A Man for all Seasons is a play that was written by prolific English writer, Robert Bolt. Born in 1924, he worked as an insurance agent before joining the World War II as a Royal Air Force officer. He worked as a school teacher, after his time at the force, before embarking on writing this particular play. The same year he wrote it; it featured as a play in London and New York. It is crucial to understand the background of the play to understand it with more power.
According to Kincaid, it is useful to understand that for many years in England there had been hostility to the clergy, because the Church had great worldly powers, property, and wealth, while many members of the clergy were corrupt and self-seeking. (11) With this play, Bolt wanted to bring out the strong characteristic steadiness of standing on one’s feet and owns ground in what one believes irrespective of what others think or say. The main character, Sir Thomas More, is a judge who is steadfast and firm in his beliefs.
He is not easily swayed by people’s opinions, influence, threats, and intimidation. He objects to endorsing King Henry VIII’s plan of divorcing his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. The King having promoted Sir Thomas to the position of Lord Chancellor of England, and Thomas being his long standing friend, will automatically guarantee Sir Thomas agreeing to support him. He wants Thomas to publicly endorse his divorce plan, but Thomas More feels Henry’s actions are not justified, and the divorce is not appropriate.
This is backed by Greene when he affirms that even as Nobles, universities and the Clergy fell into line behind the King, More’s silence on the matter resounded thunderously. Despite the king’s unhappiness with More’s decision to remain silent, he stands firm and refuse to do what everybody else did even though the pressure on his family grew stronger and stronger (7). This shows his autonomy and independence in making his own informed decisions unlike the likes of Cromwell and Richard Rich who act as the King’s “yes men” doing all his bidding.
Cromwell, the king’s intimate, works for the king to have More falsely persecuted and beheaded. We will develop here three main kind of adversities that More had to face: authoritarian, Family, himself. Sir Thomas More’s strong character and moral integrity are alluded to by the title of the play, A Man for all Seasons. The title is a reference to More’s never changing character and direction in life. According to Miller, More was a character with extraordinary blending of gaiety and gravity and for his flexible adaptation to company of all sorts.
However, he knew how to compromise and not go out of his way; he did not bend rules, adopt or change for the sake of anyone, even King Henry VIII apart from his own God (26-27). This statement concisely puts down his beliefs and what kind of person he was. Thomas works within the boundaries of his own principles and in the end, dies for what he believes in. Lee compares Sir Thomas More with Roper. At the beginning of the play when the two of them are talking, Roper seems really devoted to his principles but as the play continues on, we learn that Roper is in fact not as true to his values as Sir Thomas More is.
Lee talks about the “Romanticized” vision of a prison that Roper has compare to the reality of what More is living. When Roper visited More in prison he even encouraged More to give up when he saw the “awfulness of prison”. (319). His obstinate sense of self -righteous and defense for justice sees him earn many foes and adversaries. Just like Roper, many people pretending to be More’s friends turned out to become his enemies plotting behind his back for his downfall. His family, friends, and colleagues turn their back on him, and the adversaries from both his seniors and juniors continue swelling.
The following are some of the most significant and outstanding adversaries Judge Sir Thomas More earns himself and faces off with. His many adversaries rise from his strong stands and refusal to bow down to the social order. His main and most prominent adversaries are the authorities and technocrats in the country. Upon meeting with Cardinal Wosley, then the Lord Chancellor of England; Thomas More reviews the decision by King Henry to divorce his wife Catherine and marry Anne and the subsequent decisions.
He states his disapproval and says he doubts the Pope will give his assent on this divorce as it is confirmed by Greene when he describes the King’s feeling about the decision of Rome as ‘Frustrated’. The king was very disappointed with the decision of the Clergy and Henry vainly sought to increase the pressure on Rome. When that failed, Henry began to target the English Clergy. (7) It is from this particular point that Wosley declares a witch hunt on the judge, having him investigated and falsely accused of receiving bribes, and insult towards the King.
These represent the authoritarian adversary, the adversaries that Sir Thomas More has to face that hold the keys of the government and have power and authority to hurt him according to the law. Although they are not following the law when they persecute him, they pretend to do so. The other adversary in the authority level that Sir Thomas encounters is King Henry VIII’s closest confidant, the recently promoted cardinal secretary, Cromwell. He is used by King Henry as a tool to fight and suppress Sir Thomas due to his stand against the King’s planned divorce.
Here we are going to see the kind of adversity that was apply to More by his so-called friends in their thirst for power, they did not hesitate to step over him on their ascension to power. Cromwell plans for Thomas’ downfall by collaborating with the corruptible Richard Rich who is a low ranking functional authority. Cromwell offers Richard an opportunity to advance his career and climb the social ladder in exchange for information about Thomas and testifying falsely against him. Cromwell goes ahead and come up with a false case of how Sir Thomas received a bribe and brings to evidence: the silver cup that Sir Thomas gave Rich.
