In his preface to the play, Bolt writes:More was a very orthodox Catholic and for him an oath was something perfectly specific; it was an invitation to God, an invitation God would not refuse, to act as a witness, and to judge; the consequence of perjury was damnation, for More another perfectly specific concept.
When More is confronted with the prospect of taking an oath that he does not accept, the oath of obedience to the king, it becomes a matter of his being true to himself. Thus at its heart, A Man for All Seasons is a treatise on the length to which one will go to preserve one’s soul—the very core of one’s being. Bolt is apologetic for “treating Thomas More, a Christian saint, as a hero of selfhood.” After all, Bolt writes, “I am not a Catholic nor even in the meaningful sense of the word a Christian.”
One of the more compelling moments in the play occurs between More and his future son-in-law, Will Roper. Roper, during his devout “reformation” stage, responds to More’s statement of giving even the Devil benefit of law by remarking that he would “cut down every law in England to [get to the Devil].” More responds:And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
Man, according to More, is an anomaly, a creature of complexity who has the capacity to delight God with occasional splendor, the natural product of angels.
The fact remains that Thomas More devoted himself to a lost cause: The Church was destined to change, and nothing he did could defer that change. He ultimately gave his life, not for the Church or his family or his country. He gave it for himself. That makes for compelling drama.