A Man for All Seasons

by Robert Bolt

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Student Question

What similar literary devices are used in A Man for All Seasons, Hamlet, and The Life of Pi?

Quick answer:

Shared literary devices among A Man for All Seasons, Hamlet, and The Life of Pi include motifs and meta-narrative, which is a highly self-conscious awareness of the literary constructiveness of the primary story being told.

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The three texts in questions are highly aware of themselves as literary fiction. Bolt takes a well-known historical event (Henry VIII's divorce and Thomas More's resistance to endorsing the religious implications it entails) and turns it into a modern (1960s) meditation on the constructedness of identity. Against More's "adamantine sense of self" (foreword) are a series of characters who have no sense of a core identity but are adrift in the changing values of the day.

While figures like Cromwell and Rich may seem to be More's antagonists, it is really the Common Man—a figure in actor's blacks who adopts an ever-changing function in the series of episodes—who really opposes More's values. Because he stands only for expedience and opportunity, he is the opposite of More, who stands for a "theory" that offers continuity and integrity. While More is presented as an ideal Renaissance Man—a man for all seasons—he is admirable for his unchanging sense of self and his willingness to die rather than trade that integrity for earthly pleasures or even life itself. He dies triumphant, because he stands apart from the anxieties that consume the other characters and from the emptiness—or the failure to know himself—that the Common Man demonstrates.

Hamlet struggles to maintain integrity as well, suffering as Elsinore seeks to move past the murder of his father and push the kingdom into the modern world of Elizabethan political opportunity. He seeks in act 1 to stand opposed to this changing world, saying he "knows not seems," yet quickly is forced into a world of performative acts—his antic disposition. Like the Common Man in Bolt, the gravedigger and the Player King push Hamlet to attend to the challenges he faces in the new court.

By casting his world as an analogy to fiction, such as the Player King's monologue, Hamlet is highlighting our own challenges in decoding Shakespeare's relation to our understanding of reality. While Hamlet is imperfect in his quest for integrity—unlike More—he eventually seems to come to some reconciliation within himself, as he accepts that God has a plan even for the sparrows of the field and that no one can control when death may come.

In The Life of Pi, the final episode in which Pi seeks to convey to an audience his harrowing story at sea illustrates an heightened awareness of storytelling that, in retrospect, informs and alters one's reception of the novel. Is the story of zoo animals an allegory of human savagery or a literal documentation of what Pi experienced? What is believable, and how is that belief conveyed through the technique of adventure writing?

In all three texts, the authors are invested in pushing the reader or audience to a deeper contemplation of fiction's role in our understanding of reality.

Motifs of water, birds, acting, and storytelling unite these disparate texts. These recurring images serve to highlight the problem and inevitability of change, the constructed nature of modern self and society, and the sense that "all the world's a stage" in which social struggles play out for everyone's interpretation.

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