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 king, who visits Thomas at home. The king insists that More support him, but More tactfully avoids committing himself. Alice and Margaret are angry with Thomas, but he insists that he must keep his true position private to protect them from harm. The final short scene of act 1 makes it clear that More is wise to be circumspect. Just before the curtain falls, Cromwell informs Rich of his intent regarding More: He will have him side with the king, or discredit him.
Act 2 opens in the More household, where Sir Thomas and Roper have been reconciled. The audience learns that the bishops may soon agree in convocation to support the king’s petition; More says he will resign if that happens. There follow key meetings between More and Chapuys, then More and Norfolk, as both sides try to get Sir Thomas to make his position on the divorce public. In the scene immediately following, Cromwell takes center stage again: First he informs Norfolk of the necessity of bringing More into line, then he plots with Rich to have More disgraced.
In the More household, first Chapuys then More’s own family plead with him to take a public position on the king’s annulment. More displays unusual casuistry in avoiding such a statement, remaining optimistic that as long as he is silent, no harm will come to any of them. Ominously, More is summoned to Cromwell, who quizzes him over his unwillingness to support his king. Eventually, the man who describes himself as “the King’s ears” threatens More before dismissing him.
On his way back home, More runs into Norfolk, who pleads with him to abandon his silence. Knowing that he must distance himself...
(The entire section is 4,936 words.)