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 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...
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