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A Man for All Seasons | Study Guide

Robert Bolt

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A Man for All Seasons | Act 1, Section 2 : More Visits Cardinal Wolsey | Summary



Sir Thomas More arrives at Cardinal Wolsey's office where Wolsey wants to show More a dispatch he has written to send to Rome, since More seemed "so violently opposed" to it. More notices the letter is addressed to Cardinal Campeggio, not to their ambassador and comments that Wolsey's plan is "devious." Wolsey complains that More can't "see facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint." He then asks More for help. Henry VIII needs a son, he comments, and More needs to do something about the situation. More says he prays daily the king will have a son, upon which Wolsey asks More if he wants "a change of dynasty" instead. The king's mistress can at least give him a son, Wolsey observes, and says More needs to back up prayer with effort.

More argues that the king got a dispensation from the pope to marry Catherine of Aragon "for state reasons." Is the king now asking for another dispensation just because it's convenient? The debate becomes more rapid as Wolsey insists they can influence the pope's answer and More says he's already given his opinion. Finally Wolsey tells More that if the king dies without an heir, the peace they enjoy in England will disappear, and the Yorkist Wars will return. Wolsey agrees the divorce isn't an ideal way to proceed, but how can More lead his country into war just because of his convictions?

More says the country descends into chaos when leaders "forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties." For now More will continue to pray. Wolsey says if More doesn't "come down to earth," Thomas Cromwell will be the next lord chancellor. He knows More doesn't want this outcome. Wolsey says More has made an enemy—Wolsey himself.


Bolt's stage directions hint at character motivations and give the dialogue depth. The directions indicate More doesn't give "moral disapproval." More is still trying to analyze the situation as thoroughly as possible, but his hesitation is too much for the cardinal, who sees the divorce as a clear political necessity.

Both men know Henry VIII is already having an affair with Anne Boleyn. It's no secret, and Wolsey's disparaging reference to the king "[playing] in the muck" reveals his disdain for the king's childish and impulsive nature. But Cardinal Wolsey also doesn't think much of Anne, whom he calls "that thing out there." Neither man approves of the affair from a moral standpoint, but the cardinal thinks the alternative is much worse. A change in dynastic power would be a political catastrophe. Rather, Wolsey thinks a stable family in power is essential. When he threatens More with "a change of dynasty," More knows what will happen if Henry loses power. The Tudor dynasty will collapse, and others will compete to fill the power vacuum. War might well break out, and then everyone suffers.

The Yorkist Wars are the Wars of the Roses (1455–85), civil wars in England that lasted for 30 years. Two families, the Yorks and the Lancasters, vied for power. The bloody conflicts led to the rise of the Tudor government. In 1530 the wars remained a recent memory, and peace was fragile. Wolsey thinks More should put aside his conscience and do what's necessary to keep Henry on the throne. He feels "private conscience" is an impediment to progress and stability.

Sir Thomas More has a broader perspective. He's concerned that papal power will become meaningless if it's misused. If Henry VIII can change church law and get dispensations whenever he wants, what's the point of the church? More thinks the divorce will erode the meaning of the church, leading to social catastrophe and moral breakdown. He believes a free society needs committed and responsible moral leadership. "Private conscience" keeps the country from chaos. Cardinal Wolsey puts out the candle to show More the grim realities of politics, and More relights the candle to remind him there's always hope.

The political disagreement reveals their distinct attitudes toward faith. Both are Catholics who believe in prayer. But Wolsey sees More's prayer as a distraction, an alternative to putting in the real work of government. For More, prayer is the work itself. Wolsey thinks More should have taken a job in the church and stayed out of politics. More points out that Wolsey took a religious job, and now he's more involved in politics than ever. Religion as a social force intertwines with politics constantly. As More leaves the meeting with new worries on his mind, the set transitions from land to sea. The "brightly moonlit water" signifies a movement from order to disorder.

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