A Man for All Seasons

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Editors: David M. Galens and Lynn M. Spampinato
Date: 1998
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 2. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 21
Content Level: (Level 4)

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A Man for All Seasons


Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons presents a “hero of the self” whose unwavering integrity collides with King Henry VIII’s egoistic drive to wrench personal salvation and political permanence for the Tudor line from an unwilling, because politically cornered, Pope. The Pope refuses to condone an annulment for Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon (of Spain) having already dispensed with biblical law to permit him to marry her in the first place. Sir Thomas More ignores Henry’s pleading demands, throws off the Duke of Norfolk’s friendly advice, and places his family in jeopardy, because he cannot in good conscience submit his immortal soul to the commands of a mortal king. Neither does the political powder-keg that Henry’s enemies may see More’s obstinence as a signal for revolt convince him to submit. This crucible of moral standards takes place in the early sixteenth century, but Bolt contemporizes the drama by inserting an audience go-between, the Common Man, whose asides remind the viewer of More’s relevance to twentieth-century heroism. The Common Man makes all too clear that the likes of a Sir Thomas More are as rare today as they were in Henry’s VIII’s kingdom.


Robert Bolt led a life very different from his sixteenth-century hero. After what he calls a “gloomy”

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Robert Bolt with his wife, Sarah Miles, in 1990 Robert Bolt with his wife, Sarah Miles, in 1990

childhood and a poor academic career, he spent a mind-opening year at the University before being recruited into the British army. A committed Marxist who considered the working class “morally and aesthetically beautiful” and Ascot (his emblem of the elite) “overprivileged, ugly, and pretentious,” he joined the Communist Party in 1942, but quit after five years, disillusioned with the Party’s inability to live up to his absolutist ideals (Hayman 10). Upon returning from service in World War II, he completed his university studies and earned a teaching diploma. Then followed eight years of school teaching. Bolt’s first theatrical work, a children’s nativity play, resulted in “an astonishing turning point” in his life. He made a conscious decision to make play writing his avocation and enjoyed his first success with Flowering Cherry in 1957. He wrote a radio play of A Man for All Seasons in 1954, then wrote the stage version in 1960, which was met with critical acclaim in London and New York. From then on he split his time between the stage and film, producing a successful film version of A Man for All Seasons in 1966 after having written two hit screenplays, Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 and Dr. Zhivago in 1965. His plays and films have earned awards—Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay (A Man for All Seasons) and Best Picture, among others. A common theme that runs through each of his works is the “drama of the threatened self” wherein a protagonist must choose between honoring his own integrity and bending to the demands of his society. The protagonist defends his choice in polished, witty dialogues that display admirable and rare moral fiber, scenes of remarkable dramatic clarity. After a disabling heart attack and stroke his productivity declined and he died in 1995.



Robert Bolt, who took an honors Bachelor of Arts degree in history, provides a summary of the historical context of his play and defends his reasons for choosing Sir Thomas More as a “hero of selfhood” in an elegantly written Preface. He also explains his intention for the Common Man—to “draw the audience in, not thrust them away.”

Act One

This drama set in the sixteenth century begins with a contemporary player, the Common Man. Dressed in black tights, he represents Adam, but he immediately steps into the role of Sir Thomas Page 90  |  Top of ArticleMore’s steward, the first of many personas he will adopt. More enters with Richard Rich, a political opportunist; they debate whether a man can be bought, even by suffering. Then enter More’s wife Alice, daughter Margaret, and good friend, the Duke of Norfolk. More gives Rich a goblet he received as a bribe, and Rich manages to obtain a position as Norfolk’s librarian, although More warns him to stay out of politics and teach. At eleven o’clock More is called to Cardinal Wolsey on the King’s business, ending the dinner party.

Wolsey asks More to review a letter to the Pope, but, as Wolsey suspected, More sees things with “that horrible moral squint” and disapproves of Wolsey’s efforts to sway the Vatican. The issue is that King Henry, having already obtained papal approval to marry his brother’s widow (for state reasons), now wants to annul this marriage (Catherine not having produced the necessary male heir) and marry again. As More puts it, Wolsey wants the Pope now to “dispense with his dispensation, also for state reasons.” Wolsey seems sincere in his concern for the state—he fears an uprising as devastating as the Yorkish Wars if Henry cannot secure the Tudor line. Wolsey asks More if he will take his position as Lord Chancellor when he dies, and More agrees that he is at least a better candidate than Wolsey’s secretary, Thomas Cromwell.

More meets Cromwell as he hails a boat home (the Common Man is boatman), and then meets Signor Chapuys, Ambassador to Spain, who reminds More that the Spanish King will be insulted if his aunt, Queen Catherine, suffers an insult at the hands of King Henry. When More arrives home, he finds William Roper, his daughter’s suitor, there. Roper wants to marry Margaret, but More refuses him because of his heretical attitude (implying Lutheran ideology), toward the Church of England. He also refuses to reveal to his beloved family the nature of his nighttime errand.

The Common Man announces the death of Wolsey and the subsequent assignment of More as Lord Chancellor. Cromwell befriends Rich, hoping to find his familiarity with More politically useful.

Back at More’s home, his family and Norfolk desperately seek More because the King is en route for a surprise visit. They find More at his vespers. The King arrives, shows his Latin inferior to Margaret’s, brags about having steered a new ship here, and promises to stay for dinner. In the midst of his frivolity, Henry makes an offhand attempt to bring More around concerning the divorce. Henry admits that he needs More’s support because More is “known to be honest.” Finding More unmoveable, he announces coldly that he’ll “brook no opposition.” Abruptly upon the striking of eight o’clock, Henry departs; he has fled to Anne Bolyn’s customary dance. Alice begs her husband Thomas to “be ruled” by his king, for his own safety. But More cannot acquiesce to ignore a sacrament of the church; to do so would put his own soul in peril. Roper, having now somewhat modified his views on the Church, enters into a debate with More between man’s law and God’s law. More expresses his belief that following God’s law will save his soul, but that being a skilled forester in the “thickets” of man’s law, he is not above resorting to legal hairsplitting to save his life. More chides Roper for anchoring to his principles, but pulling up anchor and moving elsewhere when the “weather turns nasty.”

In a pub presided over by the Common Man, Cromwell extracts from Rich the potentially useful information that a woman tried to bribe More (unsuccessfully) and rewards Rich with a position as Collector of Revenues. When Rich warns Cromwell that he may have met his match in More, a man who “doesn’t know how to be frightened,” Cromwell retaliates by holding Rich’s hand in the candle flame. The curtain comes down on Rich’s pained observation, “You’ve enjoyed it!”

Act Two

Like Act One, Act Two begins with Common Man addressing the audience directly. This time he announces the passage of two years and reads from a history book a paragraph on the sixteenth-century British practice of “imprisonment without trial, and even examination under torture” as means to protect the Church of England.

More and Roper enter, now guardedly disputing whether the King has a right to declare himself the “Supreme Head” of the Church, as he has done. More hopes to take refuge in the phrase “so far as the law of God allows.” Chapuys arrives to pressure More to resign as Lord Chancellor in protest of Henry’s defiance of the Pope. Chapuys intimates that an armed resistance would follow such a signal from More. Norfolk comes in to announce that the Convocation (a church ruling body) has accepted Henry’s terms, thus severing “the connection with Rome.” Symbolically, More has Margaret remove his chain of office. Norfolk scorns More’s preference for “theory” over patriotism. Alice wants at least to know why she must give up her status and household; but More will give neither her nor Page 91  |  Top of ArticleNorfolk his reasons—to protect them. Now lacking the means to pay him, More lets the Common Man (as steward) go, saying he’ll miss him. The steward asks the audience,“What’s in me for him to miss?”

All exit and Norfolk and Cromwell enter the alcove. Norfolk tries to convince Cromwell to leave More alone in his silence, but Cromwell informs Norfolk that he too must help pressure More into supporting the state. The steward takes a position with Richard Rich.

The next scene takes place in More’s home, now cold and less well appointed. Chapuys arrives on an official visit to deliver a letter of support from the Spanish King. More resolutely refuses to touch it, knowing that to do so would be seen as treason by Cromwell’s agents. Rebuffed, Chapuys departs.

