A Man For All Seasons
A commentary on the effectiveness of the opening scene of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons
The audience begins to understand the underlying or dominant ideas that make A Man for All Seasons, by their introduction in the very first scene of the play. The use of dialogue and action plays a notable role in the presentation of the characters, giving the audience an idea of their importance and purpose later. Furthermore, the significance of the goblet and the exploration of deception and corruption build tension and set the tone for what is to follow.
The entrance of Common Man in a “single spot of light” begins the play with a somber tone. A dark stage suggests secrecy and deception, where the audience is not started off on the play straightforward. This is important as it not only helps develop the atmosphere, but gives the audience and understanding of what to expect as the play progresses. A suspicious spot of light causes the audience to look closely at the scene, pay attention to detail on stage and expect trickery. The same tension is continued in the Common Man’s monologue, beginning with “perverse”- a strongly negative word conveying the nature of ideas that are brought up through the rest of the play.
Bolt uses the Common Man’s prologue to introduce the characters while already influencing the audience’s opinion of them. The play is put into context by reference to “Kings and Cardinals” setting a political scene. This only causes more tension and gives rise to the understanding of what is at stake, as these are characters that influence an entire nation. The audience is constantly reminded of the serious implications of this by the use of music in the play. This is seen in the trumpets blowing during a conversation between Wolsey and More, reminding both the characters an the audience of the King’s influence.
The negative atmosphere is carried through, consolidating what the audience already had a feeling about. The air of deception and pretentiousness is portrayed vividly by the use of description of the characters, having “embroidered mouths”, fancy, but all a facade. It creates a lack of trust, which was introduced them having “speaking costumes”, meaning donning a mask to suit the moment, without being genuine. It is also ironic coming from the mouth of the Common Man because, through the play he is seen to be changing costumes as the situation befits. This indicates that although ingenuity is to be despised it is human nature and necessary for survival. It is a theme that rings crucial in the play as we see More does not adapt to his situations, whereas everyone else can, for survival.
“Speaking costumes” has yet another implication, and that is presenting the question of who the real man for all seasons is. One interpretation is that a man for all seasons is someone who can adapt in order to survive all the seasons. This is supported by the fact that Bolt uses “a” man as opposed to “the man”. A man for all seasons doesn’t have, or simply put value on individuality, rather he can blend in, he is any man, a man in the crowd. As Common Man says “all the centuries” are the centuries of a common man. The morality of it is reinforced as he says this immediately after taking a drink of More’s wine, stealing, and being deceptive after.
On the other hand, the Common Man’s references to these themes are somewhat light. In his using “stuff” in the context of liturgical things, Bolt presents a crucial matter rather lightly. This brings in the satirical element of the play. The mockery of society in the play is a rather important aspect to it, being an undercurrent portrayed more specifically at events like the King visiting More. The man on whom the fate of England rests, the King, acts like a child. It is also seen in Roper’s ignorance of the dangerous potential consequences of being a heretic and treating it much like a simple matter of changing costume.
The Common Man also serves as a foil to bring out the character of More as being benevolent. More’s response to being lied to and deceived is “mild”. In his asking whether the wine was good, the audience understands that he is observant, a characteristic seen in More, on more than one occasion but also that he does not let his superiority make him arrogant, another area More is differentiated from the other characters in the play.
This depiction of More as being an outsider is also seen in his interaction with Rich, who is antagonistic. At the mention of suffering buying man, More gets “interested”, in hope of having a profound debate, whereas Rich is being superficial. The disappointment seen in More is found through the play, and he is often misunderstood, with regard to his actions not only by Chapuys, but his wife, and his best friend, Norfolk too.
The clash in character between Rich and More is significant to the understanding of both and the themes tied to them. The former is a representation of corruption, as his progress through the play marks the developments in corruption, seen in him wearing a nice gown later and , finally, a chain of office, paid for with his soul. This is established in the opening line “every man has his price”, suggesting a belief in bribery and a lack of virtue. This is relevant later in the play, when Cromwell urged him deeper into the path of corruption and Rich exclaims, “I’ve lost my innocence”, taking the audience back to this moment, where it is clear that he never was really innocent.
Finally, the extract concludes significantly with more building of tension, that serves to create an atmosphere for the introduction of Cromwell. In More taking Rich and walking with him, a change of tone is brought about. More transitions from the gently impatient character to a little more serious, with a hint of concern for Rich. The situation is made more uncomfortable in Rich laughing a “fraction” too long, indicating awkwardness, a lack of confidence, and unease.In conclusion, Bolt jumps right into the portrayal of characters, their relationships and significance at the start of the play, serving as an indication of its fast paced nature. The major themes of the play are introduced, as in the setting, by the use of stage directions and underlying emotions. Therefore the audience understands tone, the context, characters and their intentions, in anticipation of whatever action centers the play.
