A Tribute to the Ideal of Selfhood
In an elegant Preface to the script of A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt explains the historical background to Sir Thomas More's story of martyrdom at the hands of King Henry VIII. Bolt also explains his reasons for choosing a sixteenth-century theologian and statesman as a "hero of selfhood" in spite of having little interest himself in questions of Christian piety. For Bolt, "virtue" and "selfhood" have lost meaning in the modern era, where the self is "an equivocal commodity." What fascinated Bolt about More was that he, unlike many of his contemporaries, considered the king's oath a serious contract, one that asked him to "offer himself as a guarantee." More refused to take the oath because he disagreed with its premise (that the King could overrule God's Law) and because he took his own virtue and soul seriously. For More, to take an oath falsely would literally perjure his soul. Bolt translates this position into modern parlance to suggest that More refused also to perjure his "self"—that he valued his faith in his own capacity for virtue. It is this capacity for virtue, where virtue is adherence to the self, that Bolt sees as a scarce commodity in the modern world. Bolt's story of More is about a man's fight for selfhood; it is also the story of how the modern loss of selfhood came to be.
Bolt, who belonged to the Communist Party for more than five years before becoming disillusioned with it, abhorred the growing consumerism in the 1950s in Great Britain and elsewhere. He agreed with Karl Marx that a society that placed too much emphasis on getting and spending, money would take on more importance than personal virtue. As Bolt asserts, "We would prefer most men to guarantee their statements with, say, cash rather than with themselves." Critics have agreed with his assessment of the modern age and of Thomas More as a suitable hero. "In a collective society the individual tends to become an equivocal commodity, and when we think of ourselves in this way we lose all sense of our own identity. More's refusal to take the oath is Bolt's way of asserting that even under the greatest of pressures man can exist unequivocally; that it is possible to live in the modern world without 'selling out,'" wrote Robert Corrigan in The New Theatre of Europe. The modern period has been described as a period of moral bankruptcy; in such a world, the self is compromised at every turn. Thus Bolt turned to history for subject matter because "modern man has become so trivial and uninteresting that he has lost his power to involve us, while modern mass society has inhibited even the superior spirits from expressing themselves through significant action," according to Robert Brustein in the New Republic.
More believed in the ultimate supremacy of God. For More this was a fact and not simply a matter of allegiance. For More, God was supreme and nothing the King of England said or did could change this fact. More was also a loyal subject, and he supported the King's governance of the State and of the English Church. More helped Henry write a defense against Martin Luther and he turned down William Roper as suitor to his daughter until Roper mended his heretical views. But when it came to the King's "Great Matter," as Henry's desire to annul his marriage to Catherine came to be known, More could not condone an act that the Pope expressly refused to sanction. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope is God's presence on earth and the Pope's decisions carry the weight of a decision by God. This was an especially significant factor in the early sixteenth century, when the Church and State were intertwined in a way that is no longer conceivable. Popes routinely dispensed with inconvenient biblical laws to help monarchs make politically expedient marriages, and priests were routinely involved in matters of war. Cardinal Wolsey himself organized military campaigns as well as conducted peace talks with France. The relationship of the English king to the Pope...
(The entire section is 5,078 words.)