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A Man for All Seasons | Study Guide

Robert Bolt

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A Man for All Seasons | Context


The Protestant Reformation in England

On October 31, 1517, German theologian Martin Luther nailed a document—the 95 Theses—to the door of a castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. When scholars wanted to invite debate or academic discussion they'd often post documents in this way. Luther's 95 Theses was a list questioning some of the Catholic Church's practices. The document's powerful simplicity—and, more importantly, its timing—initiated the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

Earlier in the 16th century Europe was mostly content with the Catholic Church, although most parishioners realized the church wasn't perfect. Church leaders sold indulgences to common people, promising their money would free them from Hell in the afterlife. Recent plagues reminded poor people how close death could be, and so they paid the church. Meanwhile popes and Catholic Renaissance royalty, such as the Borgias and the Medicis in Italy and Cardinal Wolsey in England, got richer.

Some Catholic thinkers thought the church needed change from within. These thinkers, known as the Christian humanists, included Desiderius Erasmus and his close friend Thomas More. The humanists returned to the study of classical languages like Greek and Latin and applied ancient precepts to Christian thought. They felt the church should respect the dignity of every human being and were critical of corrupt Catholic practices. But they remained devoted Catholics nonetheless.

Luther and fellow reformer John Calvin took the humanists' thought a step further and wanted the church to transform completely. They strongly protested the sale of indulgences. Salvation, they believed, wasn't based on money or social status; instead, salvation was about the grace and redemption in the Bible. They rejected the Catholic Church's hierarchy of authority, especially the authority of the pope and the saints. They claimed study of the scripture and faith were all people needed to be saved.

Despite high-level corruption, the Catholic Church remained an important institution. People trusted their parishes. Most priests didn't take advantage of their congregations. Dissident or "heretic" groups like England's Lollards, led by theologian John Wycliffe, didn't last long.

But the 16th century saw the growth of a more urban, educated, and literate population. More laypeople, or people who weren't members of the clergy, could read the Scriptures. They were more prepared to take ownership of their faith and more open to a message of change.

Most Catholic leaders strongly resisted change. Pope Leo X quickly condemned Luther's 95 Theses and excommunicated him from the church. Luther was charged with heresy, or an opinion contrary to Catholic doctrine, at a 1521 meeting in Worms, Germany, known as the Diet of Worms. Given a last chance, Luther refused to recant. The Edict of Worms, a ruling made at the Diet, banned Luther and his writings. Eight years later German emperor Charles V, a devout Roman Catholic, enforced the Edict of Worms throughout Germany. But six German rulers now considered themselves Lutherans, or followers of Luther. Together with 14 cities they protested Charles V's decision and declared their loyalty to the new faith. People who believed in the Reformation became known as Protestants all across Europe.

England's leadership at first defended Catholic tradition. King Henry VIII responded to Luther in 1521 with his own text called Defense of the Seven Sacraments, written for him by friend and adviser Sir Thomas More. The Seven Sacraments are ritual ceremonies essential to Catholic life. The pope awarded Henry VIII the title Defender of the Faith. The king feared the social change Protestantism might bring and actively worked to fight it by prohibiting lower classes from reading the Bible.

Six years after his defense of the sacraments, changes in Henry VIII's personal life would convince him to join the Protestant Reformation. The upheaval in Europe came to England too.

Henry VIII and a Crisis in the Church

Young Henry became heir to the throne at age 10 after his brother Arthur, Prince of Wales died unexpectedly. Shortly after taking the throne, Henry VIII married his brother's widow, Spanish Princess Catherine of Aragon, in order to maintain an alliance between England and Spain. After many years of marriage, however, Catherine still hadn't had a son. Henry was approaching his mid-30s and was concerned he wouldn't leave a male heir to the throne. He was also in love with a noblewoman named Anne Boleyn, and she wanted to be queen.

Henry VIII wanted out of his marriage to Catherine, so he asked Pope Clement VII for a divorce. Henry argued that the biblical book of Leviticus forbid him marrying his brother's widow in the first place. He feared his lack of sons was God's punishment for breaking the biblical law. But the pope had a strong loyalty to Emperor Charles V of Spain, Catherine's loyal nephew. Torn between two loyalties, the pope refused to grant Henry VIII his divorce. The king persisted, forcing his adviser Cardinal Wolsey out of power for failing to successfully obtain the divorce. The king then went to England's most respected intellectual, a man who was both a religious expert and a close personal friend.

