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
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 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...
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