long not to live.

Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of A Man for All Seasons is the play’s narrator, the Common Man, who throughout the play not only speaks directly to the audience from numerous points in time but also portrays such varied characters as More’s head servant, an oarsman, a jailor, a member of the jury, and ultimately the executioner. He changes character simply by changing his hat. He manages the flow of the play, removes pieces of clothing that fall from above, and reads from a history text written several hundred years after the death of Henry VIII. He knows the past, the present, and the future—and he is delighted to still be breathing at the end.

When produced on Broadway in 1962, A Man for All Seasons surprised its critics with a successful run and a series of road companies playing to packed audiences. Judging from its success, Bolt’s play apparently touched the right tone at a most appropriate time, and even today, A Man for All Seasons manages a to have a powerful impact on audiences.


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Richard Rich, eager to find employment at court, arrives at the manor of his acquaintance, Thomas More, to request aid. When Sir Thomas warns Rich of the bribes and other temptations of court, and offers to help Rich find a position as a teacher, Rich is deeply disappointed. More gives Rich a silver cup that had been sent to More as an attempted bribe. As they are talking, the duke of Norfolk enters with Lady Alice and Lady Margaret More, and the duke surprises the gathering by announcing that Thomas Cromwell has become secretary to Cardinal Wolsey. At that moment, a message arrives from the cardinal, summoning More to him, although it is late at night.

When More arrives at the cardinal’s chambers, Wolsey rebukes him for having opposed him in council that day. The two men then discuss the dynastic situation. King Henry desperately desires a son to continue the Tudor line, but his wife, Catherine, cannot get pregnant, and the pope refuses to grant a dispensation so that Henry can divorce Catherine to marry again. More is dismissed by the cardinal to return home by boat after they take opposing views about what Henry VIII should do.

When More returns, he finds William Roper has arrived early in the morning to visit Margaret and ask Sir Thomas for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Sir Thomas replies that the answer will be no so long as Roper remains a heretic—that is, a Lutheran. After Roper leaves, Sir Thomas refuses to discuss the political situation with his wife and daughter, except to warn them that times are dangerous and that they should be careful.

The Common Man informs the audience that, upon Wolsey’s death, Thomas More had been appointed Lord Chancellor. The Spanish ambassador and Cromwell try to obtain information from Sir Thomas’s steward; the man takes their bribes, but he evades giving them any real information.

The king visits Sir Thomas’s house and, drawing Thomas aside, asks for his help in securing the divorce from Catherine. The king is reproachful when Thomas says that he cannot renounce his obligations to the Church. Although Henry expresses his respect for Sir Thomas’s conscience, he is clearly disappointed. After the king’s departure, William Roper and Richard Rich enter; Roper has returned to belief in the Catholic Church and expresses some potentially dangerous opinions regarding the divorce. Rich informs More that Cromwell and others had been after Rich for incriminating evidence against Sir Thomas.

Cromwell and Rich meet at a room in a pub, and Cromwell offers Rich the position of collector of revenues for York in return for help in proving a case of bribery against More. Rich responds by giving information about the cup More had presented him earlier. After the Common Man notes that some two years have passed, More and Roper discuss the momentous changes that have taken place. The king has been declared supreme head of the Church of England, but Sir Thomas has found a legal loophole that allows him safety. More is interrogated by Signor Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, as to what More will do if the king forces a more definite break with the Catholic Church. Roper and the duke of Norfolk enter with word that the break has indeed taken place. More, with the help of his daughter, Margaret, removes the chain of office and hands it to Norfolk. When Norfolk leaves, More tries to explain to his wife and daughter that his continued silence on the issue is their only hope of safety. Norfolk and Cromwell discuss the situation, and Cromwell explains to the duke that because of More’s reputation for honesty and intelligence, it is necessary that he openly declare his support of the break with Rome. Cromwell announces that he has proof that More has accepted bribes and that this pressure can be used against him. Rich and the woman who had tried to bribe More enter and Norfolk, contemptuous, dismisses the evidence. Cromwell and Rich conclude they must have better evidence against Sir Thomas.

Chapuys visits More with a secret letter from the king of Spain, expressing admiration for the stand More has taken on the matter of the divorce. Sir Thomas points out that he has taken no stand and refuses to take the letter. After Chapuys leaves, More again explains to his wife and daughter that in his silence lies their only security.

Cromwell has More brought before him, with Rich as a secretary to record their meeting. Cromwell tries to trip up More on several points, including that More had written a book in defense of Catholic doctrine now repudiated by the king. When More disproves this point and still refuses to yield, Cromwell reads a short note from the king accusing More of ingratitude and being traitorous as a subject. Then, More is dismissed. On his way home, More encounters Norfolk and deliberately provokes a quarrel to protect his friend.

When More refuses to swear the oath to the Act of Succession passed by Parliament, he is imprisoned, where he is questioned under difficult conditions repeatedly. He is visited by his wife and daughter and learns that Margaret has promised to try to convince him to take the oath. He refuses and his wife tells him of the hard times the household is suffering, but still More holds fast.

More is brought to trial on the charge of high treason. Through wit and logic, he refutes the charges made against him by Cromwell. Rich perjures himself by claiming that More has denied Parliament’s authority to declare the king to be the head of the Church. More realizes his ordeal is over, his battle lost, and he finally breaks his silence and affirms his belief that the laws of humanity cannot supersede the law of God. Found guilty of treason, he is beheaded.