This friend was Sir Thomas More. Around 1527 More worked as personal secretary and adviser to the king. By 1529 he'd been promoted to lord chancellor. On the king's behalf More formed relationships with foreign ambassadors, wrote treaties and speeches, and even defended the Catholic faith against Luther's attacks. More thought Henry VIII was as loyal a Catholic as he was himself. When More couldn't find a biblical reason to support the divorce, the king believed him. But the VIII didn't give up. More, meanwhile, realized he wouldn't be able to stay in public office and maintain his devotion to the faith if the king pursued his wish for a divorce.

As lord chancellor, More tried his best to please the king. He signed a letter stating English universities supported the divorce. But he refused, based on his faith, to sign a similar letter pressuring the pope to annul the marriage.

In 1530 Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, suggested another way Henry VIII could get the divorce: He could assert his imperial or divine power as king of England. As king his decision could override the pope's decision on the marriage. The English Parliament and clergy supported Henry VIII's new tactic. The clergy acknowledged King Henry VIII as their ruler "as far as the law of Christ allows." This was too far for More. He resigned in 1531, and the king accepted.

By now Henry VIII was less welcoming to the Catholic Church. His new advisers, including Thomas Cromwell, sympathized with the Protestants. Cromwell's political skill made him sensitive to which leaders were influential. More, he knew, was especially popular. If More didn't acknowledge the king's supremacy over the pope, others might follow his lead.

Henry VIII's divorce was finally granted. Anne Boleyn had become pregnant, and the king urgently needed to marry her. When Anne was crowned queen in 1533 More didn't attend the coronation. England was now in the grip of the Reformation. The monasteries of England were closed and sold. Two legislative acts confirmed Henry VIII's new authority. The 1534 Act of Succession declared Anne and Henry VIII's marriage legitimate and Anne's daughter Elizabeth successor to the crown. The 1534 Act of Supremacy or Oath of Supremacy named Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

A Man for All Seasons doesn't follow this exact historical timeline. For example, at the beginning of Act 2, which takes place in 1532, characters refer to the Church of England and the Act of Supremacy, which aren't enacted until 1534.

More's absence at the coronation made the ruling powers suspicious, and they searched for ways to convict him for treason, including evidence he accepted bribes. More was accused of collaborating with another dissenter, Elizabeth Barton, or the Holy Maid of Kent. In fact, his letter to Barton had warned her against meddling with the king. In 1534 royal commissioners asked More to swear an oath to the Act of Succession. More was willing to acknowledge Anne was the legitimate queen, but he couldn't agree to one clause in the act. He could not bring himself to deny the power of "any foreign authority, prince or potentate" over the king—including the pope. This clause was included to trap him, and it worked. More was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

More had been in prison for a year when Richard Rich, Cromwell's solicitor general, claimed More denied the king's leadership of the church. More never explicitly made this claim. Even Protestants believed Rich was lying, but the statement was still investigated. After authorities learned More was writing to fellow prisoner John Fisher, who also hadn't taken the oath, they took away More's writing instruments and books.

More famously called himself "the King's good servant and God's first" right before his 1535 execution. He was considered a martyr by Protestants and Catholics alike.

The Real Thomas More

Bolt portrays More as moral and heroic. History supports that interpretation: The Catholic Church made Sir Thomas More a saint in 1935.

More's strong faith is well documented. More's father told him to become a lawyer, but More felt a divine calling to the priesthood. To explore this option, he lived for four years in a monastery before deciding to remain a layperson. But even following that decision, he kept up the religious habits of fasting, prayer, and wearing an uncomfortable hair shirt. (A hair shirt was a rough cloth often made from the hair of goats. It was scratchy and worn to help wearers resist temptation.)

In his personal life More was known to be charming, affectionate, and generous. He kept his lifestyle simple but enjoyed having a good time with friends. In addition to his busy life as a lawyer and adviser to the king, he taught at a domestic school. His students, mostly young girls, received a rigorous classical education. More's daughter, Margaret, was also highly educated, a rarity for women at the time. She and her father were close.

More's books include the classic Utopia (1516), a fictional satire describing an ideal imaginary city-state governed by reason. More was revered after his death, even when England turned to Protestantism during the Elizabethan Age. Catholic author G.K. Chesterton believed More "may come to be counted the greatest Englishman." There are monuments to More throughout London, including in the Tower of London and Westminster Hall.

Bolt's interpretation of More's story is perhaps the most famous. Since 1960 the play has contributed to the view of More as a martyr and saint.

