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A Man for All Seasons | Study Guide

Robert Bolt

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A Man for All Seasons | Themes


Conscience and Morality

The play investigates how moral codes affect human behavior. By contrasting More with his socially conscious friends, the play emphasizes the difference between public life and private life. Is morality an individual commitment or a practical way to function in society? Are right and wrong determined by one's conscience or by public laws or codes?

The concepts of conscience and morality mean different things to different characters. Cardinal Wolsey feels that by not making a political compromise, Sir Thomas More is leading England into chaos "for the sake of your own, private, conscience." He and the Duke of Norfolk see More's conscience as a frustrating obstacle to peace and safety. More sees his conscience as an essential part of himself, something more elemental than right and wrong. Conscience is a state of being, not a choice. He tells Norfolk he can't "give in" any more easily than he could change his hair color. When the word "conscience" comes up at More's trial, Thomas Cromwell thinks it's an excuse for More to defend his selfishness. More thinks conscience is the only obligation he needs to follow.

Cromwell and King Henry VIII view conscience as part of a public, social identity. Public consequences, such as the king's lack of a male heir, reveal something wrong in a private conscience. According to Cromwell, a public remedy—More's execution or submission—will cure the king's conscience.

Politicians like Cardinal Wolsey and Norfolk view morality in a public light as well. Moral actions do the most good for the most people by keeping the peace or preventing a chaotic change in leadership. William Roper views More's resignation of his office as a moral stance, a public gesture showing his beliefs. Roper and Margaret More remind More that for most people, morality is displayed in practical actions.

More sees morality as a matter of thought and mindset that is reflected in actions others may not understand. His morality only concerns himself and the God he believes in. He's not willing to make a gesture that goes against his morals, even one that would increase the public good. This view seems stubborn and frustrating to the other characters and creates much of the play's tension.

Meaning of Laws and Oaths

Sir Thomas More trusts in the law and holds himself and others to oaths. Since all people can agree on the content of a law, regardless of their personal beliefs, laws keep diverse societies intact. Oaths or promises, such as marriage vows, can serve to enforce these laws. But what if members of a society disagree on what laws and oaths mean?

Laws are frequently described in metaphors. More explains the law to William Roper as a forest. Trees in the forest can hide people and shelter them from dangerous winds. More describes a lawless society as a country where all the trees have been cut down and where nothing protects humans from the elements of nature. At More's trial Thomas Cromwell compares the law to a "clear light" by which people see what needs to be done. More feels laws are not instruments people can use whenever they want, like lights or lamps. Instead laws are stable guidelines, similar to a path or a "causeway" through a forest.

When humans disagree on concepts like right and wrong, More believes, they can turn to well-defined concepts like legal and illegal. More thinks his safety is assured if he stands "on the wrong side of no statute." But laws are created and interpreted by the powerful, and they can change depending on who's in power. For example, King Henry VIII changes the laws in England to accomplish his goal of a legal divorce. More points out the king disregarded earlier laws like the Magna Carta, altering English law to suit his own purposes.

Bolt explains that More viewed an oath as "a definite contract." When he took an oath he put his entire self on the line. If he broke the oath or swore to something he didn't agree to, he'd be held accountable. More's faith and belief in judgment after death influence his perception of oaths. As More faces worsening consequences, his family asks him to view an oath as a social ritual or, as Bolt puts it, "an ordinary lie." No one, More's family urges, will know if More has kept the oath or not.

Other characters in the play do not regard oaths the same way that More does. But they still see oaths as significant and sacred. The jailer is discouraged from "perjury" or lying under oath. More implies the king would not lie under an oath either. When Richard Rich commits perjury during More's trial and escapes consequences, audiences see that an oath is a purely public ritual. Do oaths mean anything if someone can break them without being held accountable? To More they do.

Power, Politics, and Corruption

Most societies, including Tudor England, have unwritten codes of power and control outside of their written laws. These codes are influenced in A Man for All Seasons by social status, friendship, and willingness to compromise. The more willing someone is to appease the powerful, the more power he'll eventually have. The play references the constant use of bribes and payment to influence judges and diplomats. Thomas Cromwell explains the tradeoff as simply "so much wickedness purchases so much worldly prospering."

All the characters in the play fear corruption, but few recognize when it's happening to them. In Act 1 and early in Act 2, Richard Rich struggles to reconcile his desire to get ahead in politics with his genuine respect for Sir Thomas More. But as he starts enjoying the privileges of power, he wants more. Despite his misgivings he works to prove himself to Thomas Cromwell. He learns from Cromwell how to maintain the structures of power and the order of society through "convenience." When Rich eventually commits perjury in court, he is powerful enough to get away with it.

More's power and status decline as Rich rises, but More is still concerned with corruption. William Roper and Chapuys both accuse More of corruption when he refuses to break his alliance with the king. More believes he's acting out of self-preservation. He tells Roper it's easy to abandon the "anchor" of principles when trouble strikes. Cromwell paints More as a dissident whose disloyalty to the king and the country make him corrupt. More's view of corruption is different—he only wants to keep from corrupting his soul.

Religion as a Social Force

The American concept of separation of church and state didn't exist in Tudor England. Religion affected political alliances, marriages, careers, and social standing. Both private religious beliefs and public religious performance permeate characters' lives.

Religious symbolism signifies truth and honor. Characters swear on the Bible, a common practice in courts. The sanctity and symbolism of a religious text is meant to encourage honesty. But most characters see religion as a social force or public statement rather than a matter of personal conviction. Public religious performance brings praise and social rewards, but it isn't supported by true belief. When Richard Rich seeks a better job at the end of Act 1, Thomas Cromwell makes sure Rich doesn't hold personal religious convictions. In Act 2 Sir Thomas More accuses the Duke of Norfolk of finding England's religion meaningless, despite Norfolk's patriotic devotion to the government. William Roper, committed to "rectitude" or righteousness, is a fervent Protestant in Act 1 and a devoted Catholic in Act 2.

Prominent figures in both the Catholic Church and the Church of England demonstrate how religion and social power work together. The pope's status is a main point of disagreement between More and his contemporaries. Is the pope just another imperfect human leader, or does he have divine authority? The deliberate wording of "Bishop of Rome" to refer to the pope in Act 2 shows how the word pope implies divinity. Although More is critical of the pope as a human leader, he acknowledges the "Spiritual Supremacy" of his position. More doesn't believe the king can claim this religious supremacy for political gain.

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