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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 7 : King Henry VIII Visit More, Alice, Margaret, Roper, and Rich | Summary



In the garden of the More house, Alice More, Margaret More, and the Duke of Norfolk frantically search for Sir Thomas More. The king's ship is almost there. When Norfolk is critical of More's job performance, Alice protests "Thomas has his own way of doing things."

Finally More arrives; he's been to vespers, or evening services. The family and Norfolk are alarmed that More is wearing his religious cassock. He can't meet the king dressed as "a parish clerk." More insists "the service of God is not a dishonor to any office" but lets his family take the cassock off. Alice and Margaret quickly pull More's gown over his exposed thighs.

Henry VIII arrives dressed in gold cloth. As the family bows to him he insists "No ceremony, Thomas." The king greets the family and discusses Margaret's studies with her. The two converse briefly in Latin, and Margaret's Latin is better than his. The king shows off his dancing legs and tells the family he's a scholar, too. They've all heard about his book defending the Catholic Church's sacraments. Henry VIII says More helped him. "Here and there," More admits. The king accepts Alice's invitation to supper and plays music for the family. He takes More into the garden for a private conversation.

Henry VIII says he's grateful to have a friend for chancellor. Cardinal Wolsey, he adds, recommended More. When More praises Wolsey, Henry VIII snaps. Wolsey was a villain, he insists, who "failed me in the one thing that mattered" just because he wanted to be pope. After discussing his new ship, the king casually asks More if he's given any more thought to the divorce. More has thought about it, but he still can't give his approval. Henry VIII pleads with him. Why is More denying him his greatest desire? More replies he'd let the king saw his arm off to keep his conscience clear.

More reminds the king that he promised not to press him about the divorce when More took the job, but he laughs at the idea he's broken his word. Instead, he expresses his fear that he's stuck in sin: the book of Leviticus forbids him to marry his brother's widow. Henry VIII argues passionately that it's his duty to divorce the queen. More demurs and says sin is a matter for the pope. But the king wants More's opinion. More is known for his honesty, unlike Norfolk's blind loyalty and Cromwell's vicious competitiveness. The king appreciates how sincere More is.

Henry VIII then asks More what he thought of the music he played. More guesses correctly that the king composes the music himself. He compliments the piece and asks if Henry VIII will stay after dinner. The king suddenly declares he'll "have no opposition" from the bishops, the pope, or anyone else about his marriage. The bishops, he says, are hypocrites. Henry VIII warns More to keep silent and not write anything against him. More gently suggests he can't be loyal to the king in this matter, but the king continues to insist that Catherine isn't his wife.

The bells ring to mark eight o'clock, and the king, despite his earlier promise to stay for dinner, realizes he needs to sail home. He says a quick goodbye to the family.

Alice asks if More upset the king, and More says he ended up having no choice. Alice argues More should obey the king and "be ruled" if he won't assert his own authority. More says he'd never want to rule his king, but he has to rule himself in one small area. Besides, he adds, eight o'clock is when Henry VIII's mistress Anne likes to dance. Alice pleads with More to stay on the king's good side. More tries to joke about his skills in flattery, but Alice is still worried. More assures her he's not a martyr.

William Roper arrives, angry and planning to confront Sir Thomas More despite Margaret's protests. Roper says he's been offered a job in Parliament and asks whether he should he accept. More isn't sure. Roper might be right at home in the next Parliament, More suggests, with his "views on Church Reform." But Roper has changed his mind. He still thinks the Catholic Church needs reform, but the current attack on the church is "the Devil's work." More, shocked that Roper is speaking so blatantly against the king, asks Roper to remember that he's the chancellor. Roper says More has been corrupted by his royal office, adding "you are not the man you were." Alice snaps at Roper for his impudence.

Richard Rich arrives during the argument. As he greets the family, Rich senses he isn't welcome and says so. More is surprised and wonders if Rich is hiding something. Rich pulls him aside. Cromwell and Chapuys are asking questions, Rich tells More, and the Steward's spying for them. More says he knows all this already. Collecting information is Chapuys's job. Rich begs More to employ him, and More refuses. Rich says he'd be loyal, but More tells him he can't even prove his own loyalty now.

The family watches Rich leave. Then Alice, Margaret, and Roper insist that More arrest Rich for libel and spying. More refuses, claiming there's no legal case against Rich. Roper angrily says that More is putting man's law above God's. More replies that he's no expert in God, or in right and wrong, but he's an expert in the law. Roper persists—would More protect the Devil himself under the law? Yes, More says, he would. When Roper claims he'd "cut down every law in England" to chase the Devil, More asks Roper where he'd hide if the laws were all gone. People need laws, More emphasizes, for their own safety. "The law's your god," Roper accuses. No, says More, "God's my god ... but ... I don't know where he is nor what he wants." Until then More says he'll hide himself and his daughter "in the thickets of the law."

As More storms upstairs, Roper asks what happened. Alice snaps "He can't abide a fool." They aren't sure what More plans to hide them from. More returns and apologizes to Roper for his harsh tone. Margaret asks More to be honest with them. More reassures the family he's broken no laws and he hasn't disobeyed the king. He invites the family to come upstairs and eat. Alice asks More why Cromwell is collecting information about him, and More says people tend to want information about prominent government figures. As the family goes upstairs More tells Roper he trusts him but not his principles. More jokes that people can claim to be "anchored to our principles," but they only use the anchor in good weather.


