A Man for All Seasons | Study Guide

Robert Bolt

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A Man for All Seasons | Plot Summary

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Summary

Epigraph and Preface

Two quotations from British intellectuals Robert Whittington and Samuel Johnson describe More's virtue and wisdom.

Bolt explains the historical background behind the play. In the 16th century English King Henry VIII fought against "the whole edifice of medieval religion." Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife Catherine for not giving him a male heir, but his desire for the divorce clashed with the doctrine of the Catholic Church. The king appointed a bishop willing to give him authority over the pope and secured the divorce.

Why did Bolt choose to write about Thomas More, a man who refused to approve the king's remarriage and was executed for treason? Bolt thinks More had a strong sense of self. Concepts like religion, economy, and society are made by individuals, he explains, though people usually define individuals by their society instead. More, he feels, was an independent "individual Man." Bolt was an atheist, while More was deeply religious. But Bolt was intrigued by More's inner convictions and complex relationship with society.

Bolt reveals how he used playwright Bertolt Brecht's "alienation effect" by including a character, the Common Man, who comments on the action. Bolt discusses the strange results of this approach on the play's performance.

Act 1

The Common Man, who will act in many roles throughout the play, begins as Sir Thomas More's steward or servant in 16th-century Tudor England. More, a lawyer and councilman to the king of England, is drinking wine with academic Richard Rich. They discuss Rich's career prospects. More gives Rich a silver cup he received as a bribe. More's wife Alice, his daughter Margaret, and his friend the Duke of Norfolk join them. More learns politician Thomas Cromwell has been promoted to the job of the cardinal's secretary.

More then receives a letter telling him to visit Cardinal Wolsey. The cardinal reminds More that King Henry VIII needs a son and must remarry. Henry's current wife Catherine is infertile. More opposes the remarriage on religious grounds, but Wolsey insists England will go to war if the king dies without an heir. More won't relent. As More waits for a boat to take him home, he speaks to Cromwell and Spanish ambassador Signor Chapuys about his visit to Wolsey. Chapuys reminds More that the king of Spain doesn't want his relative Queen Catherine insulted.

When More arrives home he finds young aspiring lawyer William Roper visiting Margaret. Roper asks More for Margaret's hand in marriage. More refuses because Roper's a Lutheran and a "heretic." After Roper leaves More discusses his visit to Wolsey with Margaret and Alice. More admits he doesn't want the job of lord chancellor. The Common Man reveals to the audience that More became lord chancellor anyway after Wolsey's death.

At Hampton Court, Cromwell, Rich, and Chapuys debate the outcome of the king's upcoming visit to More. Cromwell thinks More will have to approve the king's divorce; Chapuys thinks More will refuse. Both Chapuys and Cromwell pay the steward for inside information about More.

King Henry VIII arrives at More's home and greets his family. Then More and the king talk alone, and the king tells More he'll be the next lord chancellor. He warns More that he won't tolerate any opposition to his remarriage. The king leaves unexpectedly before dinner to the More family's alarm.

Roper arrives at the house. He tells More he's been named to Parliament and accuses More of favoring "convenience" over conscience. Rich arrives too, warning More that Cromwell is collecting information about him. Rich unsuccessfully begs More for a job. Alice, Margaret, and Roper don't trust Rich, but More says he has no legal reason to arrest him. The family worries for More's safety. More assures them he hasn't disobeyed the king.

Cromwell and Rich meet privately at a bar. Cromwell offers Rich a job in his administration as collector of revenues. Then Cromwell says More won't stand in the way of the king and forces Rich to admit that More accepted a bribe. To demonstrate how easily a man like More can be scared, Cromwell holds Rich's hand to a burning candle.

Act 2

The Common Man tells the audience two years have passed since Act 1—it's now the year 1532. Roper, now married to Margaret, waits with More to hear the results of the bishops' morning Convocation. The bishops may submit to the king's desires and sever their connection with Rome and the Catholic Church. Chapuys, who's shocked by the king's recent actions, comes to see More. More confirms to Chapuys he'll resign from the Lord Chancellor job if the king gets his divorce.