Religious Faith and Its Consequences in A Man for All Seasons
In A Man for All Seasons, religious faith is an important factor to both the plot and the presentation of characters and their beliefs. Moreover, playwright Robert Bolt’s almost comical, ironic approach adds to contrasting characters and bringing out the themes of morality and hypocrisy while highlighting that which the play revolves around: namely, More’s being torn between his faith and his allegiance.
Toward the beginning of the play, the audience is introduced to Wolsey, a man of God, whom Bolt uses to create a first impression of the Church. Wolsey is immediately a contrast to More, seen to be frantic in language and action. It is ironic, as one would not particularly expect this of a churchman. To follow the initial shock, Wolsey is seen to reprimand morality, as he finds More’s strong moral standing, an inconvenient “quint”. Bolt uses more irony in Wolsey putting out the candles, signifying the destroying of hope. Faith, which should be a source of hope, instead offers nine and this foreshadows More’s death at the end of the play, as that which should have been trustworthy, is not.
In opposition to Wolsey, and a lack of Faith and morality in the church, stands More. This is seen in his faith in prayer, as he claims they will have his “prayers to fall back on” even if chaos were to envelop England. He is willing to risk anarchy and put the fate of England in the hands of a potential “miracle”. This speaks largely of his faith. Bolt uses the mention of stakes and Wolsey’s frantic approach to it, to make waiting for a miracle, seem highly impractical, therein also portraying how religion is irrelevant, and cannot fully be leaned on.
In support, is the lack of a religious stand on Common Man’s part. He is portrayed not necessarily as corrupt like Rich or Cromwell, but as having a deep rooted survival instinct, as seen with the boatman having a family ans the steward not staying with More, once he has given up his material luxuries. The Common Man, who is, arguably, the Man for All Seasons lacks a convicted faith in God. Bolt portrays the man whose are “all the…centuries” this way presents the irrelevance and inadequacy of religion as being, in fact, timeless.
Although more is shown to keep to his faith in God, Bolt also suggests that it is more a matter of conscience than religion. More “anchors” himself in the law, as he believes in its necessity and authority. Moreover, he says to Norfolk that it is not that he believes it but that “I believe it”, speaking of his being true to his conscience because it is his. Similarly, it could be argued that ore’s silence serves as evidence that he keeps hope in law and morality as opposed to acknowledging the inevitability that comes with God. It would seem that his faith in a “watertight case” outweighs his faith in God. This again portrays the futility of religion, further emphasized as it is the case he dies for.
Another way in which Bolt significantly portrays religious faith is using Chapuys. As he is introduced as the representative of the Church, in the plot, his manner should reflect the faith. Bolt depicts him as a parody. Ironically, Chapuys lacks most of the positive Christian attributes, is corrupt and discreet, thereby making a mockery of the Catholic Church. Bolt uses humor to portray the blatant spying, as their “legs protrude clearly”, making them deceitful, but clumsily so. In addition, Chapuys follows in Cromwell’s steps, in trying to squeeze information from the steward showing that he is no better, morally. However, unlike Cromwell, who challenges the worth of what he is hearing, Chapuys is more easily played, even appreciating a false proclamation of the cross being steward’s “master”, depicting the Faith as being not only hypocritical, but also silly and ineffectual.
Similarly, this portrayal of the Church works to intensify the plot, as it was what stood between the king and his heir, and More keeping his head. To bring it into context, Bolt uses Chapuys to remind the audience of the stakes and the consequences in that a sign form More, indicating which side he was on would be understood by “half your fellow countrymen”. If the church had More, it would influence the King and in them being nothing but pretentious and ineffectual, the consequences and the suspense leading to it is heightened.
Finally, the theme of religious faith and Bolt’s presentation of it comes from knowing the risks but also being influenced by the comic ironic qualities attributed to the church. A mess of feelings as to faith is created using Roper, the heretic. More warns him about voicing his beliefs as they could be interpreted as treason, this bringing in the element of tension, again the crux of the plot. This is contrasted with Roper being incautious, naively passionate and a comic relief. This leaves the audience acknowledging the seriousness that is at the coe of the plot, but also that it comes with a comical, light aftertaste.
Bolt ultimately portrays faith and religiosity somewhat cynically, using irony and humor to highlight characters’ attitudes, intensify the plot and develop relevant atmosphere. Throughout A Man for All Seasons, he explores momentous themes including corruption, politics, and religion versus morality; he does so subtly, while still keeping a coherent set of main ideas carried through the play.