The Duke of Norfolk and Alice More already sense the situation "will end badly" for More. They don't know how badly it will end, but it's becoming clear More's beliefs will clash with national interests.

As More arrives late from prayers to greet the king, he reveals an academic absentmindedness. He seems to belong to another world entirely. The historical More saw himself as "the King's good servant, but God's first." The character of More reflects this attitude in his choice to wear the cassock. His family and friends are exasperated, but they find him endearing, too. Alice, Norfolk, and Margaret feel protective of More and want to keep him from embarrassment or harm.

King Henry VIII shows a combination of childish joy and stubborn authority. He shows off the mud on his feet, his dancer's legs, and his new ship. His boisterous personality conceals a real hunger for power and respect. The king's pride in launching his ship shows his desire to control the future in the "superhuman context" of the sea—"I steered her, Thomas, under sail." He doesn't like being shown up by Margaret's superior Latin.

More and Henry VIII appear to have a mutually affectionate friendship, but the king's wrath toward Wolsey shows how easily he can turn on people who betray him. Wolsey went quickly from an adviser to an enemy. More senses Henry might turn on him too.

There's real emotion, however, in Henry VIII's grief for his lost sons. His claim that he's being punished for an illegal marriage to Catherine may be manipulation, but it may also be a genuine fear. He is clearly dissatisfied with the power the church has to control his life, saying "It was never merry in England while we had cardinals amongst us."

Henry VIII knows More well. He's not surprised by More's dramatic show of his arm to illustrate what he would give up for a clear conscience. He knows More, unlike other advisers, won't just tell him what he wants to hear. But the reasons Henry respects More are the same reasons More will be doomed.

When Henry VIII says "I'll have no opposition," he means that More should keep quiet. He doesn't expect More to change his mind, but as long as More makes no public statement against the king, Henry VIII implies, he'll be left alone. More already sees how his silence will be interpreted: His lack of a statement will end up speaking for him. Nevertheless, he takes the king at his word. The king doesn't appear again in the play—Norfolk and Cromwell speak for him. For now the audience wonders if Henry VIII will keep his promise.

Alice More is more aware of the possible risks than More is. She says she's "minding my house" by looking out for the welfare of her family. She's been married to More too long to believe he can flatter a king he doesn't respect. In fact, More mocks the entire concept of flattery. But he does want to reassure Alice. He tends to make gentle jokes with his family, like his flattery recipe, whenever they're afraid. The family doesn't always appreciate his wit, but they see that it's a weapon for him. Wittiness helps him keep tough situations at an analytical distance.

More also uses silence as a weapon. He knows William Roper's thoughts, but he tells Roper "there are certain things I may not hear!" As long as an opinion isn't spoken, it doesn't exist. Roper, meanwhile, isn't interested in keeping people happy or safe at the expense of telling the truth. Just as More suspected, an attack on the Catholic Church has led Roper to defend his Catholic faith. Roper sees "convenience" as moral cowardice—lying for protection.

The term "convenience," like the term "conscience," is defined and redefined by different characters depending on their aims. Both Roper and More have an "inconvenient conscience," for instance. They both act according to their consciences, but their actions are different. Roper would never meet with or work for a corrupt king. More, though he dislikes politics, stays close to the king to limit the damage he can do.

Richard Rich's untimely entrance reveals the beginning of his corruption. Rich is spreading gossip, which the audience already knows More doesn't appreciate. More sees that Rich doesn't know when to keep quiet. As the Steward said he would, Rich is making More's dissent "a secret by making it dangerous." Rich describes himself as "adrift," evoking an image of being lost at sea. Rich has gotten involved in spying and illegal activity, and he doesn't have the law's protection. More sees the danger ahead for Rich, but he doesn't see the danger for himself. More's decision not to arrest Rich will work against him.

As More watches Thomas Cromwell closing in, he takes refuge in his only hiding place, the law. Roper sees manmade laws as needless "sophistication" or complications to prevent people from doing the right thing. More humbly admits he doesn't know what the right thing is. He can shelter himself within the safety of human rules, but his God wants more than Roper's version of servile piety.

More views himself as human, fallible, and imperfect. He can't survive in the lawless world of the sea. More refers to "the currents and eddies of right and wrong" and Roper's risky "seagoing principles." The sea is an open, unprotected space with the possibility of shipwreck and drowning. To More the sea stands for awe and terror in the face of the eternal; no one can survive there. When faced with questions of right and wrong, people will pretend to be "anchored to [their] principles." Still, people easily abandon their principles to seek convenience, safety, and comfort, just as a sailor abandons an anchor in bad weather.

Despite his growing apprehension, More is confident the law will save him. More's character arc is similar to that of the tragic hero, a protagonist whose fatal flaw or error in judgment leads to his downfall. One error of judgment that More makes is putting too much faith in the law. His family is less confident. Alice is increasingly frustrated by her husband's silence, and the unspoken threat to More shadows the entire conversation.

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