A Man for All Seasons | Study Guide

Robert Bolt

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A Man for All Seasons | Act 2, Section 6 : More and Norfolk Argue; Margaret and Roper Share News with More | Summary

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Summary

Sir Thomas More is at the boatyard, calling for a boat and trying to calm himself down. No boat arrives. He runs into the Duke of Norfolk, who says he's not surprised boatmen are avoiding More now. Norfolk confesses he followed More. He tells More he's "behaving like a fool." Doesn't More think about the danger he's putting his friends in? Norfolk adds that the king is using him in the "policy" against More. "That's clever. That's Cromwell," More replies.

Then More tells Norfolk they can no longer be friends. He can't keep Norfolk from obeying the king, and he won't endanger Norfolk's family. Norfolk refuses. He can't stop being More's friend any more easily than he can change his hair color. He begs More to concede. More says he can't give in any more easily than he can change his eye color. Surely, More says, their friendship can be flexible?

Norfolk is upset and grieved. Although More feels deep affection for Norfolk, More knows he can't betray himself. Norfolk protests—even the most arrogant people in government have given in! Norfolk refuses to "part, as friends, and meet as strangers" as More suggests. More then tries to start an argument, and Norfolk smiles. He thinks More doesn't have it in him to start a fight.

But More has something to say to Norfolk. It was easy for Norfolk to give in, More says, because the religion of England never meant anything to him. The two have "had a quarrel since the day we met." More brings up the water spaniels Norfolk breeds. He'd never breed a water spaniel who was afraid of water, would he? Like the spaniels, More says, a man can't be afraid of "his own self." More's opposition doesn't come from pride but from deeper sense of self. He's sure Norfolk has this same independent self deep within him, but he just chooses not to exercise it. As Norfolk gets more upset, More says Norfolk won't be prepared to meet his Maker. More compares Norfolk's lack of conscience to breeding a poor water spaniel—"a bitch got over the wall!" Norfolk hits More and leaves.

Meanwhile Margaret has been calling for her father. She runs to meet him, surprised at what just happened. William Roper finds them both. He has news he's eager to share: Parliament passed an act requiring citizens to swear an oath recognizing the king's marriage. Anyone who refuses to take the oath will be guilty of treason. More asks about the wording of the act. He can't decide if it's a threat unless he reads the words. Roper thinks the threat should be obvious. More explains to both of them that a human is designed "to serve [God] wittily, in the tangle of his mind!" More believes God wants him to use thought and reason to save his life. If God wants to "see splendor" and make him a martyr, More says, that is God's decision, not his. The three go home to read the act.

The Common Man drags a cage onstage. A rack or torture instrument is suspended above.

Analysis

The people More is closest to—Norfolk, Margaret, and Alice—will each use a different tactic to try and change his mind. Norfolk appeals to More's sense of fellowship and common humanity. More cares about being "a gentleman," doesn't he? Does he see how he's hurting his friends?

Both men feel they have "immutable," or unchangeable, qualities, values they'd never give up. Norfolk values friendship, affection, and patriotism. He's loyal and sensitive to the needs of his society. But these qualities are relational. They depend on others and not "just Norfolk." More's immutable values are internal and related to his love for God. More views his religion and his selfhood as intertwined. But where More sees conscience, Norfolk sees arrogance and pride. Everyone else had to follow the rules. Why should More be the exception?

To More the phrase "give in" doesn't mean selflessly putting others first. It means conceding or sacrificing something great, and it's ultimately not worth it. By emphasizing the "religion of this country" More implies Norfolk isn't the patriot he thinks he is. Norfolk's faith is political; he adopts the opinions of those around him, and he has no independent convictions. More sees something dishonorable, dishonest, and impure in Norfolk. More's last insult is jarring, and so is the escalation of their fight. More comes across as harsh, self-righteous, and stubborn. But he speaks with true passion, and the audience can sympathize with both characters.

The "new Act through Parliament" is the Act of Succession, declaring Henry VIII and Anne's children the rightful heirs to the throne. Roper is defiant, excited there's something to fight for. More returns to his lawyer's reliance on language and phrasing. He feels he's been sent a challenge to overcome. His weapons are thought, reason, discretion, and legal know-how. The audience hopes he'll find a loophole somewhere in the act.

The stage is shrouded in moonlight and darkness, suggesting a change is taking place. The rack introduces the possibility of torture, once more raising the stakes.

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