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A Man for All Seasons | Study Guide

Robert Bolt

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A Man for All Seasons | Epigraph and Preface | Summary



The Epigraph includes quotes by British writers Robert Whittington and Samuel Johnson. Whittington calls Sir Thomas More a man who could enjoy both good times and serious times, calling him "a man for all seasons." Johnson believes More had "the greatest virtue" of anyone in England.

Bolt's Preface summarizes the story of Henry VIII, an English king from the 16-century Tudor period "who started with everything and squandered it all." An "archetype" of humans' greedy, selfish desires, Henry VIII never planned to become king. After his older brother Arthur died, however, Henry VIII inherited the crown and subsequently married Arthur's wife, the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon. Since England was a Catholic monarchy, the king couldn't legally marry his brother's widow. The English and Spanish governments asked the pope to make an exception for Henry VIII and Catherine.

After several years of marriage the king wanted a divorce. He no longer needed the Spanish alliance, and he loved Anne Boleyn. More importantly, Catherine hadn't given him a male heir. England asked the pope to approve the divorce and the king's remarriage. But Spain, which had strong influence over Rome, insisted the pope deny Henry VIII's request. Henry was uneasy. He worried his marriage was adulterous and the pope was willingly holding "him in a state of sin." So, having been rebuffed by the pope, the king decided that the pope was no more than an ordinary bishop. As king his power extended over the bishops, whose "rival reign within the reign" had hampered the royal family's decisions for centuries. So Henry VIII appointed Thomas Cranmer, a man sympathetic to his cause, as archbishop of Canterbury. Together they secured the king's divorce and remarriage.

This is the political and theological background for the play, Bolt explains. But, what about the social and economic background? Tudor England had a conservative religious environment but a "progressive" economy. A conflict between the two may have been inevitable, but Bolt is interested in how things happened, not that they happened at all. Conflict between religions and economies means conflict between living human beings. Instead of seeing these aspects of culture as the result of individual choices, people view workers and thinkers as the products of their culture.

As Bolt wrote about Thomas More he became impressed with More's "adamantine" or firm sense of self. More knew what he could compromise on for enemies, friends, and family. His selfhood, however, wouldn't budge. At first Bolt was fascinated by the way More enjoyed every aspect of life but still found what Bolt calls "something in himself without which life was valueless." More knew he could have saved himself by approving the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn, but More wouldn't sign an oath to something he didn't believe. An oath, for More, was "an invitation to God" and breaking the oath meant "damnation."

Bolt acknowledges he's not a Christian himself. So why write about More, a man who died because he wouldn't "tell an ordinary lie"? Bolt is interested in what happens when someone takes an oath. Most modern people don't see themselves as an "immortal soul which we regard as absolutely inviolable," Bolt says. So, for most people, an oath with only the self as a guarantee does not mean so much. But people still feel they've invested something when they make a promise. More saw the oath as a contract between him and God. Bolt thinks it's the job of an artist to give people "a sense of selfhood without resort to magic," and he sees More as "a hero of selfhood."

Bolt was also impressed by how well-connected and well-adjusted More was in his society. He seemed to know everyone and had everyone's respect, even the king's. How did a man everyone loved, and who seemed to love them back, disagree so completely with his world? More had a greater loyalty to the Christian church. According to Bolt, the Church represented "that larger context which we all inhabit, the terrifying cosmos" to More. As a human More trusted the law to protect him. But his contemporary Cromwell, in what Bolt refers to as "an unconcealed act of perjury," showed More even the law could be distorted. Without legal protection More was defenseless and at the mercy of the cosmos.

Bolt uses water, the sea, and ships throughout the play to represent "the superhuman context" without law. The setting of dry land represents the safety of society. Imagery's important to the play, and Bolt wanted his imagery to resemble a poem—"tough and precise." Bolt hoped to use "beauty and form of language" to alienate or distance the audience. To achieve this effect Bolt added passages written by More.

After two previous plays Bolt wanted to try something different. In his first plays Bolt claims his characters were "unnaturally aware of what they 'stood for,'" and the result was too obvious to be theatrical. This time he adapted playwright Bertolt Brecht's style of using "alienation devices" to increase the audience's involvement in the drama. By stepping back, the audience will actually become closer to the characters. Bolt uses Eric Bentley's French phrase reculer pour mieux sauter, or drawing back to make a better leap forward.

In A Man for All Seasons Bolt used the most well-known alienation device. He had an actor discuss the play's action with the audience. But this actor, the Common Man, would address the audience in character. Bolt didn't anticipate how actual audiences would respond to the Common Man. Most audience members laughed at him, though some, Bolt thinks, may have recognized themselves in him.


Both Whittington and the scholar Erasmus used the phrase "a man for all seasons" to describe Sir Thomas More. The superlative praise More's contemporaries gave him shows he wasn't an ordinary man: he made an impression on them. "All seasons" refers to times in life when different emotions and behavior are needed. More could celebrate, mourn, and contemplate as the situation required. Bolt uses these quotes to show how the historical figure of More was regarded as someone larger than life.

The preface serves several purposes for readers of the play. It gives the play's historical background and puts the play in a broader historical context applicable to all societies. It offers insight into the character of More in the play, and it explains why More's appeal transcends a Catholic or religious background. It helps readers and audiences think about the play's relevance to their own lives, and, finally, it explains what Bolt intended for the unusual character of the Common Man.

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry believed "to create something universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific." By anchoring the play in a specific historical place, time, and series of events, Bolt can integrate universal ideas.

