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 when the pope does not grant a divorce. Henry may be read two ways, as principled or as unprincipled.
The conflicts in the play are acted out most strongly in the relationship between More and his monarch. Sir Thomas and the king clearly have an affinity and a bond between them, and the rupture caused by the divorce and the king’s remarriage clearly pains both men. This seems historically plausible. Bolt skillfully develops the relationship between the two characters.
This relationship also supports a symbolic interpretation. Sir Thomas and the king, while they represent actual historical figures, are also metaphors. One is the loyal but independent subject and the other is the sometimes gracious but ultimately overbearing monarch. Their clash is not only one of wills but also of two differing political and moral views of the world. Is a citizen free to think as he or she will, or must a citizen follow the dictates of the state? Such a question is not restricted to monarchies; it is fully applicable in the modern world as well.
Other characters and relationships also are universal. The duke of Norfolk, More’s superior in feudal rank but his inferior in intellect and faith, bends to the king’s will and is ready to sign an oath of allegiance that he freely, even cheerfully, admits, contains elements that he...
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