Roper, who has been outside gathering bracken for firewood, announces a caller demanding More’s presence at Hampton Court to answer “certain charges.” The scene changes to Cromwell’s office, where Master Rich is present to record their conversation. In a roundabout manner Cromwell interrogates More, but fails to intimidate him. Shaken, More leaves and runs into Norfolk. More picks an argument with him, simply to spare his friend the pain of seeing him destroyed. Upon returning home More learns that Parliament has approved an oath of loyalty regarding the marriage. More’s only hope is to find a loophole in the wording such that he can take the oath and also keep his conscience clear.

The next scene is a jail with More in it. The jailer, who is the Common Man, reads from a history book the upcoming executions of Thomas Cromwell, Howard Norfolk, and Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury) the death from syphilis of King Henry, and the prosperous life of Richard Rich and the Common Man himself. Norfolk, Cromwell, and Cranmer make one last ineffective attempt to sway More, as does his family. Despite More’s legal maneuvering, he is outdone by an outright lie. On the witness stand, Richard Rich declares that More told him Parliament could not place the King at the Head of the Church. More responds sorrowfully, “In good faith, Rich, I am sorrier for your perjury than my peril.” Norfolk as foreman reads the verdict: “guilty on the charge of High Treason.” The Common Man as headsman performs the execution; blackout and the harsh sound of drums announce the beheading.

The Common Man makes a final aside to the audience suggesting one should not make trouble in

Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey and Paul Scofield as Thomas More in the film adaptation Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey and Paul Scofield as Thomas More in the film adaptation

life, adding “If we should bump into one another, recognize me.”


Attendant to Signor Chapuys

The attendant is present to indicate the status of the Spanish Ambassador.

Signor Chapuys (sha-pwees)

Signor Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador, at first glance appears to do little more in the play than walk on at key moments to testify to the piety and integrity of Sir Thomas More. He pays the boatman a few coins for revealing More’s pious habits and he attempts to deliver a message from the King of Spain expressing the Catholic King’s approval of More’s resistance to Cromwell and the Reformation movement. More realizes that even reading the missive will be taken as evidence of treason, so he refuses to accept the envelope. Chapuys is flabbergasted because he has misread More’s moral stance as a political one; this scene thus alerts the viewer

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  • Robert Bolt’s first version of A Man for All Seasons was a radio play produced for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) in 1954. Three years later, BBC-TV televised the play.
  • Robert Bolt adapted his play for the screen in 1966 and the Columbia film, starring Paul Scofield as More, Robert Shaw as King Henry VIII, and Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey, won 6 Acade my awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), and Best Actor for Scofield, who had played the part on stage in London.
  • In 1988 Charleton Heston directed and starred in a cable TV version of the play with Vanessa Redgrave and John Gielgud. This version has not enjoyed the popularity of the Zinnemann film.

to another of More’s rigorous ethical standards. Chapuys’s purpose in the play is to illuminate the political issues surrounding the taking of the King’s oath. Chapuys informs More, much to More’s dismay, that Yorkshire and Northumberland are ready to launch an insurrection (that Chapuys and his cohorts may have instigated) against Henry. His message indicates to More the gravity of his situation.

The Common Man

The Common Man is a pot-bellied, middle-aged man, a base and crafty figure who dons different costumes to enact the roles of More’s steward, boatman, jailer, foreman of the jury, and executioner (called “headsman”). He also serves as intermediary between the audience and the play, summarizing off-stage events and commenting on the meaning of the play, a device (often used by playwright Bertolt Brecht) meant to remind viewers of the play’s artifice. Within the play, the Common Man represents the antithesis of Sir Thomas More in terms of his ethical motivation, yet he shares with More a talent for self-preservation. Leo McKern, die actor who played the Common Man in the London production, was quoted in Gambill as saying the role is “one of the best ever written for a true character actor.”

Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury

Cranmer does not appear until More is jailed in the Tower. There he joins in with Cromwell and Norfolk in attempting to sway More. He fails as dismally as have the others. Cranmer swears the jailer in oath to report any treason spoken by More against the king, and quickly reminds the jailer not to perjure himself when Cromwell offers him fifty guineas if he brings forth any evidence. As Archbishop, Cranmer has the authority to absolve More of sins before his execution; but More, contemptuous of Cranmer’s own morals, refuses his services at the gallows.

Thomas Cromwell

King Henry assigns Cromwell the unwelcome task of bringing More around to accepting the King’s annulment to Catherine and his appointment as Head of the Church of England, called the Act of Supremacy. The historical Cromwell was an effective statesman who served his king well, though he was reportedly as shrewdly exploitive as Bolt portrays him. Cromwell enjoys the prestige and power of his official role as Cardinal Wolsey’s solicitor and his unofficial role as “ear to the King.” However the assignment to convert More to Henry’ s way of thinking puts Cromwell into a precarious position. If he fails, he not only will have to execute an innocent man but he also runs the great risk of earning the King’s disfavor. (In fact, the Common Man announces that only a few years after More’s beheading, the historical Thomas Cromwell was executed, under the charge of High Treason.) Cromwell ‘s only salvation lies in unhinging More from his allegiance to the salvation of his soul. He expresses his frustration over More’s obstinacy in an Page 93  |  Top of Articleinvective against the soul: “A miserable thing, whatever you call it, that lives like a bat in a Sunday School! A shrill, incessant pedagogue about its own salvation—but nothing to say of your place in the State! Under the King! In a great native country!”

Duke of Norfold

More’s close friend the Duke of Norfolk is a worldly man who enjoys gaming and who recognizes his own “moral and intellectual insignificance” as compared to the likes of Sir Thomas, whom he admires greatly. Norfolk succumbs to pressure and ratifies the Act of Supremacy, thereby causing a rift between himself and More. Norfolk foolishly badgers More to relent and join the King’s supporters, not realizing the depth of More’s integrity, integrity being a smaller matter to the Duke. Norfolk coolly conducts the trial for High Treason against his former friend, never aware that More had eased his passage from trusted friend to state enemy by purposely offending him.


See Duke of Norfold

King Henry, VIII

Bolt portrays Henry in his exuberant youth, at the beginning of the period of corruption for which the historical Henry VIII is best known. The onstage Henry is brash and impulsive; he makes an unannounced visit to More to try his own hand at bringing More around to his point of view on the Acts of Succession and Supremacy. Masking his real purpose, he playfully tries to match wits with the more serious scholar, Margaret, and then shores up his own confidence by boasting of his skills at dancing and boat steerage when she clearly outranks him. Failing in his match with the elder More as well, he impulsively turns his attention to the social pleasures of dinner. But this is a man whose affections turn on and off at the strike of a clock—he just as impulsively departs after hearing the 8 o’clock bells, in order not to miss Anne Bolyn’s dance hour. To compound More’s danger, the monarch is incapable of loyalty, and what he wants for himself become for him matters of state. His henchmen know that they might be next on his list of treasonous subjects, but cannot oppose his imperious will.

Alice More

Historically, Alice More was Sir Thomas’s second wife, his first wife having died soon after giving birth to Margaret. In Bolt’s play, Alice—illiterate, a great cook, and a delighted newcomer to nobility—never fully understands the full political and theological implications of her husband’s moral stand, but she willingly accepts the severely reduced station in life imposed upon her by his downfall because of her unflinching admiration for and trust in her husband as a man.

Margaret More

The historical Sir Thomas More educated his daughter more thoroughly than was conventional. In the play, Margaret shows herself more erudite than King Henry, but she cleverly avoids upstaging him in a match of Latin wit. Margaret loves her father but is independent enough to love Will Roper, a young man whom her father initially dislikes because of his heretical ideas about the Church.

Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More is the central character of A Man for All Seasons. He is an intelligent man who enjoys life, loves his family, and respects his king. However, his fatal “flaw,” a deeply ingrained sense of integrity, causes him to choose death over compromising his soul. To Cardinal Wolsey, concerned for matters of the state, More’s ethics are a “horrible moral squint” that prevent More from cooperating with the reigning powers of England. Sir Thomas More’s decision to refuse Henry VIII did not come easily. Up until the Act of Supremacy and the oath Henry VIII required his countrymen to take, More had supported his king in both state and religious policy. Bolt also demonstrates the pain More’s decision causes his family. Resigning the position of Lord Chancellor of England puts More’s beloved family into poverty; continuing to defy his king puts them into disgrace. More is also a man who enjoys the humble pleasures of life—a good wine, the stuffed swan specially prepared for King Henry’s unannounced visit, or the pudding Alice made him during the precious last minutes he spends with her. But none of this deters More in upholding his virtue and principles.