More’s Ideal Character in A Man for All Seasons
In Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons, Thomas More is a man whose sense of self is set in stone. He dies not because he wants to be martyred or made a hero, but because he finds himself unable to compromise his integrity. Throughout the play, the characters that interact with More act as foils. When their priorities are contrasted with his, they more clearly define him as an individual. In this way, the reader achieves a deeper understanding of More by gaining insight into what he is not, rather than what he is. More, the “uncommon man,” is a singularly pristine figure against a soiled and compromising backdrop.From More’s first conversation, “the price of a man” is a question that the characters struggle to articulate and understand. The ambitious and impressionable Richard Rich, whose malleable moral compass has been tampered with by reading Machiavelli, insists that “Every man has his price!” (4). More, whose values are much more deeply rooted, disagrees: MORE: No no no. RICH: Or pleasure. Titles, women, bricks-and-mortar, there’s always something. MORE: Childish RICH: Well, in suffering, certainly. MORE: Buy a man with suffering? RICH: Impose suffering, and offer him – escape. MORE: Oh. For a moment I thought you were being profound. (4-5)More is the type of man who cannot be bought, neither by treasure nor threat of suffering. This initial clash of principles sets a precedent for the rest of More’s interactions with other characters in the play. His inflexible, outspoken sense of justice makes it impossible for him to submit to inequity. More is a man with a great capacity for understanding, but, as the Steward predicts, “Some day someone’s going to ask him for something that he wants to keep; and he’ll be out of practice” (17).When More meets with Cardinal Wolsey, who has a strikingly utilitarian outlook for a clergy member, Wolsey tells him, “You’re a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see the facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could have been a statesman” (19). Unlike many men, Thomas More’s morality is not simply a perspective which he can choose to wear or cast off like a pair of glasses. Rather, his ideals are a part of him, immutable and inseparable from his identity and sense of self. King Henry pays More a visit to his house for dinner – a pretense to discuss the issue of marriage with him. He wants More to approve his divorce from Catherine and remarriage to Anne Boleyn, so as to appease the public and relieve his own personal conscience:MORE: Then why does Your Grace need my poor support?HENRY: Because you’re honest. What’s more to the purpose, you’re known to be honest . . . There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown, and there are those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I am their lion, and there is a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves – and then there is you. (55) More follows not a crown, nor a lion, nor anything else simply because it has pomp and “power,” but follows what rings true to his own heart. Henry and the people of England know this, and so Henry feels that Thomas’ approval will vindicate his struggle for divorce. More wants to follow the king’s commands, but his conscience simply won’t allow him to.When King Henry requests that More give his blessing on his divorce, he forces More to choose one side of his opposing internal allegiances. More is the king’s loyal subject, but also a man of deep, unshakable faith. Though his consideration for the well-being of his family and his friendship with the king has kept him neutral on the subject of his marriage, Henry’s request pressures Thomas to choose between loyalty to his king or his values (and thereby his faith in God). This core, this undividable moral kernel that is More, cannot be ruled by a king, or any earthly entity; neither can it contradict itself, as the king asks him to. He tries to explain this to Alice: ALICE: You’re too nice altogether, Thomas! MORE: Woman, mind your house. ALICE: I am minding my house! MORE: Well, Alice. What would you want me to do? ALICE: Be ruled! If you won’t rule him, be ruled!MORE: I neither could nor would rule my King. But there’s a little . . . little, area . . . where I must rule myself. It’s very little—less to him than a tennis court. (59)More stands firm and is prepared for whatever may come, but he neither expects nor wants to make any sort of public statement with his refusal to accept the marriage. He avoids being confrontational about his beliefs so as to cause the least amount of trouble for himself and his family. He assures Alice, “Set your mind at rest—this is not the stuff of which martyrs are made” (60).Though he is a compassionate, forgiving, and generous man, Thomas More’s principles simply will not be budged. Men like Norfolk, Cromwell, Rich, and Roper have mercurial morals, allowing themselves to rise or fall with every fluxuation in King Henry’s moral temperature. More, however, refuses to buckle to the will of the king, prioritizing purity of conscience over preservation of physical comfort. Unlike the fickle theology of William Roper, More’s foundation is set on rocks, and endures through whatever the world might hurl at him: MORE: . . . Will, I’d trust you with my life. But not your principles. You see, we speak of being anchored to our principles. But if the weather turns nasty you up with an anchor and let it down where there’s less wind, and the fishing’s better. And “Look,” we say, “look, I’m anchored to my principles!” (69) More, as malleable in his morals as a diamond, cannot be changed. He is truly a man for all seasons.Richard Rich, yet another foil to More, is a man who