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A Man for All Seasons | Study Guide

Robert Bolt

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A Man for All Seasons | Act 2, Section 9 : More Faces a Trial | Summary



As "portentous and heraldic" music plays, several coats of arms descend. The jailer changes the scene to the courtroom setting in the Hall of Westminster. He adds his jailer's hat to a collection of several hats on poles. Thomas Cromwell enters and praises the props as the awe-inspiring "Canvas and the Rigging of the Law!" As the jailer, once again the Common Man, moves to leave, Cromwell tells him he's the foreman of the jury. "Does the cap fit?" Cromwell asks the Common Man when he's reluctant. The Common Man puts on a gray hat and says it fits.

Panels with the monogram "HR VIII" for Henry VIII are lowered. Thomas Cranmer and the Duke of Norfolk sit on throne chairs. Sir Thomas More and the foreman of the jury enter. Norfolk, "[taking] refuge behind a rigorously official manner," begins proceedings by telling More he's there to answer charges of High Treason. More says he hopes God will keep him in his "honest mind" and apologizes for his weakened wit and memory after imprisonment.

Cromwell reads the charges. The charges state that More "did conspire traitorously and maliciously to deny and deprive" King Henry VIII of his title as the Church of England's Head. More protests he never denied the title. His silence wasn't denial, and he's already serving life in prison. By now More senses the trial is rigged.

When Cromwell reminds More the punishment is death, More says even kings will die and be sentenced to judgments. More adds his own death isn't certain until they can prove him guilty. Norfolk urgently reminds him that "Your life lies in your own hand." More tells Norfolk it would be shameful for them to enter "the Kingdom" easily when God entered painfully.

Cromwell asks More if he stands by his silence. More does. Cromwell tells the jury "there are many kinds of silence." A dead man's silence means nothing. But if men witnessed a murder and remain silent, this silence would mean much more—it would make them willing parties and just as guilty as the murderer. "Silence can, according to circumstances, speak," Cromwell concludes. Despite More's silence, for instance, everyone in England knows his true opinion. Therefore More's silence was "most eloquent denial."

More disagrees. The legal rule, he says, is "Silence gives consent." His silence should be considered assent by default, not denial. Cromwell objects that this is clearly not the meaning of More's silence. More says the court needs to use the law, not common assumption. Growing angry, Cromwell accuses More of "perverting" the clarity of the law. More says the law isn't a light or an instrument but "a causeway upon which ... a citizen may walk safely." A loyal citizen, More continues, should be loyal to his conscience first. Out of patience, Cromwell says More is using the word "conscience" to cover up his "frivolous self-conceit." More insists "a man's soul is his self!"

Turning directly to More, Cromwell tells him that he's showing disrespect for the country and the king. More counters that "giving [the king] lies when he asks for truth" won't help the country. Cromwell backs away and calls Richard Rich as a witness. Rich is wearing official clothing and walking with pride. He swears an oath to tell the truth.

As Cromwell questions Rich, Rich reveals he was at the Tower on March 12 while taking away More's books. Rich claims he discussed the king's supremacy in the church with More. Rich asked More if he'd accept an act of Parliament making Rich, for instance, king. More agreed. Then Rich asked if More would accept an Act of Parliament saying "God should not be God." More acknowledges this is true so far and tries to add something more, but Norfolk cuts him off.

Rich continues, claiming he then asked More why he won't accept Parliament making Henry VIII the head of the Church. Rich claims that More replied "Parliament has not the competence." More emphatically denies he ever made this statement to Rich. He asks the court if they really believe he'd break his long silence and confess to a man like Rich. Two other men were in the cell on March 12, More says. Cromwell tells him the two men, Southwell and Palmer, are in Ireland and already testified they didn't hear what was said. More wonders why the men weren't called immediately if he'd really made this statement.

But More knows he has lost the case. When Norfolk asks him for a final statement, he says there's no point. Cromwell has "hunted me for ... the thoughts of my heart," he adds. He pities everyone under Cromwell's rule. More does have a question for Rich about the chain of office he's wearing. He sees Rich has been appointed attorney general for Wales. More is shocked and amused. Rich gave up his soul for Wales?

Cromwell has a message for More from Henry VIII. More is stunned—the king has agreed to convict him. The foreman of the jury instantly proclaims More guilty. As Norfolk is about to give his sentence, More interrupts. From now on More acts like someone who "will now consult no interests but his own." More has tried everything to keep himself alive, but he's still condemned, so he is finally going to make his statement. He says the Act of Parliament is "directly repugnant to the Law of God," and the king can never be head of the church. In fact, the church was promised immunity in the Magna Carta and in the king's Coronation Oath. Cromwell says his suspicions were confirmed, that More does in fact wish the king harm.