More is a man of deep religious convictions who counters Wolsey’s concerns for the state by insisting that he’d rather govern the country by prayers. At the same time, he trusts the law to protect him on earth, and he considers it his God-given duty to become expert enough in legal intricacies to defend himself from the King. More says that God made Man capable of serving him “wittily, in the tangle of his mind!” Ultimately, More believed Page 94  |  Top of Articlea man’s duty was to sort out the conflicts between religion and state according to his own conscience, saying “In matters of conscience, the loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing.”

In his attempt to present the man with “an adamantine sense of self” Bolt carefully integrated many of More’s own words, taking material from William Roper’s biography of his father-in-law, from the writings of More’s contemporaries, and from More’s own writings.

Richard Rich

Richard Rich prostitutes his ethic for political advancement and perjures himself to secure his place of power. He begins humbly enough as librarian to More’s friend the Duke of Norfolk. He quickly shows himself of use, however, to Cromwell, who gives him a position as Collector of Revenues in the hope of obtaining “tidbits of information” about Thomas More. Rich willingly tells him the little he knows, and when Rich seems rueful over his lost innocence, Cromwell assures him that playing the informer will grow easier as time goes on. Rich’s cool-headed delivery of a complete lie at More’s trial (saying that More, after refusing to reveal to anyone else his position on the King’s naming himself Head of the Church, suddenly intimated it to Rich) proves Cromwell’s prediction true.

William Roper

William Roper, suitor to Margaret More, is a young man who swings from a passionate Churchman to passionate Lutheran—and back again. More accepts his bid for Margaret’s hand when Roper returns to the Church, but chides him for anchoring to his principles, but moving the anchor “when the weather turns nasty.” Roper remains loyal to More throughout his trial, but betrays his own lack of moral conviction by urging More to go ahead and take the oath, a violation of principle More would never commit.


See William Roper

Cardinal Wolsey

The aging Cardinal capitulates to Henry’s pressure to seek an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. Fearing a bloody fight for the kingship if no heir appears to secure the King’s lineage, Wolsey chooses to play the statesman in his position as Lord Chancellor of England. However, he fails to persuade the Pope to “dispense with his dispensation” that permitted Henry to marry his brother’s widow Catherine, whose male offspring have not survived. Thus making it illegal and immoral for the King to marry Anne Bolyn and perhaps obtain the needed male heir. Wolsey’s last act of naming More to replace him is puzzling because Wolsey well knew that More would not succumb as easily as he himself did; on the other hand he knew that More was possibly the one man in England capable of persuading the Pope.


Perhaps the same woman who tried to bribe Sir Thomas and failed, “the woman” stops him on his way up the gallows to chide him for a “false judgement” against her. More very quickly recognizes her and spiritedly rebukes her, saying that if he had the judgement to do again he would not change her sentence.



The historical More acted out of religious belief as well as integrity, and he became a saint for his forbearance. For Sir Thomas More, God—not a political sovereign self-appointed to head the Church—had jurisdiction over a human’s soul, and More felt compelled to honor God’s rule over an earthly king’s command. Robert Bolt modernizes More’s beliefs however. Robert Bolt’s Thomas More tells his daughter that for a man to take an oath is to hold “his own self in his own hands,” a sentiment more aligned with the individualism of the modern period, when Bolt wrote the play. Bolt’s More equates the soul with the self, saying “a man’s soul is his self,” a statement that would have been as unfamiliar to the historical More as to any of his sixteenth-century contemporaries. It is essentially a modernist concept that the soul belongs not to God but to the individual and that the individual has a right (even an obligation) to express himself as an individual. Seeds of individualism certainly existed in More’s time in the form of Humanism, a philosophy that emphasized the human element of life over the divine. Renaissance Humanists (led, in fact, by More and his Dutch friend Erasmus) looked to classical Greek and Roman thought and literature for models and urged humankind to embrace greater social responsibility. More and other Renaissance

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  • Some of the characters in the play alluded to a potential Yorkist uprising; which characters would have been affected by such an uprising and in what way? What bearing did the claims of the York family to the throne have on More’s predicament?
  • Rank in importance the following reasons for More’s refusal to take King Henry’s oath and explain how they contributed to his decision: religious conviction, personal integrity, concern for public morality. Add any other reasons you consider important.
  • When Robert Bolt adapted his play for film, he eliminated the Common Man. What significance did the Common Man have in the play, and why do you suppose Bolt chose not to include him in the film version? If you have seen the film, explain what devices Bolt and the director used to replace the effect of the Common Man.
  • What role did Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy play in the eventual Reformation of the Catholic Church and its official relationship to the State over the following centuries?

philosophers fused classical culture to Christian religious belief in order to improve human life on earth; however, it would take William Wordsworth’s nineteenth-century egoism to galvanize the secular, individual self into the core of the human spirit as Bolt portrays it in Sir Thomas More.

Bolt’s anachronistic torquing of More’s philosophy goes hand in hand with his inclusion of the Common Man in the play, whose primary concern is not his moral self but his corporeal self. The Common Man changes outward identities as easily as he changes hats, but his essential, opportunist self remains the same. He serves as a foil to More’s integrity and reinforces the heroism of More’s martyrdom. For Bolt, a man who was by his own description “not a Catholic nor even in the meaningful sense of the word a Christian,” More was a “hero of selfhood” because he “knew where he began and left off, what areas of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved” (Bolt’s Preface to the play, p. xi).


A Man for All Seasons is a historical drama that explores the religious and personal ethics that led to Sir Thomas More’s beheading in 1535. Sir Thomas More believed in the supremacy of the Church in all things, both on earth and in the human spirit. He further believed the Pope to be the embodiment of God’s law on earth. Because King Henry VIII had obtained papal approval of his marriage to Catherine (which defied biblical law in that she was his brother’s widow), More had no objection to this marriage. But Henry came to believe that his marriage to Catherine was sinful and that his not having obtained an heir by her was obvious evidence of his state of sin. Thinking his soul was in peril and also desirous of an heir to continue the Tudor line, Henry VIII appealed to Pope Clement VII for a dispensation of his former dispensation in order to annul this marriage and make a new one with Anne Bolyn. The Pope, under pressure from Spain to uphold the union of Catherine with Henry, refused. Once again, More supported the Pope’s decision, to the vast displeasure of Henry VIII. When Henry defied the papal decision and married Anne Bolyn in a civil ceremony, More did not attend. Without the needed annulment, Henry’s new marriage placed him in deeper moral danger, that of bigamy. In desperation, King Henry pressured Parliament to declare the Act of Supremacy which placed him at the head of the Church of England and effectively demoted the Pope to merely the Bishop of Rome. The court of the Archbishop of Canterbury promptly annulled the marriage. More still could not in good con-science Page 96  |  Top of Articleratify Henry’s Act, because he placed God’s rule over that of the State—as far as More was concerned, the Act of Supremacy was not valid, nor was Henry’s marriage to Anne Bolyn. More’s obstinance infuriated Henry and also made him uneasy; he wanted the reassurance of More’s approval and needed his public support. More sought refuge in the law, being expert at negotiating paths through forests of legal minutia. More is willing to compromise his ethics enough to take the oath if he can find a legal loophole to protect him. He tells his worried son-in-law Roper, “An oath is made of words. It may be possible to take it. Or avoid it.” He might have succeeded if not for the moral failing of Richard Rich, who perjured himself as witness in More’s trial, making it possible for Henry to eliminate More’s moral and ethical objections by eliminating More himself.


In A Man for All Seasons, English law, lawmaking, and legal interpretation vie directly with God’s law, law-making, and interpretation. Henry fights a political battle to secure the kingship of his heirs by pitting English law against papal law. He runs into opposition from Sir Thomas More, a brilliant lawyer with unimpeachable religious devotion. More’s piety made his approval of Henry’s marriage annulment the more critical to Henry’s program. Even with legal matters well in hand, as self-declared Head of the Church of England (“as far as God’s law allows”), Henry needed More’s support in order to quell the objections of Yorkish and other nobles who stood ready to initiate a revolution to overturn the Tudor line of ascension that Henry represented and seemed unable to prolong. Under English law any legitimate child of Henry’s was in direct line to ascend to the throne, but Henry, being only the second Tudor to rule, felt he needed a son to fortify his family’s claim to the throne—this was not the time to introduce the notion of England being ruled by a queen. As Chapuys hints in the play, the families of the defeated noble lines in Yorkshire and Northumberland need little excuse to stage an armed resistance against a king they already wished to depose. Thus legality would assure peace among the nobles as well. Not content merely to have Parliament decree an Act of Supremacy making himself sovereign of both Church and State in England (effectively demoting the Pope to Bishop of Rome), Henry demanded that his followers pledge an oath supporting the Act.