has a price and knows it. In his conversation with Cromwell, he demonstrates his willingness to sacrifice his integrity:CROMWELL: D’you believe that—that you would never repeat or report anything et cetera? RICH: Yes!CROMWELL: No, but seriously.RICH: Why, yes!CROMWELL: Rich; seriously.RICH: It would depend what I was offered. (72)Rich is the type of person whose conscience means little to him. There is a fundamental disconnect between his and More’s priorities. Integrity means a different thing to each of them. Whereas More is a man whose spirit is able to transcend his worldly attachments, Rich fails to hold his soul as sacred, and is willing to sacrifice it for a sum: CROMWELL: You look depressed. RICH: I’m lamenting. I’ve lost my innocence.CROMWELL: You lost it some time ago. If you’ve only just noticed, it can’t have been very important to you.RICH: That’s true! Why that’s true, it can’t!CROMWELL: We experience a sense of release, do we, Master Rich? An unfamiliar freshness in the head, as of open air? (74)More’s identity, and thereby his entire existence, revolves around his principles. His beliefs are important to him because without them, More cease to be More. It’s not the logic of them that matters to him, but rather that they are part and parcel of what he identifies as himself. To change or compromise his values would be to try to re-sculpt a thing already set in stone. He tries to articulate this to Norfolk:NORFOLK: Does this make sense? You’ll forfeit all you’ve got—which includes the respect of your country—for a theory?MORE: The Apostolic Succession of the Pope is . . . Why, it’s a theory, yes; you can’t see it; you can’ touch it; it’s a theory. But what matters to me is not whether it’s true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather, not that I believe it, but that I believe it . . . I trust I make myself obscure? (91)King Henry’s request calls More to do what he cannot: compromise his allegiance and mute his conscience. Though a loyal subject of the king, More’s first and foremost loyalty is to his G-d. He cannot and will not give this up, because to do so would be to give up his very essence. When he refuses to sign a document acknowledging his consent of the King’s divorce, he is accused of treason and thrown in jail. The Common Man, dressed as the Jailer, allows More to be locked up, even though he knows him to be an innocent man. He uses an old expression to rationalize his failure to act:COMMON MAN: “I’d let him out if I could but I can’t, not without taking up residence in there myself. And he’s in there already, so what’d be the point? You know the old adage? ‘Better a live rat than a dead lion,’ and that’s about it” (127). The Common Man is “plain and simple.” He would rather save his own neck than take a stand for what he knows to be right.More hides in “the forest of the law,” refusing to make a definitive statement about his opinion on the king’s marriage. By remaining silent, he deadlocks the prosecution against him. Rich, whose price turns out to be Wales, is eventually called to give a false testimony against More to expedite the process. With his false account of More’s actions, More is found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. In his last informal conversation with Norfolk, Norfolk berates More for his refusal to give into King Henry’s commands. More attempts, one last time, to make Norfolk understand what it is that compels him to be so adamant about his beliefs:NORFOLK: Oh, that’s immutable, is it? The one fixed point in a world of changing friendships is that Thomas More will not give in!MORE: To me it has to be, for that’s myself. Affection goes as deep in me as you think, but only G-d is love right through, Howard; and that’s my self.NORFOLK: And who are you? Goddammit, man, it’s disproportionate! We’re supposed to be the arrogant ones, the proud, splenetic ones – and we’ve all given in! Why must you stand out? You’ll break my heart. (122)Norfolk is deeply troubled by what he sees as a painful and illogical sacrifice on More’s part. Unable to see beyond the immediate, physical impact of things, he is frustrated with Thomas, because he cannot find a direct or tangible rationale for his friend’s actions. Though undeniably a good man, Norfolk has a spiritual shallowness to him, and fails to comprehend the ultimate significance of actions. His decision to succumb to the king’s will isn’t, for him, morally compromising. He simply doesn’t see an evident reason to stick his neck out, so he chooses to keep quiet. In this way, he is another foil to More, who goes on to tell Norfolk:MORE: And what would you do with a water spaniel that was afraid of water? You’d hang it! Well, as a spaniel is to water, so is a man to his own self. I will not give in because I oppose it – I do – not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do, I! (123)More’s very essence is at stake in his decision. Without his faith, he is but a shell of himself, of no more consequence than a water spaniel who can’t swim. When he talks with his daughter Margaret for the last time, More tries to make her understand what it is that drives him. She asks him, “Haven’t you done as much as G-d can reasonably want?” (141) In a tone that suggests that he has come to terms with the situation, he replies, “Well . . . Finally . . . It isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.” (141)More’s unshakable devotion to his ideals stems from a deeply rooted connection with G-d. Even after he has done all for his faith that could be expected of him, More insists on remaining true to his morals. He makes the decision to go above and beyond his obligations not to save face or because he is a stubborn old man, but because, as any man in love, he is