A Man for All Seasons

by Robert Bolt

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Christian Themes

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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.

Themes and Meanings

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A Man for All Seasons offers viewers and readers food for thought in three areas: political, moral, and psychological. The story of Thomas More’s diversions and evasions in dealing with Henry VIII and members of the king’s court over the issue of the king’s desire to divorce the queen who could not produce him a son may be read variously as an example of an individual citizen’s struggle to avoid the unreasonable demands of government; as the dilemma of a man torn between doing what he thinks is right for his country and what he believes he must do to salve his conscience and save his soul; and as the search to find and preserve a sense of self amid the conflicting demands that are placed on individuals by the roles they must play in life (father, husband, worker, friend).

On the political level, Robert Bolt has managed to infuse with timeless significance the story of a man who died four centuries before this play was written. Thomas More wants little to do with the Machiavellian scheming of the king and his ministers; he only wants to be left alone to care for his family, to read and write in peace. Especially in the opening scenes of the drama, More seems content to let the king do as he wishes as long as More is not required...

(This entire section contains 589 words.)

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to give his direct endorsement. The effort fails because the king cannot settle for More’s passive acquiescence; he must have his active support. Bolt shows the impossibility of escape for the man respected by his peers and looked up to by the masses when a government has adopted a policy that he questions. In this sense, the tragedy of the play centers on the harm that comes to individuals when those in power need to squash all possible opposition to their dictates.

At the same time, A Man for All Seasons enacts a universal moral problem: the dilemma every good man faces when he knows an injustice is being committed. Must a man speak out against wrongdoing, or can he simply keep silent? Does silence mean consent? That specific question forms a central issue at More’s trial in the second act. Though More engages in some rather sophisticated casuistry to show that failure to speak out is not prima facie evidence of complicity, the audience senses that, in order for a man to be justified in his own mind as well as in the eyes of his fellowmen, he must eventually make public his position on matters of right and wrong.

Finally, it is clear from the dialogue of the play that Bolt is also confronting the problems of definition and control of self. At a key point in the play, More tells his wife: “I neither could nor would rule my King. But there’s a little . . . little, area . . . where I must rule myself.” The people in More’s life constantly remind him of responsibilities that put his sense of what is right in conflict with his obligations to others who matter to him, especially his wife and daughter. Throughout the drama, More tries to define that which makes him what he is, differentiating that special idea of self from the various roles he must play in society. Clearly, that sense of self is difficult to define, and even more difficult to explain, particularly to those who have compromised their principles (such as Richard Rich) or those who define themselves wholly by their social roles.


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Individualism The historical More acted out of religious belief as well as integrity, and he became a saint for his forbearance. For Sir Thomas More, God—not a political sovereign self-appointed to head the Church—had jurisdiction over a human's soul, and More felt compelled to honor God's rule over an earthly king's command. Robert Bolt modernizes More's beliefs however. Robert Bolt's Thomas More tells his daughter that for a man to take an oath is to hold "his own self in his own hands," a sentiment more aligned with the individualism of the modern period, when Bolt wrote the play. Bolt's More equates the soul with the self, saying "a man's soul is his self," a statement that would have been as unfamiliar to the historical More as to any of his sixteenth-century contemporaries. It is essentially a modernist concept that the soul belongs not to God but to the individual and that the individual has a right (even an obligation) to express himself as an individual. Seeds of individualism certainly existed in More's time in the form of Humanism, a philosophy that emphasized the human element of life over the divine. Renaissance Humanists (led, in fact, by More and his Dutch friend Erasmus) looked to classical Greek and Roman thought and literature for models and urged humankind to embrace greater social responsibility. More and other Renaissance philosophers fused classical culture to Christian religious belief in order to improve human life on earth; however, it would take William Wordsworth's nineteenth-century egoism to galvanize the secular, individual self into the core of the human spirit as Bolt portrays it in Sir Thomas More.

Bolt's anachronistic torquing of More's philosophy goes hand in hand with his inclusion of the Common Man in the play, whose primary concern is not his moral self but his corporeal self. The Common Man changes outward identities as easily as he changes hats, but his essential, opportunist self remains the same. He serves as a foil to More's integrity and reinforces the heroism of More's martyrdom. For Bolt, a man who was by his own description "not a Catholic nor even in the meaningful sense of the word a Christian," More was a "hero of selfhood" because he "knew where he began and left off, what areas of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved" (Bolt's Preface to the play, p. xi).