At first More tries to find a legal loophole in the King’s obligatory oath, telling William Roper, “An oath is made of words. It may be possible to take it. Or avoid it.” Failing to find a way to take the oath, More chooses to remain silent regarding the Act of Supremacy and the marriage. According to English law silence by default is always legally interpreted as assent. As long as he neither denies the oath nor gives his reasons for doing so, the King must legally assume his assent and therefore cannot legally commit him for treason.

The theme of law and its abuse are ironically foregrounded in the penultimate scene of A Man for All Seasons when Cromwell, in a characteristic display of patriotism but with unexpected enthusiasm, salutes the appearance of various coats of arms, proudly observing in rhymed couplets, “What Englishman can behold without Awe, The Canvas and the Rigging of the Law!” Richard Rich then defiles the lofty ideals of English law through perjury and sentences an innocent man to death.



Robert Bolt consciously inserted symbolism about the sea and water as “a figure for the superhuman context.” In the play, references to currents and tides refer to shifts in the forces around More. Thus More’s need to be steered by boat to see Wolsey or Cromwell or to return home indicates that he is at the mercy of others, whereas Henry VIII’s boasting about steering a ship himself, albeit badly, indicates his arrogant usurpation of authority. In another manifestation of the sea image, More speaks to Roper of the “currents and eddies of right and wrong” as a sea he cannot navigate so simply as Roper does. More is “set against the current of [his] times.”

The symbolism of clothing is another pervasive symbol in the play. From the very first scene, clothing represents identity that is simple to don or doff. For example, Roper demonstrates a religious about-face when at the beginning of Act 2 he appears dressed in black and wearing a large cross as a show of allegiance to the Church. In an earlier scene More refused him Margaret’s hand in marriage because of his heretical views—now More says of him that he changes the anchor of his principles far too readily. The Common Man, too, Page 97  |  Top of Articlenimbly changes clothing to change personas, although, unlike Roper, he remains anchored to the principle of selfish opportunism with his essential self intact. In one scene, sporting spectacles and carrying a book, he is the pedantic commentator; in another he dons a gray cap and condemns an innocent man to death; it’s all a question of headwear. Only the last costume gives the Common Man pause—he balks at sitting in judgment of More. But once past this hurdle he shows no compunction about donning the mask of executioner. In preparation for the trial scene, the Common Man displays his many hats, setting them on poles (as More’s head will soon be set on a pole for display) in front of a series of coats of arms of different proportions. While the hats suggest the common man’s (meaning everyman’s) mercurial nature, the coats of arms ironically allude to timeless, lofty ideals that none but More honor, and he does so with his life.


During the sixteenth century the chorus, which had consisted of several actors in classical Greek times, was reduced to one actor who commented on and interpreted the action of the play before, after, and between scenes. For example, Shakespeare begins Henry V with an apologetic prologue in which a player asks the audience to embellish the stage props with imagination (“Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts. . . . Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them”). Modernist Bertold Brecht transformed the chorus to a new purpose; Brecht’s “chorus” figures are alienating devices designed to remind the audience of the artifice of theater, thus distancing them from the play’s action. Bolt adopts Bertold Brecht’s use of the chorus, giving the concept yet another twist. Like a Brechtian chorus, the Common Man delivers a modern, self-reflexive, self-conscious judgment of the play: “It is perverse! To start a play made up of Kings and Cardinals in speaking costumes and intellectuals with embroidered mouths, with me.” But in opposition to Brecht’s use of chorus figures, Bolt wanted the Common Man to draw in the audience, to provide someone with whom they might identify. Because he felt that his device failed, Bolt explained in his Preface why he included the Common Man and had him make frequent puns on the word “common”—it was “intended primarily to indicate ‘that which is common to us all’” (xvii). Even though audiences chose to see the Common Man as vulgar and foreign and therefore not themselves, Bolt insists that he sometimes heard in their laughter a “rueful note of recognition.”


The Ascension of the Tudor Monarchs

King Henry VIII was only the second Tudor king to rule in England, and he had good reason to worry about his ability to keep the throne in his family. Cardinal Wolsey alludes to the potential menace of two powerful families who alternated, captured, lost, and recaptured the kingdom for the thirty years prior to his father’s reign when he says to Sir Thomas More, “Do you favor a change of dynasty? D’you think two Tudors is sufficient?.” The two houses were House of Lancaster, whose symbol was a red rose and the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose; their quarrels over the throne came to be called “The War of the Roses.” Henry Tudor, or Henry VII had fought with the Lancaster side, so he diplomatically arranged to marry a York, thus sealing a temporary truce between the families and beginning the Tudor dynasty. It was up to Henry VIII to continue the line.

Church Reform, Humanism, and Social Reform

The Church Reform issues (“forgiveness by the florin,” temperance, duty to God) debated by Sir Thomas More and his son-in-law William Roper in A Man for All Seasons were not new concepts to the sixteenth century but were ideas that had been infiltrating the intellectual centers of Europe and steadily eroding the long-held Roman Catholic dominion since the fourteenth century. There were at least two fronts of attack on the Catholic hegemony. On one hand various Church Reform movements sought to eradicate widespread corruption among the priesthood, who numbered one in forty of England’s total population and many of whom lacked education and moral superiority. On the other hand was Luther’s Protestant movement, which was not so much a “Reformation” as a wholesale refutation of clerical authority. The Protestants denied Catholic clergy the power to absolve sin, insisting that God alone can offer salvation to humans. Protestants made God their ultimate authority. Because God did not make his authority directly known to man, the laity (not just the clergy) were left to interpret his intentions. This democratic line of thought, an attitude of empowerment for the layperson, resonated with the budding new philosophy of the Humanists (including More and his Dutch friend Erasmus), who sought to improve human life on earth by adhering to the lofty ideals of classical Greek and Roman cultures. With the chipping

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  • 16th century: Officially, all English citizens belonged to the Catholic Church and many attended its services. However, because the Roman Catholic service was entirely in Latin, few congregants fully understood it. Furthermore, die Church was losing authoritative ground due to inroads of Martin Luther’s Protestantism and separate Church Reform movements to combat corruption of the clergy. Within a century, the Catholics would no longer hold a monopoly on European religion.

    1950-1965: The Catholic Church still served about one-third of English citizens and a majority of die populations of many European countries, even though the Church was losing popularity because of its hard stand on issues such as abortion, birth control, and clerical celibacy. In the ground-breaking Convocations of 1962 and 1965 the Church took measures to “update” its image and make the religion more appealing.

    Today: Although the Roman Catholic Church remains the largest organized religion in the world, only about one-fifth of England’s citizens call themselves Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church has suffered fractionalizing due to its continued strict stance on abortion, birth control, clerical celibacy, euthanasia, and women in the priesthood. In undeveloped areas such as parts of Africa missionary efforts have resulted in phenomenal growth in Catholicism.
  • 16th century: Religious persecution was so widespread that America was colonized partially by English citizens seeking freedom to worship as they pleased. In England it was common for people to be charged as “heretics” (whether for religious or some other reason) and forced to wear a marker of their shame so that others could shun them; some were executed.

    1950-1960: In developed nations such as England and the United States, religious freedom was officially assured, although some groups suffered from prejudiced treatment. In communist countries, religion was actively suppressed by the state.

    Today: Religious freedom and diversity exist in most developed and third-world countries, even in formerly communist-held countries. Religious differences contribute, however, to the many ethnic conflicts worldwide, such as those in Bosnia, Liberia, and Rwanda.
  • 16th century: The charge of treason was routinely used to rid the ruler of unwanted persons in England as well as in other European countries. Henry VIII had John Fisher beheaded days before he executed Sir Thomas More, and Cardinal Wolsey died while under charge for High Treason.

    1950-1960: England sustained a clean record of providing its citizens with safety from unfounded charges of treason. However, things were omerwise in the United States. Although the United States promises due process of law and immunity from unfounded accusations, Senator Joe McCarthy made a sham of political tolerance and legislative integrity by leading a relentless persecution of intellectuals and filmmakers with any suspected ties to communism.

