The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

A Man for All Seasons opens in the home of Sir Thomas More, a respected counselor to the king, at a time when England is rife with rumors that Henry VIII is about to divorce his wife because she has not borne him a son. The nobles and churchmen are being asked to support Henry’s petition to the pope to have the marriage annulled; the king would then be free to marry one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. In the opening scene, More and one of his proteges, Richard Rich, converse about Rich’s prospects for advancement; Sir Thomas advises the young man to become a teacher. More’s friend, the Duke of Norfolk, arrives to converse with More about the divorce; Norfolk reveals that Thomas Cromwell has been appointed secretary to the aging Cardinal Wolsey, who is serving as the king’s chancellor.

More is summoned by the cardinal, with whom he discusses a dispatch requesting the pope’s approval of Henry’s annulment. More opposes sending the missive, whereupon Wolsey reminds Sir Thomas of the turmoil caused by the Yorkist wars when no male heir was on hand to assume the throne upon the death of Henry VI. More remains adamant that his conscience cannot allow him to support the request. On his way home from the meeting, More meets Cromwell and then Chapuys, ambassador from Spain; the first urges More to support the king, the second applauds Sir Thomas for opposing the action.

Back at his own house, More engages in an argument with his daughter’s suitor, William Roper, over the corruption in the Catholic church. More recognizes the problems that ensue whenever men pursue God’s work. Viewers get a glimpse of the More family, as Sir Thomas’ wife Alice and his daughter Margaret engage him in conversation about his visit to Wolsey. Alice prophesies that her husband may soon find himself chancellor—a position More says he does not want, but in which he finds himself soon after Wolsey dies.

The intrigue over the annulment continues, as the audience gets a glimpse of the chief antagonists in the issue, Cromwell and Chapuys, who meet at Hampton Court. The two engage in a sharp debate over More’s true position on the impending divorce. It becomes clear that, for the English people to accept the king’s action, More’s approval must be obtained.

The climactic scene of act 1 occurs between More and the...

(The entire section is 970 words.)