A Man for All Seasons | Study Guide

Robert Bolt

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A Man for All Seasons | Act 1, Section 1 : Common Man's Opening Monologue | Summary

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Summary

The Common Man, wearing all black, stands in front a basket on a dark stage. He complains about how "perverse" it is for him to begin a play about lofty intellectual kings and cardinals. His black costume, he says, tells the audience nothing important. He needs a real costume. He opens the basket, pulls out the coat and hat of a steward, and puts them on. He's now Matthew, Sir Thomas More's steward. The lights come up to reveal a table. The Steward sets up the table with several silver goblets and a bottle of wine.

More, followed by Richard Rich, comes down the stairs and asks if the wine's any good. Rich and More are debating whether or not "every man has his price." Rich thinks every man can be bought with bribes, but More disagrees, joking that Rich must have been reading the writer Machiavelli. Rich says he knows Thomas Cromwell, who's promised to do a favor for him. More thinks Rich should return to Cambridge and focus on his studies. Rich protests he's simply underemployed—he's been waiting for seven months for a promotion. He asks if he and More are friends, and More says they are. Then, Rich asks if More can get him a job. More thinks for a moment and offers Rich a job teaching at St. Paul's. Rich scoffs—he doesn't want to teach.

More hands Rich a silver cup and says he can have it to sell or keep. More was offered the cup as a bribe while working as a lawyer, and he can't keep it himself. In public office, More says, people offer gifts all the time. Teaching would have fewer temptations, and he thinks Rich would be a good teacher. When Rich still resists, More grimly advises him to take the teaching job.

More's wife Alice and the Duke of Norfolk enter, and Margaret, More's daughter, follows. The Steward introduces the characters as they arrive. Rich quotes Aristotle, and the conversation turns to philosophy. More mentions Rich's interest in Machiavelli. Rich brings up Cromwell, and says to everyone else's shock that Thomas Cromwell has been named the cardinal's secretary. They're surprised at the lower-class Cromwell's quick promotion. Alice thinks Cromwell won't last long, since no one likes him.

The Steward brings More a letter that summons More to a meeting with Cardinal Wolsey. More says good night to his family, and they pray together. He tells Norfolk that Rich is looking for a job. As Rich leaves, the Steward compliments his new goblet and mentions how much More likes Rich. The Steward quips to the audience, "That one'll come to nothing." He tells the audience that More "would give anything to anyone," but someday, the Steward predicts, More will be asked to part with something he wants to keep.

Analysis

The play opens and closes with the Common Man, who leads the audience into and out of the action. Here he contrasts the lofty, ornamental speech of "intellectuals with embroidered mouths" and the speech of average people. He's both afraid of and fascinated by the play's 16th-century setting, which mocks how people tend to elevate historical figures, imagining them as saints when they were just ordinary people. For instance, the ornate decorations of religion or "closely woven liturgical stuff" give the setting and characters a false aura of importance.

The Common Man is an archetype broad enough to represent everyone in the audience. He compares himself to the biblical character of Adam. The play's 16th-century era falls during history's Renaissance period, which marked the decline of the feudal system and the elevation of the "common" or everyday man. A new school of thought, called humanism, led by scholars outside the church, celebrated the dignity of every human. More was a famous humanist. When the Common Man calls the 16th century "the Century of the Common Man" he refers to this history. His comment "like all the other centuries" brings the audience, watching in a different century, further into the play.

Brecht's "alienation effect" is evident in the Common Man's awareness that he's on a stage. He pokes fun at the theater conventions of dressing characters in simple black costumes. Without help from a costume, the actors must rely on their acting skill to do all the work. By implying a costume should say something, the Common Man points out the symbolic, artificial nature of the theater.

The opening dialogue between More and Rich sets them up as two diametrically opposed characters to watch. Rich is More's foil, or a secondary character who highlights particular qualities of the protagonist. Like More, Rich goes through a moral struggle and transformation in a way that the other characters don't. Bolt describes Rich as "longing to be rescued from himself." Here in Act 1 Rich is frustrated and desperate, looking up to More as a mentor to rescue him. More is portrayed as friendly, modest, and secure, enjoying simple pleasures like wine. Their argument about how "every man has his price" foreshadows the question at the play's heart. What is More's price? Is his self an "equivocal commodity" or capable of change, as Bolt writes in the preface? What about Rich? In Section 1 Rich thinks anyone can be convinced to do something they feel is wrong. Will he agree with this conclusion later on?

When Rich discusses "how to make him suffer sufficiently," the audience sees the abstract, clinical way that Rich thinks about suffering. More compares him to Machiavelli, whose book The Prince was believed to encourage "worldly success through scheming deceit." The well-known phrase "the ends justify the means," which encourages politicians to employ any necessary tactics to meet their goals, comes from Machiavellian thought. Rich is uncomfortable being associated with Machiavelli. He doesn't want to go that far, but his laugh "a fraction too long" indicates there's some truth in More's jest.

Throughout Act 1 Rich will tentatively feel out his place in political hierarchies. If More considers him a friend, Rich believes, More can get him a job.

More and Rich's conversation illustrates the two men's different values. Rich envies More's professional and political respect and wants a similar legacy and reputation. But More seems to wish he could stay in the academic world. He considers politics a burden that he has to endure to achieve higher goals. More feels that if "you, your pupils, your friends, God" know Rich is a good teacher, this is all that matters.

To show Rich what political life is really like, More explains the cup was a bribe. More senses how vulnerable Rich will be to corruption. Twice he tells Rich to "be a teacher." He's urging Rich to avoid further involvement in the ugliness of Tudor politics. But More knows he can't change Rich's mind, and he finally recommends Rich to Norfolk.

Alice and Norfolk's discussion of falconry shows their high social status. Falconry was a sport of the wealthy, and they're shocked about Cromwell's promotion since Cromwell doesn't come from a rich family. In 16th-century England, where jobs were based on privilege and connections, it was challenging to transcend a lower-class background. Cromwell's quick rise to power may have come from a natural political talent. The promotion lets Richard Rich know that Thomas Cromwell, however unpleasant he may be, is a useful friend to have.

The discussion also reveals the personalities of those close to More. Norfolk is more rambunctious and less academically inclined than More or Rich. He has no use for Aristotle's theory or Machiavelli's "nastiness." He comes across as likable, obedient, and honest. Alice is practical, intelligent, and in tune with the local gossip. Her reference to "the Queen's business" shows that King Henry VIII's dissatisfaction with his queen is public knowledge.

As the Common Man transitions out of character as the Steward, he warns the audience More's generous personality might topple him. So far More's given away objects, friendship, and time. But what if someone asks him to give up something more essential?

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