    Today: In England and the United States, along with most developed nations, it takes a strong case to condemn a citizen for treason or other crimes against the state.

away of Papal authority came a need for stronger state administration. A vested interest in state sovereignty underlay Henry VIII’ s urge toward independence from ecclesiastic rule, even if his immediate reason for breaking with the church was more political and more pressing. Henry was a good Catholic, had even defended the Church against the attacks of Martin Luther, but his need to cement Page 99  |  Top of Articlethe Tudor line with a male heir overrode his religious allegiance. He began to see flaws in Catholicism that he might otherwise have ignored. Over time, Church Reform affected everyday life, not just spiritual matters, as they paralleled and reinforced peasant revolts against the hardships of serfdom.

King Henry VIII

Because his older brother Arthur was in line for the throne, young Henry Tudor did not expect to be crowned king of England. However, when Henry was eighteen, Arthur died and Henry succeeded his vastly successful father. A marriage was arranged for Henry to Arthur’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, to strengthen England’s tie to her native Spain. Catherine had five children by him, but only one, a daughter, lived past infancy. Because having a male heir to whom Henry would turn over the English dynasty was seen by Henry and his most astute advisors as critical to the political stability of England, and because Henry came to believe that his wife’s barrenness indicated that the Biblical punishment for marrying a brother’s widow had befallen him, Henry sought to annul his marriage and form a new one with Anne Bolyn, daughter of a wealthy aristocrat. He defied Pope Clement VII and married Anne Bolyn in a civil ceremony that Sir Thomas More disdained to attend. When Henry failed to obtain More’s approval of the marriage and the Act making him head of the Church of England, he had More executed. The historical More had prophetically written that despite his close friendship with the King, “If my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to fall.” Three years and no sons later, Henry had Anne executed for infidelity. Henry would marry four more wives after Anne and execute one of them.

What began as a desire to arrange a divorce and marriage, ended with Henry overthrowing the authority of the Pope in England, dissolving hundreds of monasteries and nunneries (the latter to redirect funds to the Crown, the largest such redistribution since the Norman Conquest), and executing a large number of clergy who refused to accept his supremacy over the Pope’s. Throughout his battle with the Church, Henry never ceased to be a devout Catholic and he actively suppressed heretics. In spite of his brutal egoism, Henry VIII succeeded in centralizing administration of England, effectively separating the realms of Church and State, and initiating the Reformation of the Church.


When A Man for All Seasons made its debut on the London stage at the Globe Theater on July 1, 1960, Robert Bolt had only one moderate theater success under his belt (Flowering Cherry). Therefore, to have earned the popular and critical acclaim he did for his Brechtian historical play was a significant achievement, and it catapulted the thirty-six-year-old into the theatrical limelight, where he was to remain for the next decade. The Illustrated London News called it a “brilliant play,” one which let history have its moment on stage. The New Statesman, however, identified a complaint that would be leveled frequently at this play and at the 1966 screenplay—that it privileges history over psychological depth. Nevertheless, A Man For All Seasons, starring Paul Scofield as Thomas More, ran for 320 performances in London before moving on to a year-and-a-half run on Broadway, where it earned the Tony Award for best play and the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Foreign Play in 1962.

In New York critics found much to praise in the performances and in the script. Robert Brustein of the New Republic called it a drama of “remarkable intelligence, historicity, theatrical ingenuity, and good taste.” Much of the theater in the early sixties fed the popular appetite for social significance, but Bolt’s play stood on its own merit, or rather on the merit of its protagonist. Critics were somewhat split in their acceptance of a historical play that did not seem to care about today’s social issues. While some critics applauded the portrayal of More as realistic and as struggling with an understandable dilemma, others took the opposite perspective, chiding Bolt for irrelevance. John McCarten of the New Yorker called the play “a sharp and brilliant portrait of a man who might just as easily be of our day as King Henry’s.” Howard Taubman called it “an ode to the best and noblest in man,” and asserted that More “has a burning immediacy for our day.” However, John Simon, writing for Theater Arts, felt that doctrinal differences in religious belief no longer carried much empathic weight, and charged the play guilty of missing an opportunity for deeper relevance. At the same time, Simon forgave the playwright for falling prey to the limitations of any historical play, being “forced to look at things a little more panoramically than profoundly.”

Bolt eliminated the Common Man in the 1966 film version of A Man for All Seasons, perhaps because the device for providing scene cues in the Page 100  |  Top of Articlewas original 1954 radio play version was unnecessary in the medium of film. Whatever Bolt’s artistic reasoning, his screenplay was a huge success. Directed by Fred Zinneman and once again starring Paul Scofield, the film won six academy awards (Best Picture, Best Actor for Scofield, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design) and received nominations for two others. Charleton Heston’s 1988 remake of the film had little effect on the eminence of Zinneman’s production.

Over time, criticism has distilled to a view that Bolt’s stage play is one of the best plays to address the issue of selfhood. Literary critics have focused, predictably enough, on Sir Thomas More and on the presence of the Brechtian device of the Common Man. There are some who see the Common Man as a polar opposite to and foil for More, a man who conspicuously lacks More’s integrity. There are others, however, who observe that the Common Man also shares a significant characteristic with More—that of holding fast to one’s principles. In More’s case the principles are religious and personal integrity, while the in the case of the Common Man the principles are self-preservation and expediency. Anselm Atkins explained the concept linking the two men in Modern Drama: “the Common Man is Everyman—and also—More. We each have a self and a theoretical ability to be true to it.” To Arthur Thomas Tees, writing in the University Review, More and the Common Man must be weighed against each other in the context of tragedy, wherein “the tragedy is not in the central figure but in the rejection of that figure by others around him.” To Tees, “More is a non-tragic hero; the Common Man is a tragic non-hero.” Bolt has been categorized as both a “traditionalist” (Walker) and as a “Brechtian” (Fuegi) in terms of his theatrical style. There are elements of both schools in A Man for All Seasons, although Brecht’s essential interest in moving the audience to commitment to social change is lacking. In Sir Thomas More’s terms, the play is ultimately a “humanist” work, one that values human acts of beauty and integrity on earth.


Carole L. Hamilton

Hamilton examines Bolt’s play as a tribute to the ideal of selfhood. As Bolt himself described it, Hamilton sees More’s faith to his principles as a stand for individuality and preservation of the self.

In an elegant Preface to the script of A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt explains the historical background to Sir Thomas More’s story of martyrdom at the hands of King Henry VIII. Bolt also explains his reasons for choosing a sixteenth-century theologian and statesman as a “hero of selfhood” in spite of having little interest himself in questions of Christian piety. For Bolt, “virtue” and “selfhood” have lost meaning in the modern era, where the self is “an equivocal commodity.” What fascinated Bolt about More was that he, unlike many of his contemporaries, considered the king’s oath a serious contract, one that asked him to “offer himself as a guarantee.” More refused to take the oath because he disagreed with its premise (that the King could overrule God’s Law) and because he took his own virtue and soul seriously. For More, to take an oath falsely would literally perjure his soul. Bolt translates this position into modern parlance to suggest that More refused also to perjure his “self”—that he valued his faith in his own capacity for virtue. It is this capacity for virtue, where virtue is adherence to the self, that Bolt sees as a scarce commodity in the modern world. Bolt’s story of More is about a man’s fight for selfhood; it is also the story of how the modern loss of selfhood came to be.

Bolt, who belonged to the Communist Party for more than five years before becoming disillusioned with it, abhorred the growing consumerism in the 1950s in Great Britain and elsewhere. He agreed with Karl Marx that a society that placed too much emphasis on getting and spending, money would take on more importance than personal virtue. As Bolt asserts, “We would prefer most men to guarantee their statements with, say, cash rather than with themselves.” Critics have agreed with his assessment of the modern age and of Thomas More as a suitable hero. “In a collective society the individual tends to become an equivocal commodity, and when we think of ourselves in this way we lose all sense of our own identity. More’s refusal to take the oath is Bolt’s way of asserting that even under the greatest of pressures man can exist unequivocally; that it is possible to live in the modern world without ‘selling out’,” wrote Robert Corrigan in The New Theatre of Europe. The modern period has been described as a period of moral bankruptcy; in such a world, the self is compromised at every turn. Thus Bolt turned to history for subject matter because “modern man has become so trivial and

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  • Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia predates his fatal conflict with Henry VIII. The fictional account analyzes the ills of England before expounding upon “Utopia” (“nowhere”), a land run according to the ideals of Humanism.
  • George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 Saint Joan, concerns the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, whose sainthood made her a misfit in her society.
  • Jean Anouilh’s 1969 French drama, Becket, Or the Honor of God, like T. S. Eliot’s 1935 Murder in the Cathedral, tells the story of another British Christian martyr, Thomas a Becket.
  • In Enemy of the People, an early (1882) play by Henrik Ibsen, a town rejects and persecutes a doctor who warns the people that the town’s lucrative baths are polluted.
  • Plato’s Apology (written between 371 and 267 BC) records Socrates’s defense in his trial against the state for impiety and corrupting youth through his teachings.
  • In Sophocles’s Antigone (circa 400 BC), a young woman defies the king’s prohibition against performing burial rites for her brother and suffers imprisonment for this act of loyalty. Jean Anouilh’s 1942 adaptation of the same name is an allegory for France under Vichy rule.
  • A scholarly account of the various stages of the Reformation of the English Church can be found in Christopher Haigh’s 1993 English Reformation: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors.

uninteresting that he has lost his power to involve us, while modern mass society has inhibited even the superior spirits from expressing themselves through significant action,” according to Robert Brustein in the New Republic.