willing to do irrational things for his “Agape.” When Richard Rich gives a false testimony, claiming that More spoke treasonously of the king, the court is able to sentence More to death. He is taken to the cutting block and decapitated. In the wake of the execution, the Common Man removes his mask and comes to the center of the stage: “I’m breathing . . . Are you breathing too? . . . it’s nice, isn’t it? It isn’t difficult to keep alive friends – just don’t make trouble – or if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that’s expected” (162-3).Like Rich, Norfolk, Wolsey, and Cromwell, the Common Man is a foil to Thomas More. He allows himself to be led around on a leash, acting as he is ordered to, without consideration to his own sense of right and wrong. More is clearly cast of a different mettle: His decision to adhere to his ideals is rooted in a unique, genuine joy and faith in G-d, and so transcends “logical” justifications for acting differently.In this day and age, the idealist is often considered impractical, irrational, and even ludicrous in his fidelity to hope. More’s is the story of a man whose ideals were greater than his flesh. He clung to them beyond “reason,” beyond obligation, and beyond necessity, not out of fear or inability, but out of love. It was this love; this spirit of divine grace that was interwoven into More’s every action that gave his him the tenacity to outlast his physical body. More the body died, but in doing so immortalized those aspects of himself that were most remarkable: his passion, his fidelity, his faith, and his love.
Integrity and Corruption in A Man for All Seasons
A Man for All Seasons, written by Robert Bolt, is known for the illustration of opposing ideologies and the subjective views of morality. In ‘A Man for All Seasons’ integrity and corruption are overarching themes which are involved in the development of the play’s characters. The conflict between theses two ideas are illustrated as Bolt presents integrity in the form of Thomas More, a lawyer who seeks to preserve his ‘soul’ while maintaining his invariant opinion of the state concerning the affairs of the royal marriage. While More represents integrity, the society in the form of the other characters in the play are More’s foil. The characters being portrayed as the foil of More represent the corruption of the society, being the ones who are opportunistic and expedient in their actions, further providing the conflict with More’s integrity in the process.
During the beginning of the play the conflict between integrity and corruption is introduced by More’s interaction with Wolsey about the politics of the Marriage of King Henry VIII. The conflict is presented as Wolsey discusses with More how they “might influence His Holiness’s answer”. Using the euphemism “influence” a connotation of discrete corruption is created emphasizing the idea that even within high authorities, Wolsey being The Lord Chancellor of England, corruption is present. This idea of corruption being exchanged to More, More rebuttals him by stating that “when a statesmen forsake their own private conscience…they lead their country…into chaos”, emphasizing the conflict between ideology, creating a mood of opposition between them, developing their characters. Using this interaction of ideological differences the mood, being opposition between integrity and corruption, is enhanced.
The idea of integrity and corruption is further developed in the scene where Richard Rich is compelled to follow in the footsteps of More and seeks employment from him. Asking for employment outside More’s Chelsea home More denies his request once again and tells him to “become a teacher,” so that he won’t be tempted taking bribes. This interaction is key in that it illustrates how More, as he has been commonly encountered offerings of bribes of great value from his clients, realizes that Richard Rich has the potential to be tempted in these offerings. This is key as it shows with great effect how corruption is widespread in More’s society. Emphasizing the idea of corruption with bribes More gives Rich a silver cup discussing how such an event occurs often, after which More asks “are you going to sell it?” testing this point further closing the interaction between them as Rich says “yes”. This discussion of overcoming corruption is foiled by Rich’s later statement in the play where he admits that “every man has his price,” showing how corruption is rampant in their society. Using this conflict Bolt continues to explore the ideas of integrity and corruption, especially by what means people present themselves with integrity but truly are governed by expediency; corruption.
Using ideological invariance as a technique in the play Bolt achieves the development of both integrity and corruption. This invariance is taken as the primary cause of the conflict between Thomas More and King Henry VIII when they both speak at More’s residence in Chelsea about the King’s divorce and remarriage. This clash is demonstrated as More maintains his integrity and advances carefully when he opposes the king, this act being demonstrated clearly as he repeats “your grace” with his opinions, showing in the process his submission to the higher authority, King Henry VIII. Creating a rift between integrity and the King, the King shows his expediency, his self-preservation as he adamantly states that he will have “no opposition” trying to sway More into helping him in his cause, being one of persuading the Pope to allow the divorce, and the marriage with Anne Boleyn. Using this idea of undeniable control by the King, Bolt further emphasizes how corruption in the form of machiavellianism was present in the rule of the society’s authority in that era.
