A Man for All Seasons | Study Guide

Robert Bolt

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A Man for All Seasons | Act 2, Section 7 : More Is Put in Jail and Questioned | Summary

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Summary

The Common Man returns to the stage with his basket. He's unsettled by previous events but tells the audience no one "enjoyed it any more than [More] did." He takes a jailer's uniform from the basket and puts it on. Thomas Cromwell, the Duke of Norfolk, Richard Rich, and Thomas Cranmer come onstage. Meanwhile, Sir Henry More gets into the cage.

The jailer explains that Cromwell and the other men would let More out if they could, and so would he, but no one can. The jailer brings up an old saying "Better a live rat than a dead lion." An envelope descends from the top of the stage. The Common Man opens it and reads the text inside to the audience. He reveals that Cromwell was executed for High Treason in July 1540. Norfolk was convicted of High Treason in 1547. King Henry VIII died a day before Norfolk's scheduled execution and couldn't sign the warrant. Cranmer was burned alive in 1556. Rich rose to the rank of lord chancellor "and died in his bed" after a long life. The jailer also died in his bed, and he hopes the audience will too.

The jailer then wakes More at one in the morning. "The Secretary, the Duke, and the Archbishop" are there to question More. Though More has aged and walks with a limp, he's relaxed while his questioners are "bored, tense, and jumpy."

Norfolk introduces the questioners as "the Seventh Commission to inquire into the case of Sir Thomas More." Cromwell tells the jailer to stay. Cromwell produces the Act of Succession—the new Act that More, Margaret, and Roper discussed earlier—with signatures. More has seen the act several times, and he still won't sign. Cromwell and then Norfolk question More on why he won't swear to the act, but More refuses to explain why he won't sign.

Cranmer offers to try and talk to More. He asks More if he won't sign the act because it states the pope had no authority to approve Henry VIII and Catherine's marriage. More stays silent, and Norfolk loses his patience and says More "[insults] the King and his Council." More again refuses to say why he won't sign the act. Norfolk says "it's a fair assumption" that More's refusal to explain can be interpreted as treason. More disagrees, saying "the law requires a fact." Cranmer claims he can guess More's "spiritual standing" from his refusal to sign. More is offended but says Cranmer can probably guess his objections as well.

But More adds he may have no objections, since all they can prove is his refusal to sign. It may be, he says, that he is just trying to give them trouble. After all, he's already been imprisoned for life and forfeited everything he owns. What else can they legally do to him? Cromwell admires More's legal dodging of the question, adding he's been trying to convince Norfolk of the same thing.

Norfolk, frustrated and upset, says he doesn't know if the marriage was legal or not. He begs More to see how many people he respects have already signed and he should just add his name "for fellowship." More replies that he'll be damned before God if he doesn't follow his conscience. Would Norfolk come with him, he asks, "for fellowship" then?

Cranmer asks if More thinks everyone who signed the act is damned, and More says no. He can't judge anyone's conscience but his own. More should clearly obey the king, Cranmer responds, asking More to "weigh a doubt against a certainty." More's not convinced. The king's command, he says, doesn't change facts. Cromwell accuses More of thinking his doubt is more important than the king's command. More responds he has no doubt. He'll only give his reasons to the king.

Does More know how much trouble he's in, Cromwell asks? More says he's been in jail for a year, and so he's aware of how serious the situation is. More tells Cromwell he threatens "like a dockside bully" when he should threaten "like a Minister of State, with justice!"

Norfolk says More can go back to bed as he's requested. More tentatively asks for more books. Cromwell is surprised, since More shouldn't have any books at all. Cromwell denies More's plaintive request to see his family, and More returns to his cell.

Cromwell asks the jailer if More has ever said anything about the divorce, the remarriage, or the king's leadership over the church. The jailer says no. Cromwell has the jailer swear an oath that he'll report anything More says "against the king, the Council or the State of the Realm." He promises the jailer 50 guineas if he reports. To the audience the jailer says 50 guineas is an alarming amount of money, enough to put his own life in danger. He tells the audience he won't say a thing.

Cromwell asks Norfolk to remove More's books. Norfolk hesitates but agrees when Cromwell says Henry VIII is getting impatient. Cromwell goes over to the torture rack, and Rich follows him to ask about a possible promotion to the job of attorney general for Wales. Cromwell impatiently tells Rich it's not a good time. Still thinking about More's case, Cromwell says More will have to give in. With More alive the king's conscience is still troubled, and if Cromwell leads More to his death he'll be executed too. He and Rich look at the torture rack. Cromwell decides Henry VIII will never allow them to torture More. They need "some gentler way."

Analysis

The adage "Better a live rat than a dead lion" doesn't bode well for More. A traitor, like someone who tells secrets to the enemy, is sometimes called a "rat." A "lion" is someone heroic and noble. More's commitment to principle, the saying implies, will make him a "dead lion."

The envelope the Common Man reads reveals the situational irony of the Commission. Almost every one of More's accusers will be executed for treason themselves. No one's safe. Rich is the only member of the Commission who makes it out unconvicted and alive. Not only does Rich survive, he advances professionally.

Norfolk also has a complicated moral arc. He never wants to be involved in the investigation. He's still begging More to "give in" and see reason. He appeals, again, to "fellowship" and More's social self and despises being on the same side of the table as Cromwell.

Though More's offended when Cranmer suggests his "spiritual standing" may be less than ideal, he's secure in his conscience. He doesn't say signing the act is wrong for everyone, only for him. He's not threatened by human justice. Besides, More's still sheltered in the legal loophole of silence. The law needs a fact, and he won't give them facts. People assume they know what he thinks about the Act of Succession, but they don't know for sure. So far More trusts the law will be followed to the letter, and so far he's been ahead of every plan to "harm [him] further." In addition, he's still alive.

The law, however, doesn't end up working the way More thinks it should. Jury bias, common assumptions, and abuses of power can all influence a case. Humans create laws, and humans can alter them or simply refuse to follow them. More's trust in the legal system will be his downfall.

Cromwell knows he'll have to operate outside the law to trap More. He removes More's books, hoping that if he removes any remaining comfort, More will give in. He tries to bribe the jailer, knowing the jailer will obey an authority without question.

As the play approaches its climax, everyone is increasingly frightened. Cromwell fears for his life if he offends the king. The jailer worries the bribe will rope him into a conspiracy, putting him in danger. The "instrument of torture" has been sitting onstage as a silent reminder that pain and death are close at hand. The rack, and the "startling clatter" Cromwell produces from it, plant fear in the audience's minds.

Rich senses a better job is the key to staying out of trouble himself. He has put aside any reservations about conspiring with Cromwell: the seeds are planted for Rich's perjury.

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