More believed in the ultimate supremacy of God. For More this was a fact and not simply a matter of allegiance. For More, God was supreme and nothing the King of England said or did could change this fact. More was also a loyal subject, and he supported the King’s governance of the State and of the English Church. More helped Henry write a defense against Martin Luther and he turned down William Roper as suitor to his daughter until Roper mended his heretical views. But when it came to the King’s “Great Matter,” as Henry’s desire to annul his marriage to Catherine came to be known, More could not condone an act that the Pope expressly refused to sanction. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope is God’s presence on earth and the Pope’s decisions carry the weight of a decision by God. This was an especially significant factor in the early sixteenth century, when the Church and State were intertwined in a way that is no longer conceivable. Popes routinely dispensed with inconvenient biblical laws to help monarchs make politically expedient marriages, and priests were routinely involved in matters of war. Cardinal Wolsey himself organized military campaigns as well as conducted peace talks with France. The relationship of the English king to the Pope enforced the king’s authority in England and internationally. Unfortunately though for Henry VIII, Pope Clement VII could not please the English king because of another impingement of State upon Church: at the time hundreds of Spanish troops surrounded the Vatican and Clement VII dared not offend the Spanish king. The Pope refused Henry’s request. Henry could not abide this, so he broke with Rome and declared the Act of Supremacy.

More considered the move an outright defiance of God’s law. Finally breaking his vow of silence after an unfair trial, More declares, “The King in Parliament cannot bestow the Supremacy of the Church because it is a Spiritual Supremacy!” In other words, neither the Parliament nor the King had the authority to decree the Act of Supremacy in Page 102  |  Top of Articlethe first place. In fact, English law itself protected the Church from such violations of its jurisdiction, and More added,“furthermore, the immunity of the Church is promised in Magna Carta and the King’s own coronation oath.” More was on firm ground both ecclesiastically and legally, but could not prevent either the King’s violation of Church and State law, nor the irreversible chasm between Church and State that his Act would initiate. The creation of a separate, secular government would ultimately lead to the modern condition that Bolt found so lacking in virtue and selfhood that he resurrected a 400-year-old hero to salvage it.

Henry VIII’s declaration of sovereignty over the Church in England was the first of many breaks between church and state that would take place over the next two centuries, thus shifting state governance from an abstract, transcendental mode of authority (derived from God) to a hierarchical, temporal authority (administered by humans). Thenceforth, the state would gradually break free of the connection to God, coincidentally eroding the reinforcing authority of God’s endorsement of the monarch. It was a slippery slope that ultimately contributed to the paucity of moral virtue of the secular world: the absence of God in government translated to the possible absence of God at all. The lack of a transcendental authority, according to Bolt, also contributed to the modern loss of self, for, as Bolt hypothesizes in his Preface, “It may be that a clear sense of the self can only crystallize round something transcendental.” Certainly More’s self is crystallized around a transcendental idea—the supremacy of God over man. The State was also crystallized around this transcendental idea, and Thomas More, foresaw that to remove this idea would prove as fatal for the world as it would for himself. In a final invective to Cromwell, More laments, “It is a long road you have opened. First men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose Statesmen walk your road.”

Bolt clearly desired his audience to find connections in his historical play that would resonate with life in the modern world. He was quoted in the English Journal saying: “The action of this play ends in 1535, but the play was written in 1960, and if in production one date must obscure the other, it is 1960 which I wish clearly to occupy the stage. The ‘life’ of a man like Thomas More proffers a number of caps which in this or any other century we must try on for size,” In the play, More himself alludes to his heroism. Deploring those who rationalize taking the easy path, More tells his daughter, “If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes.”

More was found guilty of High Treason after the perjurous testimony of Richard Rich, an immoral opportunist who sold his own soul for bureaucratic advancement—in other words, an archetypal “modern” man. The first appearance of Rich finds him prophetically asserting to More that “every man has his price.” In their argument (which may or may not have occurred between the historical More and Rich) Rich voices a modern preoccupation with self-interest over integrity and hard currency over ethical value. And yet, it is not Rich that Bolt means the audience to blame. Bolt repeatedly draws the viewer’s attention to the Common Man, who, if not directly responsible for More’s execution, represents the greater danger to the life expectancy of virtue. For it is the Common Man, performing the roles of foreman and headsman, who dutifully and thoughtlessly tenders the guilty verdict and dependably performs the execution. In effect, the Common Man silently condemns the life of morality, as symbolized by Thomas More, or as Corrigan expressed it, the Common Man “judges and executes the heroes of selfhood.”

In one of the few encounters More has with him, the Common Man expresses his wish simply to “keep out of trouble.” More turns away, disgusted by the man’s refusal to take a moral stance, saying “Oh, Sweet Jesus! These plain, simple men!” The interchange carries the added emphasis of ending abruptly with sudden music and a swift change of scene. The epilogue provides a final podium for the Common Man, who reiterates his philosophy and attempts to impose it on the audience; “don’t make trouble,” he warns. The effect is meant ironically, to chide the audience not to follow his advice.

But the medium of theater places implicit emphasis on the first, literal meaning of the Common Man’s words: theater does not “make trouble.” Nor does passively watching this morality play compel the audience to take a stance like that taken by More. Far from it. The price he paid for virtue was his life. The audience, on the other hand, has just bought virtue for the price of a theater ticket. Theater-goers may walk away, feeling a special affinity for a man like Thomas More, passively and tragically failing to recognize themselves in the Common Man, who passively and tragically facilitated More’s demise. For the modern period, too Page 103  |  Top of Articleabsorbed with the loss of self to commit to virtue, commends itself simply for recognizing virtue when it sees it, and that seems to be enough. With no simple means to practice virtue first-hand, modern humankind prefers to practice it via the arts; it is part of the general dilution of moral values. In a consumer culture, morality, virtue, and ethical goodness are not transcendental ideas around which to crystallize a self, but thoughts that sponsor feelings of “vague humanitarianism,” moments of mental virtue that are never translated into action.

The theater, and plays such as Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons feed the modern appetite for snacks of virtue, small acts of recognizing virtue that can be consumed in the theater, the movie theater, and conveniently at home, on television. Bolt meant his play to stir the consciences of his audience, but in actuality, his play does no more than solace them.

Source: Carole L. Hamilton, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

Kenneth Tynan

The following excerpt contains Tynan’s review of A Man for All Seasons, which originally appeared in the Observer in 1960. Following the text of Tynan’s review is Bolt’s response to certain points made by Tynan in his review; this appeared in the next edition of the Observer. Following Bolt’s article is Tynan’s response to it. The discussion in this excerpt centers around Tynan’s contention that Bolt is more concerned with Thomas More’s personal character and opinions than he is with the historical significance of More’s ideas or the time in which the events chronicled in the play took place.

A dramatist, screenwriter, and critic, Tynan was a prominent figure in English theater during the 1950s and 1960s.

In A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt has chopped the later career of Sir Thomas More into a series of short and pithy episodes, each of which is prefaced by a few words of comment and explanation, addressed directly to the audience. Changes of scene are indicated emblematically, by signs lowered from the flies; and the style throughout inclines rather to argument than to emotional appeal. There is no mistaking whose influence has been at work on Mr Bolt; the play is clearly his attempt to do for More what Brecht did for Galileo.