Towards the closing of ‘A Man for All Seasons’, being the death of the main character, More expresses the divide between integrity and corruption when speaking to his family. Bolt uses More to achieve this effect in that More states with acknowledgment how the prison cell is “like any other place”, in that it contains people whose influence is suppressed by authority. This idea is further emphasized by the river by which the cell is adjacent to as it represents “one’s self” as More says, emphasizing the idea of how the water is compelled to travel in a certain direction, as a collective representing the people of the society and the water banks as their authority being a metaphor of King Henry VIII, controlling the people’s path in life. Robert Bolt finalizing the play using this water metaphor creates a great atmosphere of the idea social expectation, elaborating on how such expectations begin with the head of state.
It can be noted that Robert Bolt explores many ideas and themes in “A Man for All Seasons” and integrity and corruption is no exception. Exploring integrity and corruption, which are foils to each other prove to be great in developing characters and atmosphere in ‘A Man for All Seasons’. It can also be acknowledged that in this exploration of these two themes that although More is presented as the one with the most integrity, keeping his opinions until the end, being ‘man for all seasons’, he himself displays great expediency in that he is primarily concerned in his self-preservation and his self-salvation of his ‘soul’ against his own family, who “sits in the dark” as they have “no candles”.
Queen of Hearts: Woman Power and the Woman Question in A Man for All Seasons
In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1960), paradoxically, queenly power and the woman question emerge as salient themes. Since ancient times, one understands that the woman is popularly conceived of as the weaker vessel and an instrument of reproduction, primarily to birth a male heir to secure primogeniture and hence, continuity of the male lineage. Close analysis of this work clarifies on the role and status of women of the three major socio-economic classes: elite, bourgeois and poorest. Despite these diversities, one appreciates that Bolt merely mirrors the concepts of femininity in a radicalising period such as the English Reformation, reflecting the woman’s primal image as a paragon of fertility, polarisation, and passivity. Here, alongside the profound rivalries and feminine fragility, phenomenal fortitude and courage shine in resplendence.
In A Man for All Seasons, a bizarre game of thrones plays out in which the survival and stability of the monarchical dynasty depends on the fulfillment of the queen’s responsibility to give birth to a son. The infertility of Queen Catherine of Aragon, Spain gives King Henry VIII ‘lawful’ licence to divorce her, pitting her against archrival, Queen Anne Boleyn, whom King Henry subsequently marries. Cardinal and Lord Chancellor Wolsey even calls her ‘barren as a brick’ and stresses the criticality of the situation declaring, “Catherine’s his wife and she’s as barren as a brick. Are you going to pray for a miracle?” He implies here the practicality of the divorce as an expediency to secure primogeniture and perpetuate Tudor rulership. For the entire piece, the subject matter of the queen’s fertility runs paramount and one even senses the urgency, as it is discussed in official terms.
As the controversy thickens on the stability of the governing regime, royal succession and the performance of the queen’s duty, the queen stands as a polarising force in A Man for All Seasons. Queen Catherine of Aragon and Queen Anne Boleyn become polarising forces as religio-political allegiances are blurred and disputed and the legitimacy of rule questioned. Chapuy hints at the enmity surrounding the queens, mentioning that “Charles, … The King of Spain would feel himself insulted by any insult offered to Queen Catherine.” (Bolt 68). On one hand, the Queen Catherine’s Catholic supporters advocate Papal dogma, ecclesiastical primacy and the interests of Spain and her non-Catholic supporters maintain the sanctity of marriage, even among the reformers. On the other, Queen Anne Boleyn’s camp represents the campaign for not only the continuity of the Tudor regime and the interests of the Crown, but also marks an assertion of autonomy in Reformation England.
Although Sir Thomas More toils to excuse himself from self-incrimination, there comes a point when he can no more straddle the fence as the issue of the queen creates wider cleavages in the affairs of both Church and State. The contest of the queens is again voiced in the Duke of Norfolk’s question addressed pointedly to him: “Thomas, we must know plainly whether you recognize the offspring of Queen Anne as heirs to His Majesty.” The Act of Succession to which Sir Thomas More refuses to subscribe, is articulated to ensure recognition and unconditional loyalty towards the new queen and England’s possible heis, Queen Anne and disownership of the former Queen Catherine. As a result, several royal officials, including Sir Thomas More as the Lord Chancellor, are executed because of their unpopular stances. The once cordial relations between King Henry VII and the Pope, the King of Spain, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More and other royal administrators embitter as the issue of the queen antagonises and polarises. As cleavages widen and strife deepen between the queens, naturally their offspring inherit these antagonisms. Although unmentioned in the play, history records that Queen Catherine’s daughter who reigns as Queen Mary I violently clashes with her half-sister and the daughter of Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I. Indeed, the battle of the queens becomes so acid and acute that it tyrannises England to the point that several from both camps tragically lose their lives on charges of high treason and heresy.