More, quietly, says he only wishes the Henry VIII well and prays for him and that if wishing people well condemns him to death he'd rather not live. More often thought he would die in prison and sometimes wished he had. In a final flash of anger More says he's only been convicted because he wouldn't agree to the remarriage.

As the scene begins to change to an execution, Norfolk reads More's sentence: He's guilty of high treason and will be beheaded.


This is the climactic section. Both More and Rich go through a role reversal. More is now hopeless and lost, while Rich is powerful and respected, just as he wanted to be. But the audience senses More isn't defeated and that Rich isn't content.

The "portentous and heraldic" ceremony of the court setting contrasts with the simplicity of the jail setting. Cromwell's rhyme is absurd and pompous, jarring the audience after the emotional jailhouse scene. He associates the law—the "Great Ship" and the "Sailor's Art"—with the wild uncontrollability of the sea.

The Common Man is put in the uncomfortable position of jury foreman. Like the audience he'll have to watch the trial. At first he tries not to get involved, but Cromwell, stepping briefly out of his own role, reminds the Common Man he has a part to play. Here the Common Man mirrors possible audience reactions—reluctance to venture into a tense situation, let alone to deliver a verdict.

The drama of the courtroom relies on More's gradual realizations. He's calm at first, then shocked, then increasingly wary. His silence hasn't brought him legal protection. If the king wants him dead he'll die. If the court wants to convict him they will. The courtroom is the lawless realm of the sea. More discovers what he told Margaret about being a "hero" in the world is true. He's not in a world where virtue and thought are rewarded.

As More sees how powerless he is, he gradually begins to take back what power he can. He comes close to saying Henry VIII will suffer in hell, and he stands by his silence even when he senses he'll lose. To Norfolk More acts as a spiritual martyr. Norfolk is concerned and grieved that More's situation has come to this, but he's trapped. More comforts Norfolk by taking responsibility for his own choice to die.

At first the case seems to hinge on the correct interpretation of silence. Cromwell's speech implies More's silence had a clear meaning in context, but More believes his silence isn't really the issue. Cromwell doesn't care about legal precedent. Instead, More is being judged for his known refusal to consent to Henry VIII's remarriage, his past behavior, and his independent streak. He's not on trial for breaking the law but for being himself. He says he is hunted "not for my actions, but the thoughts of my heart."

Then the case gets personal. Each man reveals what he really thinks about the other. More thinks Cromwell is manipulating the law for his own purposes, like someone who wields a light or an instrument. More says the law's like a path or a causeway, which is predetermined and unchangeable.

Cromwell, though, sees More as conceited and proud. Who is he not to follow the rules others follow? Why can't he recognize his "place in the State" and demonstrate the loyalty he professes? To More, loyalty doesn't mean agreeing with every state decision. If the state commands him to lie and be a party to corruption, More asks, does it deserve his approval? Doesn't he owe the king the truth?

Is the public, social self more important than the private self or "soul"? By "self" Cromwell means More's indulging himself at the expense of others. He believes More is a citizen in a society first and an individual second. More thinks he's an individual first and a social creature second. The views can't be reconciled.

In a show of situational irony, Rich gives the deciding testimony by doing what More would never do. He takes an oath in a courtroom and then lies. Rich, now "splendidly official," is secure in his social standing. He's no longer worried about what More thinks of him.

The argument in the play was the argument Rich made in More's historic trial. The audience doesn't see the scene where Rich and More had the alleged jailhouse discussion, so the testimony comes as a shock. The audience is familiar with More and Rich by now, however. They're inclined to trust More and believe Rich is lying.

This is the moment where fortunes turn completely. More grows desperate in a way he hasn't been before. No one, not even Norfolk, speaks for him. Without hope, More tells Rich and Cromwell exactly what he thinks of them. Rich's labored exit, "stiff-faced but ... dignified," shows he may be feeling shame for what he's done. The foreman's quick condemnation shows how easily the Common Man can be swept into agreeing with whomever holds power.

The Henry VIII's condemnation truly guts More. He's now lost his identity as a patriot and loyal citizen and has nothing left but himself. More does get a genuine moment of catharsis or release. With nothing left to lose, he finally breaks his silence and gives his statement. The mystery surrounding More's statement gives it much more impact. And his assertive, confident language gives the audience relief—they're still rooting for him.

More then briefly settles into the archetype of the religious martyr he never wanted to be. He's calm, contemplative, and ready for death. Bolt gives More language associated with Christian saints and martyrs, including gratitude to "Our Lord." At the end of his speech, however, he breaks from the archetype to reveal anger and humanity. He knew what the court was up to all along.

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