The Duke of Norfolk arrives and confirms the Convocation has submitted to the king. More says it's "war against the Church" and removes the cross he wears around his neck, signaling he's resigned the chancellorship. His family protests, worried he's in danger. More insists he couldn't have stayed in the job, and he'll be fine if everyone keeps quiet. No longer able to pay the steward, More releases him from the job.

Norfolk and Cromwell meet. Norfolk thinks More should be left alone, but Cromwell insists More should be punished for treason. Cromwell introduces a woman who claims to have given More a bribe when he was a lawyer. Cromwell threatens Norfolk with consequences if he defends More.

Back at the More home the family is struggling to make ends meet. Margaret and Roper bring in wood for the fire. Chapuys visits to give More a letter from the king of Spain. More refuses to open or touch the letter. More insists he's "taken no stand" on the king's divorce and is still loyal to the king of England. If he reads the letter he'd have to inform his king immediately.

Alice and More argue over More's refusal to take charity from the church. Alice says they need the money, but More doesn't want it to look like the church is paying him. Then More receives a message to see Cromwell at Hampton Court. More reassures the family he has a solid legal case and he'll be back for dinner.

Cromwell tells More he wants to clarify some "ambiguities of behavior." They debate More's correspondence with the Holy Maid of Kent, a woman who publicly defied the king. More says their letters weren't political, so he didn't report them. Cromwell then argues that More wrote Henry VIII's book Defense of the Seven Sacraments. More claims he only answers some of the king's questions. When Cromwell asks him about the king's divorce, More says Cromwell's threats are only "terrors for children." After More leaves, Cromwell tells Rich, who's been sitting in on the meeting, they'll need to destroy More.

On his way home More meets Norfolk, and More tells him they can no longer be friends. He doesn't want to put Norfolk in danger. Norfolk begs More to give in to the king's demands, but More refuses and the two have a bitter argument.

Margaret and Roper tell More that the Act of Succession has gone through Parliament. The Act declares that anyone who doesn't swear an oath admitting the validity of the king's marriage will be charged with treason. They go home to read the act.

The scene changes to a jail. The Common Man reveals the final fates of Cromwell, Norfolk, Rich, and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who's also appeared onstage. Norfolk and Cromwell were charged with treason and Cranmer was burned alive, while Rich was promoted and lived a long life.

The Common Man then becomes the jailer, dragging an imprisoned More from his bed to meet with Cromwell, Norfolk, and Cranmer. The three interrogate More, who's been imprisoned for a year. He still refuses to sign the Act of Succession or tell them why he refuses. He's already imprisoned for life, but if he gives a "treasonable" reason for not signing, he'll be executed. Cromwell tells Rich to remove the books from More's cell.

More's family comes to visit him in jail. Margaret tries unsuccessfully to talk him into signing the act. The family says an emotional goodbye.

More then goes to trial where Cromwell accuses him of denying the king's title. More is shocked, since he never made such a statement. Cromwell argues his silence itself was denial. Rich, now promoted to a high government position, testifies that More denied Parliament's power to make the king the head of the Church. More claims Rich is lying, but More is still convicted and sentenced to death. As the trial ends More finally reveals why he doesn't support the Act of Succession. Soon afterward More is executed by beheading. The Common Man plays his executioner. As the play ends the Common Man reminds the audience not to make trouble if they want to stay alive.

A Man for All Seasons Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Sir Thomas More and Richard Rich argue about every man having a price.

Rising Action

2 Sir Thomas More gives Richard Rich the silver cup.

3 Cardinal Wolsey asks More to approve King Henry's divorce.

4 More meets with Henry VIII but won't approve the divorce.

5 The Act of Supremacy is passed.

6 Sir Thomas More resigns the chancellorship.

7 The Act of Succession is passed.

8 The Commission questions Sir Thomas More.

Climax

9 Richard Rich submits false testimony at More's trial.

Falling Action

10 Sir Thomas More declares the reasons for his silence.

11 Sir Thomas More is convicted of treason.

Resolution

12 Sir Thomas More is executed for treason.

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