In the play, one observes the subjection and docile servility of the queen. As the entire plot centres on the queenly figures, Catherine and Anne, one realises that strangely, they are muted for the entire play. The spectator only gains insight on them through second-hand observation and accounts behind the operations of the king and his cabinet. This silence, or the lack of discourse accorded to the queens, may symbolise a power deficiency, especially in light of the fact that men dominate discourse for the entire play: the King, royal government ministers and the common man. Existing as a passive shadow, one hardly sees the queen. She is neither, engaged nor is she granted the privilege of action.
The perceived powerlessness of the female evinces itself in King Henry’s conversation and attitude as he inferiorises his daughter borne by his first wife Catherine. “I have a daughter, she’s a good child, a well-set child – But I have no son. (He flares up) It is my bounden duty to put away the Queen, and all the Popes back to St. Peter shall not come between me and my duty!” With this commentary, he brushes aside the possibility of his daughter ruling or even decisively contributing to the regime. He little thinks that his daughters (both Queen Mary I and later Queen Elizabeth I) would ascend the throne and preserve the Tudor dynasty after he dies. He never envisions that his daughters would reign in his stead as authoritative sovereigns, impacting the face of England forever.
Contrasted with the queens of all women characters in the play, emerges Margaret More, prominently towering as a singular figure, exuding female dignity and power. Even King Henry VIII mentions, “Why, Margaret, they told me you were a scholar.” As a scholar and excelling academic, Margaret More displays diligence and strength of mind. She masters the Greek and Latin language, and is considered an exceptional writer and translator. However, her sweetness of temper and the unique, father-daughter relationship residing between her and her father distinguishes among all other virtues. She loves and respects her father, Sir Thomas More till the end of his life. Correspondingly, he even shares some of the privacies of his mind with her.
Margaret More also serves as a foil to her hysterical, aggressive and lesser educated mother. Her courtship and marriage with a contrarian lawyer, Mr. William Roper relay a sense of her open-mind and liberality in perspective. Even as the tide of the Reformation rises in England, she seems to appreciate the necessity for change in self and society. However, Lady Alice More, Sir Thomas More’s wife, exhibits herself as a dutiful and conservative yet defiant and assertive woman. She maintains her household, respects her husband as the head of the home, but fails to understand the mystery of her husband’s conflicted position as Lord Chancellor. She unsuccessfully badgers him with demands for information behind his impervious refusal to approve the king’s divorce and throws angry tantrums at his intractability. In her first lines, she hotly argues with the Duke of Norfolk on falconry – a subject of which she knows little. Many times, she demonstrates an unwifely harshness and even lack of sympathy for More’s burdensome state responsibilities. Infuriated at her husband’s imprisonment and pending execution, she virulently vents, “And if anyone wants my opinion of the King and his Council they’ve only to ask for it!” Replying to which More exclaims, “Why, it’s a lion I married! A lion! A lion!” Hence, the spectator discerns Alice’s proud assertiveness and strong will whether with her husband or surrounded by a litany of dignitaries.
In the end, the woman, embodied in the queen of hearts, still wields as much authority as the man, representative of the metaphorical neck that turns the head. They exert an undeniable intelligence and power to manipulate the course of events in their favour and to withstand overwhelming trial and difficulty. The politics of the palace, although male-dominated, and in the private sphere, A Man for All Seasons still validates the woman as an key actor in driving the plot forward, even forecasting the approaching rule of the most notorious queens of England.
Sovereignty and Human Liberty in a Man for All Seasons
Sovereignty commands an eminent position in A Man for All Seasons (1960) composed by playwright, Robert Bolt. This play revolves around a controversy engraved in most Euro-American history, involving sovereignty (loyalty to the Crown), religious faith, personal conviction and individual responsibility. Interwoven with other dominant themes such as Reformation, Church and State, Law and Order, and Marriage, the Liberty of conscience forms the axle on which the entire play turns. In his classical masterpiece, On Liberty (1804), John Stuart Mill declares that “this, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects (Mill 2001, 15). It is for this principle that Sir Thomas More stands and tragically falls, since he declines to relinquish his core principles and by extension, his own liberty of conscience for repute, kingly honor, privilege or life.