In both cases, the theme is persecution, and the author’s purpose is to demonstrate how authority

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enforces its claims on the individual conscience. More was a victim of the Reformation; Galileo, a century later, fell foul of the Counter-Reformation; and both men, being contented denizens of our planet, were extremely reluctant to embrace martyrdom. Each found himself the servant of two masters. Galileo had to choose between science and the Pope, More between the Pope and the King; and each of them, after years of hair-splitting and procrastination, ended up by choosing the Pope—Galileo because he feared for his body, More because he feared for his soul. According to Brecht, Galileo was disloyal to the new science, and is therefore to be rebuked; according to Mr Bolt, More was loyal to the old religion, and is therefore to be applauded.

It is hereabouts that the two playwrights part company. I have no idea whether Mr Bolt himself is a religious man, but I am perfectly sure that if someone presented him with irrefutable evidence that every tenet of Catholicism was a palpable falsehood, his admiration for More would not be diminished in the smallest degree, nor would he feel tempted to alter a word of the text. The play’s strongest scenes, all of which occur in the second half, are those in which More, employing every resource of his canny legal brain, patiently reminds his inquisitors that silence is not to be equated with treason, and that no court can compel him to reveal or defend his private convictions. His position, in short, is that he takes no position; and I have no doubt that we are meant to draw an analogy between More and those witnesses who appear before the Un-American Activities Committee and take the Fifth Amendment.

As a democrat, I detest such coercive investigations into a man’s innermost ideas; as a playgoer, however, I feel entitled to know what his ideas are, and how he arrived at them. Here, where Brecht is voluble, Mr Bolt is mum. If, upon completing Galileo, Brecht had suddenly learned that his protagonist’s hypotheses were totally untrue, he would either have torn up the manuscript or revised it from Page 104  |  Top of Articlestart to finish. From Mr Bolt’s point of view, on the other hand, it matters little whether More’s beliefs were right or wrong; all that matters is that he held them, and refused to disclose them under questioning. For Mr Bolt, in short, truth is subjective; for Brecht it is objective; and therein lies the basic difference between the two plays.

Compare them, and it soon becomes obvious that Mr Bolt’s method is the more constricting. Since there can be no battle of ideologies, he must reduce everything to personal terms; the gigantic upheavals of the Reformation dwindle into a temperamental squabble between a nice lawyer who dislikes divorce and a lusty monarch who wants an heir. Our attention is focused on the legal stratagems whereby More postponed his martyrdom, and distracted from the validity of the ideas that got him into trouble to begin with. The play contains some muscular period writing, especially in the scene where More deliberately insults his old crony, the conformist Duke of Norfolk, in order to absolve him from the responsibility of breaking off their friendship; and it is history’s fault, not Mr Bolt’s, that his hero came to grief so much less dramatically than Brecht’s. (More’s fate was sealed by a perjured witness; whereas it was Galileo himself who laid low Galileo.) At bottom, however, A Man for All Seasons is not so much a play as an essay in hagiography. Mr Bolt looks at history exclusively through the eyes of his saintly hero. Brecht’s vision is broader: he looks at Galileo through the eyes of history.

The direction, by Noel Willman, skips swiftly around a permanent setting (by Motley) of impenitently Swedish-modern design. Leo McKern plays the Chorus, a bellicose, time-serving oaf whom the programme labels, somewhat rudely, ‘The Common Man’. Beery and button-holing, Mr McKern gives a reekingly good account of a highly tendentious role.

Where More himself is concerned, Mr Bolt has indulged in a lot of simplification. He has banished More the scurrilous pamphleteer, More the earthy pleasure-lover, and More the vernacular comic, whom C. S. Lewis has called ‘our first great Cockney humorist’. What remains is More the gentle reasoner, and this Paul Scofield plays to the hilt, at once wily and holy, as unastonished by betrayal as he is by fidelity. He does the job beautifully; but where, in this obsequious piece of acting, is the original Scofield who burst upon us, some twelve years ago, like exquisite thunder? Perhaps time has tamed him, or security, or something unassertive in his cast of mind. It is true that he has never given a bad performance; but it was not in negatives like this that we formerly hoped to praise him. We were looking for greatness. The power is still there, though it has long been sleeping; may it soon revive and transfix us (1960).

The above review provoked a comment from Robert Bolt which was published in the next edition of The Observer. It ran:

‘Mr Tynan’s certainly fair and probably generous notice of my play raises incidentally a philosophic question of practical importance. I am grateful for the comparison he drew between A Man For All Seasons and Galileo—indeed I impudently challenged it by misquoting Brecht’s most celebrated line at the climax of my own play. It is where the plays diverge that Mr Tynan makes the proposition which I want to query: “For Mr Bolt, in short, truth is subjective; for Brecht it is objective; and therein lies the basic difference between the two plays.”

I only roughly understand what is meant by “objective truth”. It is presumably a truth which remains true regardless of who does or doesn’t hold it to be true. It seems a very religious concept. But in the present context Mr Tynan’s point is clear enough: “If, upon completing Galileo, Brecht had suddenly learned that his protagonist’s hypotheses were totally untrue, he would either have torn up the manuscript or revised from start to finish.” Is this Mr Tynan’s guess, or did Brecht himself say he would? For what it means is that the worth of this play about Galileo is conditional upon the correctness of Galileo’s hypotheses. I don’t believe this, and I don’t believe Mr Tynan does, really. Thus:

The difference between the hypotheses of modern cosmology and the hypotheses of Galilean cosmology is already quite as sharp as the difference between the Galilean and the Aristotelian. If the Galilean hypotheses were “true” and showed the Aristotelian to be “untrue” then by the same token the Galilean are now shown to be untrue. If the Galilean hypotheses are untrue then, according to Mr Tynan, Galileo should be torn up or rewritten. In fact, Mr Tynan and I both think it a great play.

‘Or, if this comparative view of the truthfulness of successive hypotheses is insufficiently “objective” for Mr Tynan, let us anticipate the dawning of that day when every feature of the Galilean cosmology has been discarded in favour of others. (I take it Mr Tynan does not deny the possibility of Page 105  |  Top of Articlesuch a thing. If he does, he has a kindred spirit, not in Galileo but the Cardinal Inquisitor.) If that day is tomorrow, will Brecht’s absorbing, profound and illuminating play at once become boring, superficial and dull? It will continue to be as absorbing, profound and illuminating as it in fact is. But where can these virtues now reside? What is it that is left when the “objective” truth of Galileo’s beliefs is removed from the play Galileo? Just Galileo. And that is what Brecht’s play is about, as mine is about More.

‘There are many differences between the two plays (apart I mean from the obvious one in sheer stature), but the basic difference is this. Both men were passionately and to their core convinced. Both were required by Authority to deny themselves. One complied; the other refused.

‘Brecht’s play shows the frightful price which may have to be paid for that compliance—the reduction of the man in his own estimation to a status where he has only the right to scratch himself and eat. My play shows the frightful price which may have to be paid for that refusal to comply—the end of life on any terms at all.

‘Both plays are about uncommon individuals but both are also about organised society. As the essence of organised society, I have taken, quite overtly I think, the structure of the Law. An act of perjury in a trial for High Treason seems to me not altogether undramatic but in this case it has a wider significance, too. More, as Mr Tynan emphasises, put his trust in the Law, that is, in organised society; this act of perjury, engineered by the Court, showed how the appointed guardians of society were ready to crack it open and let in anarchy to maintain their own advantages. As for the passive bulk of society, those with no immediate responsibility for what is done, I don’t think my portrait of the Common Man is “rude” or “tendentious”; he is not actively malignant; under similar circumstances could either Mr Tynan or myself be sure of doing better?

‘Here is the practical bearing of all this: Any society needs a conservative and a radical element. Without the first it flies apart, without the second it putrefies. The conservative can be taken for granted, for it only needs acceptance and a good working substitute for acceptance is sloth. But the radical rejects the status quo, and unless this is done in the name of a definite vision of what an individual human person is, and is not being allowed to be, rejection degenerates to a posture, no less complacent than the Establishment itself. I think this is our present position. Much ink, perhaps some blood, will flow before we arrive at a genuinely modern, genuinely credible vision of what a human person is. But I think that any artist not in some way engaged upon this task might just as well pack up and go home. The personal is not “merely” personal.’

I replied as follows:

Mr Bolt’s dissenting gloss on my review of A Man for All Seasons is a healthy phenomenon; it is always cheering when a playwright shows that he cares more about the ideas he is expressing than about the number of paying customers he can induce to listen to them. But while I respect Mr Bolt’s motives, I cannot swallow his conclusions; they seem to me to be founded on premises that expose, quite poignantly, the limitations of our Western approach to historical drama.

