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.)

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Bolt relies heavily on the materials from historical records that he uses to form the basis for the play. He develops his plot conventionally. Nevertheless, he achieves his dramatic aims in great measure through his bold use of modern techniques of staging and presentation of character. Following the lead of pioneering dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht, he abandons rigid adherence to the demands of realism and consciously introduces devices that remind the audience that they are watching a play. At the same time, however, he uses these techniques to draw the audience closer to the action and to give the historical events with which he deals a sense of universal significance.

Foremost among these devices is his use of the Common Man character as a kind of bridge between the audience and the historical figures. Not mentioned in any historical account of More’s life, the Common Man plays several roles in the course of the play—steward to More, boatman on the Thames, jailer in the Tower of London, jury foreman at More’s trial, and finally executioner—changing his costume before the audience and providing a running commentary on the action. He fills in historical gaps between major scenes, often reciting details about both the past and future of key figures such as More, Wolsey, Cromwell, and King Henry. Through him Bolt attempts to involve the audience by getting playgoers to recognize aspects of themselves both in this spokesman and in the figures...

(The entire section is 585 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*London. Capital city of England that was torn by religious controversy during the reign of King Henry VIII. After defying the Roman Catholic pope, the king established the Church of England, with himself as head, and in so doing severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church. Although Sir Thomas More had long served Henry loyally as lord chancellor, he remained a staunch Catholic and refused to accept the English king as head of his church.

*Tower of London

*Tower of London. Famous prison by the River Thames in central London, with roots going back to the reign of William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. More was imprisoned there for refusing to take an oath to acknowledge the supremacy of Henry VIII over all other foreign kings, including the pope. In 1535 he was executed in the tower, whose cells are the location of the play’s scenes depicting his final days.

Stage set

Stage set. Like the Globe Theater where William Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, and like other Renaissance theaters, the stage set for A Man for All Seasons is divided into three primary acting areas. Playwright Robert Bolt visualized the set as “two galleries of flattened Tudor arches, one above the other, able to be entered from off-stage” and “a projection which can suggest an alcove or closet, with a tapestry curtain to be drawn across it.” A stairway connects the upper and lower acting areas, and a table and heavy chairs are the only permanent props on stage. As in Shakespeare’s plays, the stage space is used quite flexibly, and specific locations are defined by the actors’ language and props brought on for each scene. The style of the production has strong affinities with the history plays of Bertolt Brecht, whose works were particularly influential in England in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The much-acclaimed film adaptation of A Man for All Seasons, directed by Fred Zinnemann (1962), abandoned all of the play’s Brechtian devices and was notable for its elegant costumes, historic locales, and spectacle.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Ascension of the Tudor Monarchs
King Henry VIII was only the second Tudor king to...

(The entire section is 862 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Robert Bolt consciously inserted symbolism about the sea and water as "a figure for the superhuman context."...

(The entire section is 637 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

  • 16th century: Officially, all English citizens belonged to the Catholic Church and many attended its...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

  • Some of the characters in the play alluded to a potential Yorkist uprising; which characters would have been affected by such an uprising...

(The entire section is 168 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Scene from the film adaptation Published by Gale Cengage
  • Robert Bolt's first version of A Man for All Seasons was a radio play produced for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) in...

(The entire section is 117 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

  • Thomas More's 1516 Utopia predates his fatal conflict with Henry VIII. The fictional account analyzes the...

(The entire section is 205 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Corrigan, Robert, ed. "Five Dramas of Selfhood." In The New Theatre of Europe. Dell, 1962, pp. 9-31....

(The entire section is 639 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Brown, John Russell. A Short Guide to Modern British Drama. London: Heinemann, 1983. A valuable overview of the works of Robert Bolt, including A Man for All Seasons.

Corrigan, Robert, ed. The New Theatre of Europe: An Anthology. New York: Dell, 1962. A collection of five European plays including Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons along with Bolt’s preface to the play and an insightful introduction by the editor.

Garstenauer, Maria. A Selective Study of English History Plays in the Period Between 1960 and 1977. Salzburg, Austria:...

(The entire section is 317 words.)