EthicsA Man for All Seasons is a historical drama that explores the religious and personal ethics that led to Sir Thomas More's beheading in 1535. Sir Thomas More believed in the supremacy of the Church in all things, both on earth and in the human spirit. He further believed the Pope to be the embodiment of God's law on earth. Because King Henry VIII had obtained papal approval of his marriage to Catherine (which defied biblical law in that she was his brother's widow), More had no objection to this marriage. But Henry came to believe that his marriage to Catherine was sinful and that his not having obtained an heir by her was obvious evidence of his state of sin. Thinking his soul was in peril and also desirous of an heir to continue the Tudor line, Henry VIII appealed to Pope Clement VII for a dispensation of his former dispensation in order to annul this marriage and make a new one with Anne Bolyn. The Pope, under pressure from Spain to uphold the union of Catherine with Henry, refused. Once again, More supported the Pope's decision, to the vast displeasure of Henry VIII. When Henry defied the papal decision and married Anne Bolyn in a civil ceremony, More did not attend. Without the needed annulment, Henry's new marriage placed him in deeper moral danger, that of bigamy. In desperation, King Henry pressured Parliament to declare the Act of Supremacy which placed him at the head of the Church of England and effectively demoted the Pope to merely the Bishop of Rome. The court of the Archbishop of Canterbury promptly annulled the marriage. More still could not in good conscience ratify Henry's Act, because he placed God's rule over that of the State—as far as More was concerned, the Act of Supremacy was not valid, nor was Henry's marriage to Anne Bolyn. More's obstinance infuriated Henry and also made him uneasy; he wanted the reassurance of More's approval and needed his public support. More sought refuge in the law, being expert at negotiating paths through forests of legal minutia. More is willing to compromise his ethics enough to take the oath if he can find a legal loophole to protect him. He tells his worried son-in-law Roper, "An oath is made of words. It may be possible to take it. Or avoid it.'' He might have succeeded if not for the moral failing of Richard Rich, who perjured himself as witness in More's trial, making it possible for Henry to eliminate More's moral and ethical objections by eliminating More himself.

Law In A Man for All Seasons, English law, law-making, and legal interpretation vie directly with God's law, law-making, and interpretation. Henry fights a political battle to secure the kingship of his heirs by pitting English law against papal law. He runs into opposition from Sir Thomas More, a brilliant lawyer with unimpeachable religious devotion. More's piety made his approval of Henry's marriage annulment the more critical to Henry's program. Even with legal matters well in hand, as self-declared Head of the Church of England ("as far as God's law allows"), Henry needed More's support in order to quell the objections of Yorkish and other nobles who stood ready to initiate a revolution to overturn the Tudor line of ascension that Henry represented and seemed unable to prolong. Under English law any legitimate child of Henry's was in direct line to ascend to the throne, but Henry, being only the second Tudor to rule, felt he needed a son to fortify his family's claim to the throne—this was not the time to introduce the notion of England being ruled by a queen. As Chapuys hints in the play, the families of the defeated noble lines in Yorkshire and Northumberland need little excuse to stage an armed resistance against a king they already wished to depose. Thus legality would assure peace among the nobles as well. Not content merely to have Parliament decree an Act of Supremacy making himself sovereign of both Church and State in England (effectively demoting the Pope to Bishop of Rome), Henry demanded that his followers pledge an oath supporting the Act.

At first More tries to find a legal loophole in the King's obligatory oath, telling William Roper, "An oath is made of words. It may be possible to take it. Or avoid it." Failing to find a way to take the oath, More chooses to remain silent regarding the Act of Supremacy and the marriage. According to English law silence by default is always legally interpreted as assent. As long as he neither denies the oath nor gives his reasons for doing so, the King must legally assume his assent and therefore cannot legally commit him for treason.

The theme of law and its abuse are ironically foregrounded in the penultimate scene of A Man for All Seasons when Cromwell, in a characteristic display of patriotism but with unexpected enthusiasm, salutes the appearance of various coats of arms, proudly observing in rhymed couplets, "What Englishman can behold without Awe, The Canvas and the Rigging of the Law!" Richard Rich then defiles the lofty ideals of English law through perjury and sentences an innocent man to death.