Mr Bolt surveys his chosen slice of the Tudor era with the right end of the telescope firmly clapped to his eye: what he sees is Sir Thomas More, in dominant close-up, with everything else out of focus. A hint, now and then, is lightly dropped that More’s obduracy was not only a crafty individual challenge to Tudor law but a social and political threat to the whole process of the English Reformation. Once dropped, however, these hints are rapidly swept under the carpet and forgotten. Mr Bolt is primarily absorbed in the state of More’s conscience, not in the state of More’s England or More’s Europe.

Brecht, on the other hand, though he gives us an intimate study of Galileo’s conscience, takes pains to relate it at every turn to Galileo’s world and to the universe at large. In short, he uses the wrong end of the telescope as well. He naturally worries about ‘what an individual human person is’; but he also worries about the society into which that person was born, and the contributions he made (or failed to make) towards improving it. Brecht’s play deals with Galileo and the postponed dawn of the age of reason. Mr Bolt’s play deals with More, tout court.

As to the matter of ‘objective truth’: what concerns Brecht is Galileo’s contention that the earth revolved around the sun, and I am not aware that anybody has yet disproved it. If they had, I have no doubt that Brecht would have written a different play, possibly based on the arrogance of scientists who fail to verify their hypotheses, or on the ways in which hubris can stunt the growth of enlightenment. ‘The truth’, as he never tired of insisting, ‘is concrete’ ; Galileo is in possession of a useful, concrete, Page 106  |  Top of Articlerevolutionary truth, which authority compels him to deny.

Does Mr Bolt seriously think that Brecht would have devoted the same attention to a man who held that the earth was a saucer-shaped object created in the seventh century A.D.? That, too, would have constituted a heresy, and the Church would unquestionably have silenced anyone who sought to spread it. Under pressure, the heretic might well have recanted, and thereby reduced himself, as Mr Bolt says of Galileo, ‘in his own estimation’. But what about the estimation of history? Heartless though it may sound—and the theatre, where suffering is feigned, is the last stronghold of permissible heartlessness—I must confess that I am more interested in a persecuted scientist whose beliefs are demonstrably true than in one whose beliefs are demonstrably false.

Mr Bolt makes no such distinctions. For him, the mere fact of belief is enough, and Sir Thomas’s martyrdom would have been just as tragic if the point at issue had been his refusal to admit that two plus two equalled four. We are expected to sympathise with him simply and solely because he declines to reveal his convictions. It is here that Mr Bolt and I part company. There may be evidence of temperamental bias in my preference for oppressed heroes with whose opinions I agree; but I don’t think I am acting unfairly when I demand that heroes should define their opinions, regardless of whether I agree with them. Brecht tells us precisely what Galileo asserted, and why he asserted it; and the play grows out of the explanation. Mr Bolt tells us nothing about More’s convictions or how he came to embrace them. In the second act Norfolk asks him whether he is willing to abandon all he possesses because of ‘a theory’—namely, the idea that the Pope is St Peter’s descendant.

‘Why, it’s a theory, yes; you can’t see it, can’t touch it; it’s a theory,’ More replies. ‘But what matters to me is not whether it’s true or not but whether I believe it to be true, or rather not that I believe it but that I believe it. . . . I trust I make myself obscure?’

That is as close as we get to knowing what More believes, and why. It is not, in an age as pragmatical as ours, nearly close enough. By way of a footnote; I concede that people like Mr Bolt and myself might easily behave, in comparable circumstances, as corruptly and boorishly as the character played by Leo McKern. What is ‘rude’ and ‘tendentious’ is that a character who is the essence of boorish corruption should be labelled ‘The Common Man’.

Source: Kenneth Tynan, “Theatre” in his Right and Left: Plays, Films, People, Places, and Events, Atheneum, 1967.

Howard Taubman

In the following review, which originally appeared in the New York Times on November 23, 1961, Taubman offers a positive assessment of A Man for All Seasons, noting Bolt’s skills as a writer and his ability to present his plot and characters in a manner that allows the audience to form its own opinions regarding the people and events depicted.

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Source: Howard Taubman, “Drama Based on Life of Thomas More Opens” (1961) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from The New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 439-41.


Alvarez, A. “The Price of Period” in British New Statesman, Vol. 60, July 9, 1960, p. 46.

An early review of the original London stage play that calls the play a “historical romance,” too “cozy” for real dramatic tragedy.

Atkins, Anselm. “Robert Bolt: Self, Shadow, and the Theater of Recognition” in Modern Drama, Vol. 10, September 1967, pp. 182-88.

Atkins equates More with the Common Man, “a striking example of the coincidence of opposites,” in that both of them live by the principle to preserve the self.

Brustein, Robert. “Chronicle of a Reluctant Hero” in the New Republic, Vol. 145, no. 24, December 11, 1961, pp. 280-30.

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A positive review of the New York play that sees Bolt’s play as an effective model for the rebirth of the chronicle history.

Carper, Gerald Carper “Dramas of the Threatened Self in Video Classics of American Film, September, 1989.

A summary of Bolt’s major works that demonstrates their common themes about “of the threatened self.”

Duprey, Richard A. “Interview with Robert Bolt” in the Dalhousie Review, Vol. 48, Spring, 1968, pp. 13-23.

Bolt explains his choice of More as a man in conflict over selfhood and sees two choices for modern man: accepting a world without moral standards or returning to Christian morals.

Fuegi, John. “Robert Bolt” in Contemporary British Dramatists, edited by James Vinson, St. James Press (London), 1973.

An essay that identifies the two major influences on Bolt’s work as Brecht and the cinema.

Gambill, Thomas C. The Drama of Robert Bolt: A Critical Study, Kent State University, 1982.

A study of Bolt’s plays as a representative of the drama of the “angry young men” and the influence of Bertolt Brecht.

Hayman, Ronald. Robert Bolt, Heinemann, 1969.

A slim volume that includes an interview with Robert Bolt about his life, chapters critiquing six of his plays, and a follow-up interview in which Bolt responds to the play critiques.

McCarten, John.“The Reluctant Martyr” in the New Yorker, Vol. 37, no. 42, December 2, 1961, pp. 117-18.

A positive review of the New York production praising Bolt realistic portrayal of More.

McElrath, Joseph R. “The Metaphoric Structure of A Man for All Seasons” in Modern Drama, Vol. 14, 1972, pp. 84-92.

A detailed analysis of the metaphor of the sea and land that Bolt mentions in his Preface and that pervades the play.

Peachment, Chris. London Times, October 23, 1986.

A retrospective view of Bolt’s work that finds much of merit in it.

Simon, John. “Play Reviews: A Man for All Seasons” in Theater Arts, Vol. 46, no. 2, February, 1962, pp. 10-11.

A favorable review suggesting that although the play is limited by attempting too much historical scope; it is “intelligent, pungent, and absorbing.”

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Tees, Arthur Thomas. “The Place of the Common Man: Robert Bolt: A Man for All Seasons” in the University Review, Vol. 36, October, 1969, pp. 67-71.

Tees describes the Common Man’s function as foil to More. They are polar opposites in that while More is a “non-tragic hero” (having no fatal flaw), the Common Man is a “tragic non-hero.”

Trewin, J. C. “Two Morality Playwrights: Robert Bolt and John Whiting” in Experimental Drama, edited by William A. Armstrong, Bell and Sons, 1963, pp. 103-27.

An analysis of Bolt’s plays as successful studies of social conscience in the individual. Trewin likes die plays but calls Bolt’s explanatory preface a distraction.

Tucker, M. J. “The More-Norfolk Connection” in Moreana, Vol. 33, 1972, pp. 5-13.

Tucker reveals that Bolt has distorted the role that the historical Duke of Norfolk played in More’s demise and describes the relationship history shows they had.

Walker, John. “Top Playwrights” in the Sunday Times Magazine, November 26, 1978.

In this special edition devoted to British theater, Walker’s essay groups fifty British playwrights under six categories, “wits and dandies,” “traditionalists,” “individualists,” and so on.


Corrigan, Robert, editor.“Five Dramas of Selfhood” in The New Theatre of Europe, Dell, 1962, pp. 9-31

Taubman, Howard. Review of A Man for All Seasons in the New York Times, Vol. 23, November, 1961.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692700015