But many scholars think A Man for All Seasons paints an inaccurate picture of More and his beliefs. In the play More defends freedom of conscience and the right to be true to himself. The character expresses a modern idea of conscience, not a 16th-century one, says writer Marvin O'Connell. "[More] never maintained, as you and I might do, that conscience is the ultimate voice," writes O'Connell. "Conscience for More was the right to be right, not the right to be wrong."

More's convictions lay in the truth of Catholicism, not the truth of his own internal compass. A Harvard Crimson editorial on the film concludes that Bolt's More explains his actions in the modern context of the "self" for modern readers. Meanwhile the historical More would have followed "a simpler, more direct faith than Bolt has been able to find words for." Writer Hilary Mantel thinks Bolt "wrenched [More] out of his age and context and polished him up to make him acceptable to a secular and liberal era, an era whose values he would have abhorred." Scholar Simon Farrow thinks the play focuses heavily on interpersonal dynamics, not the theological questions More actually considered.

More's aggressive pursuit of Protestant "heretics" is also largely left out of the play. Professor of Church History Diarmaid MacCulloch says "for [More] a united Christendom overrode his concern with mercy or with pity." And More used his royal power to punish dissenters from the Catholic faith, says historian David Starkey. Starkey blames the play and film of A Man for All Seasons for presenting More incorrectly as a compassionate "liberal." In More's age when religious debates were heated, he and his fellow officials would have persecuted anyone considered a heretic.

Similarly, Thomas Cromwell's character in A Man for All Seasons is that of a ruthless antagonist. Mantel's 2009 novel Wolf Hall famously tells the story of Cromwell's life, portraying More as a villain, instead. Wolf Hall presents Cromwell as a clever, idealistic man who overcame a childhood of poverty and abuse to create the Church of England. The More of Wolf Hall is "a torturer of heretics with a penchant for self-punishment." Mantel's portrayal, like Bolt's, is fictional. But historian G.R. Elton agrees that Cromwell's more than a villain. He credits Cromwell-led church reforms with moving England from the Middle Ages into the modern era.

More was human, complex, and flawed, but his life and scholarship left a lasting impact. And the context in which he lived helped shape his legacy. "More embodied the searching, troubled spirit of the early 16th century," says scholar Marilee Hanson. Writer Charles Krauthammer concludes that More "may have been a man for all seasons, but he was also a man of his times. And in those times ... the pursuit and savage persecution of heresy were the norm."

Bolt, Brecht, and the "Alienation Effect"

As he explains in the Preface, Bolt wanted to use German playwright Bertolt Brecht's "alienation effect" or "alienation device" in A Man for All Seasons. Bolt experiments with this effect through the character of the Common Man and the play's set design.

Brecht came up with the alienation effect, also called the distancing effect, after observing how plays emotionally manipulated their audiences. Realistically designed sets, dramatic acting techniques, and natural lighting all immersed the audience in the drama. So did the theater's "fourth wall," or the imaginary space between the actors and the audience. Creators of Nazi propaganda, Brecht noticed, used similar manipulation techniques to get their message across.

Alienation techniques, by contrast, remind audiences they're watching a play. Characters may address the audience directly or critique their own actions onstage. Direct audience address is considered "breaking the fourth wall." Actors may break in and out of character. Captions or pictures may be projected onto a screen. The set design might be sparse or nonexistent, not portraying any specific location. Spectators are meant to be surprised. Brecht believed these techniques produced "the alienation that is necessary to all understanding." If the audience got too comfortable, he thought, they wouldn't really learn or understand anything.

The alienation effect invites critical response. Audiences are encouraged to think about the play's message without getting emotionally involved. For instance, spectators may not identify as closely with characters or perceive characters as "good" and "bad." They can consider how the play relates to their own lives and world, not just to a faraway place and time. When plays deal with important or challenging topics, the alienation technique can help spectators "distance themselves emotionally from problems that [demand] intellectual solutions" according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In A Man for All Seasons the Common Man talks to the audience throughout the play, commenting on the action between scenes. He uses humor, satire, and wit to keep the audience alert and plays several characters with different sympathies and loyalties. The Common Man breaks with storytelling convention by revealing the fates of major characters such as More and Cromwell before the end of the play.

The play's set design is simple and changes quickly from scene to scene. The Common Man often sets up the props for a scene while talking to the audience then snap into character when addressed by another actor. These techniques make the process of set design transparent, showing its artificial nature.

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