Bolt is interested in historical characters as archetypes and for the ideas they represent, particularly in the characters of More and Henry. An archetype is a universal example or symbol of certain people, traits, or concepts. The character of Henry VIII is a common archetype—greedy, impulsive, and powerful. Henry gets whatever he wants. Audiences "are in him vicariously indulged" by the fantasy of absolute power. His character appears frequently in literature, most famously in Shakespeare's play Henry VIII. Bolt's preface also shows the moral conflict Henry VIII faced, and how the king used the conflict to justify his divorce.

Bolt acknowledges the "collision" or the role of coincidences and timing in the historic events upon which he bases his play: The king's desire for remarriage just happened to coincide with the Protestant Reformation. When interests, desires, and goals conflict, change happens and human stories emerge. For instance "when an economy collides with a religion it is living men who collide," Bolt says.

To explain why the story is so important to him, Bolt discusses how people imagine history. In 1960 when Bolt wrote the play he found what "we now think more important" are the ways society shapes human behavior. Readers were interested in the reasons behind political machinations, not just the historical details. Bolt argues that instead of society shaping behavior, human behavior shapes society. Historical movements come from the thoughts, actions, and decisions of individuals. The creation of the Church of England wasn't a larger-than-life movement at first: It was a compromise because Henry VIII and More had a disagreement. Bolt focuses on interpersonal dynamics in the play to show how individuals, not societies, shape history.

Bolt acknowledges that people tend to describe themselves in terms of a group they belong to—who their family is or where they work, for instance. The descriptions resemble an image Bolt imagines as "somebody seen through a window" and not the person themselves. What happens if people try to define themselves outside of their group or culture? Will they succeed? Will there be consequences? Bolt thinks that people value individualism, but few people consider what individualism really means. Bolt's description of "individual Man" shows someone who stands apart from society. The individual Man can survive and thrive regardless of his external condition. This is harder than it seems. According to Bolt most people would be lost without society telling them what to do. The concepts of "freedom," "opportunity," and "get and spend" illustrate the rules people follow without knowing they're following them. Without spending money in an economy, for instance, few people would be able to function.

People also need authority figures to tell them society's rules. Bolt compares the "men with the categories" to priests, figures whom people admire and listen to. The men with the categories tell people how to behave and where they stand in a power hierarchy, and most people have a need to know where they stand. They get their self-image from where they fit in. Through the character of More, Bolt shows an example of someone who transcended these hierarchies. He didn't define himself by his public roles. The "primitive rigor" of his stubbornness suggests a primal force unaffected by any human intervention.

But More wasn't a hermit or someone who lived outside society. More was an active participant in his world. He had a thriving government career, and he acknowledged the king's authority. He had many friends and an avid sense of humor, which shows through in the play. Almost everyone knew and respected him. From a certain perspective More was the last person anyone would expect to take the stand he did. He had a lot to lose if he didn't sign on to the Act of Succession, but an oath was important enough to sacrifice his life for. Why?

Bolt recognizes More's Catholic faith is an essential part of his character. More had a specifically religious idea of "perjury and damnation," Bolt writes. Even More's strong faith can't explain his behavior, however. Bolt's phrase "ordinary lie" shows how strange and disproportionate More's refusal seems to most spectators. Bolt assumes most people, religious or not, tell an "ordinary lie" or two and would certainly tell one to save their lives. Their sense of self is "equivocal" or capable of change; they'll make sacrifices and compromises if necessary. But More's faith was "transcendental" or beyond the capability of rational understanding. Bolt can't fully relate to More's choice. The preface shows how Bolt himself tried to understand More's unusual decision. His feelings on More—and morality—evolved as a result.

More has appeal because readers and audiences can identify with his struggle, although few would go to the extremes he did. Still, Bolt explains that everyone has standards they'd "prefer, on the whole, not to violate." Though people don't take oaths or promises as seriously as More did, they feel an oath is an investment. Bolt believes art gives readers a "sense of selfhood" that can appeal to anyone, religious or not. He challenged himself to create this "sense of selfhood" in the play.

Why is the law so important to More's character? He's a lawyer, and he sticks to what he knows. He's also a human in trouble. By equating society's laws with "shelter" Bolt illustrates how laws keep a fair and just society intact. Legal restrictions enforce penalties when people harm others. Because of laws most people trust society to operate in a predictable way. But in More's case the law failed him. Rich lied on the stand with Cromwell's support. Once this illegal act was rewarded, "legal or illegal had no further meaning."

The preface asks the reader to consider how their societies, cultures, and groups define their sense of self. They think about the importance of laws, oaths, and promises in their own lives. They may wonder what they would do in More's position. Art often shows the audience something about themselves by reflecting their images back to them in a new way. This is where the alienation effect comes in.

Metaphor and imagery in literature can be alienation devices. Through "beauty and form of language," writers show a different way of looking at the world. Literary devices can make familiar concepts seem unfamiliar by using unusual comparisons, for instance. Bolt explains that the play's heavy use of metaphor is the only way he could approach this story of religion, life, and death. He reveals how symbols, metaphors, and images in literature help audiences digest serious subject matter in a way plainer language can't.

Bolt wanted the alienation effect to "draw the audience into the play." He wants the Common Man to be a surrogate for the audience. The surrogate has the same questions the audience does, but he's in a unique position to provide the answers. For example, he reads passages of historical context aloud. The Common Man's direct address to the audience makes them feel involved in the play's outcome.

Bolt chooses "a story rather than a plot"—a complex historical event rather than a story created specifically for the stage—and then employs theatrical devices to make the story more relevant. But he still wants audiences to see themselves in the Common Man. Instead, he says, they saw a "common" or boorish and comical character. They saw another archetype, the "other," instead of seeing a mirror. Bolt hopes readers of the preface will approach the play differently.

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