A nascent liberty of conscience materializes with the wave of the Reformation, signifying a period of tumultuous, radical change and instigating a paradigm shift in thought and the conduct of religion and politics in England and even Europe. Although the term is never coined and universalized until Voltaire, the observer of history discerns its evanescence and fundamentality in the vast chronicle of wars. He pronounces in his writings, “this is the law last mentioned in terms of its enactment: liberty of conscience being a right which all men have received from nature with their very being, and which all peaceable persons ought to maintain, it is positively established that no person shall be compelled to join any public exercise of religion.” (Voltaire 2017).
During the Reformation era, England literally divorces herself from papal authority (pun intended) through King Henry VIII’s divorce and decree called The Act of Supremacy, and the English monarch appropriates to himself greater sovereignty in religio-political matters. Here, King Henry VIII assumes more authority and then legitimises his own marital annulment and remarriage to conceive an heir to the Crown. In this process, he seizes the title of the Head of the Church of England, simultaneously dethroning Papal dogma and doctrine. At this reformatory stage, Europe transitions to a new order and partially dispenses with a galling antiquity.
Sir Thomas More attributes the suppression of personal sovereignty as the formula for widespread anarchy and corruption in England. He affirms that “when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties . . . they lead their country by a short route to chaos” (Bolt 12). In these words, he links societal order with the harmony of one’s true conviction and the outflow of action. The conscience, serving as the moral compass in issues of right and wrong, should steer the individual’s actions in alignment with his belief system. However, Thomas More laments that the reason for the widespread degeneracy largely owes to the deliberate disregard of the pangs of conscience to enjoy temporary benefit. Good and evil become confused and subsequently, injustice abounds.
Sovereignty over arches as the theme twinned with liberty of conscience as an absolute system of monarchy governs England. By way of the universally accepted divine right of kings or the divine right to rule, sovereignty compels every English subject to yield his individual will to the king and his wishes. Nevertheless, according to Sir Thomas More, “there’s a little, little area … where I must rule myself” (Bolt 35). This region of personal sovereignty, to which he refers, no man must infringe for it defines the heart of a man, resolves essential questions of right and wrong, and shape his personal relationship with God. Another instance of Thomas More urging his individual sovereignty depicts him in direct opposition to the king’s latest parliamentary mandates, the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Succession. He abstains from signing the decree. Allegorizing his point of divergence, he contends, “Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it? No, I will not sign” (Bolt 79). This intrepid disapproval is worthy of commendation as More adheres firmly to his value system and asserts an individual liberty of conscience which he never surrenders.
Thomas More’s self-sovereignty and immovable integrity starkly contrast with Richard Rich’s perspective on morals and liberty of conscience. Vehemently sustaining in the earlies of the play that “every man has his price … in titles, pleasure, women, bricks-and-mortar, there’s always something” (Bolt 6); he concludes that any man’s morals can be marketed to the highest bidder. In Rich’s view, selfish motives and egotistical ambition can always lure, alter and compromise a man’s opinion. His Machiavellian statement presupposes that the only virtue inherent to humankind is selfishness – doing whatever is necessary and justifying the means to acquire the ends. Persisting in this belief, one deduces that notwithstanding the claims of conscience, Rich’s own mind remains subject only to mercenary considerations, and swayed by materialism. True to his personal philosophy, Richard Rich is bribed to testify against his colleague, Sir Thomas More and perjures himself at the latter’s trial. Despite these unconscionable expediencies, Rich continues to enrich himself, ascending the social ladder as Attorney General for Wales (Bolt 94).
Similarly, Cromwell concurs with Rich’s philosophy of a tradeable liberty and a buyable conscience. Calling himself the ‘King’s ear,’ he serves as a spying sycophant to the English monarch. His value system succinctly put, “when the king wants something done, I do it” (Bolt 40). Here one recognizes that the sacrifice of conscience matters little in the great scheme of things. Without any independence of mind, he implicitly trusts the king to lead him. However, despite petitions, favors and threats, Thomas More unbendingly repels the king’s requests and commands to espouse the divorce, inimical to More’s own conscience… until at his execution, he stubbornly affirms. “I make my petition to Almighty God that He will keep me in this, my honest mind, to the last hour that I shall live” (Bolt 89).
In conclusion, sovereignty and personal freedom stands as a pivotal question in A Man for All Seasons, as one witnesses the decision of one individual to be faithful to his own heart and to his own God. As he alludes to an essential heroism that is sadly lacking, he instructs, “if we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good .. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all . . . why then perhaps we must stand fast a little-even at the risk of being heroes” (Bolt 84).
Bolt, Robert. A Man for All Seasons, Hereford Plays, Heinemann Educational, 1960.
Mill, Stuart. On Liberty, Batoche Books, Kitchener, 2001.
Voltaire. The Philosophy of Voltaire-Collected Works and Treatise on Tolerance. Musaicum Books, 2017.