At this point as readers we are already amazingly disgusted by the machinery these two people are putting together to get Sir Thomas More down. Eventually, this leads to the conviction and beheading of Thomas. On this matter, Abraham Lincoln said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”. Rich was a good men, probably able to stand adversity with a good self-esteem, but when power was proposed to him, he gave up his conviction. The trut however, is that Thomas received the silver cup oblivious that it was a bribe.
Yet, on realizing, he gave the cup to Richard as he did not want anything to do with it. Cromwell, goes ahead to meet with the Duke of Norfolk, another supposed friend, to get him to fix More in a bad light concerning the bribery scheme. The duke, however, proves to him that silver cup, in fact, was passed on by the judge as soon as he realized it was a bribe. Cromwell insists that the duke cooperates and participates in the grand scheme to bring Thomas down. This is because King Henry expects the duke of Norfolk to fully participate in the persecution of Thomas.
Thomas woes continue pilling up when Signor Chapuys turns against him and joins the witch hunt. Signor Chapuys’ adversary towards Thomas arises from the breaking of the illusion that Chapuys was under concerning Thomas’ friendship towards the Spanish. Cengage Learning explains the relationship on Sir Thomas More with Chapuys as follow: In speaking with More, Chapuys tries to hide his true motives which are political, with flattery and references to religion. Because he is devious himself, he hears hidden meanings in what More says which leads to misunderstanding. 14) This quote explains why Chapuys did not understand More. He was trying to prove that More aleegiance to spain was no longer and so Chapuys thought that he had found an ally in Thomas to protect the interest of Catherine of whom he was cautious and concerned that she is embarrassed or insulted by King Henry as she is the aunt of the king of Spain. The Spanish ambassador states that he was unsuccessful in persuading More to support Spain saying, as it is affirmed by the sentence Chapuys uses in the play when he says, “Goodness can be difficulty” (Bolt, 62).
Thomas’ refusal to accept the letter of appreciation that is sent by the King of Spain is also a possible source of the aggravated hostility from the Spanish diplomat, Signor Chapuys. All of these men are complotting against someone they knew, someone they worked with, and for some of them someone they had a close relationship with. Adversity can come from authority, friends and sometimes both. The other adversary of Thomas is King Henry VIII who is Thomas’ friend and King.. The king desires to get a son as the heir that his wife Catherine has not borne.
He, therefore, plans to get a second wife to fulfill this, and it is here he seeks the support of the lord chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More. More is a devout Christian, and of strong moral standing; hence, he does not approve of this. Although he does not publicly or openly voice his displeasure, he is silently opposed to this. Johnson explains that it is probably to protect his family the best he can that he acts like that, “He is well aware of dangers on the horizon but does not want to cause them to worry by addressing the dangers directly. 7) At first, More enjoys a somewhat ‘safe zone; by remaining silent about the King’s plans. This comfort zone is trespassed when the King demands the vocal support of the wise, respect public figure. When the King visits him at Chelsea home, in London, More tells the king he will not agree to his plan. The King storms out in anger telling More that he will only leave him alone if he does not openly voice his disagreement for his planned divorce of Catherine and marriage to Anne Boleyn. This aggravates and worsens their relationship, which had been set on the rocks earlier.
This was when Thomas More had declared he was going to resign if the Church of England Bishops were going to go along with the Parliament’s Act of Supremacy. This Notorious act puts the King as the absolute head of the Church of England, as well as the overall ruler of England State: the genesis of their conflict. This hostility towards the Judge comes to a boiling point where he flatly refuses to take an oath of allegiance in the King’s name, another creation of the King’s puppet parliament.
Boughey posits that, “Henry VIII Wanted to look powerful and strong. […] Henry VIII was a powerful king who was completely in charge of England. Nobody was stronger than Henry VIII, not even Parliament. (1). This is how the king was perceived in real life, probably it was the reason why he was described like that in the play and Sir Thomas More was described then stronger than the parliament and stronger than the King. This is the proof that Thomas More stood strong against the adversity even when it was his King and friend.
This adversity can represent a symbol between the King and More with the king symbolically representing the monarchial absolute power and More representing civil law. Thomas’ refuses to have the King rule even his conscience. As a result, he is ready and willing to keep his honesty at all costs, even if it means losing his life. Kincaid expresses Thomas More’s willingness to die for his principles in this little paragraph: When More’s wife was sent to prison to visit him in the hope that she would persuade him to sign the Oath, she told him that he might, if he signit, have another twenty years of life.
More answered with his usual wit that if she had offered him a thousand years, he might have been tempted, but twenty years in exchange for an eternity of damnation was a very poor bargain. (9). The kings tries to give More a chance but he refuses and choses to remain faithful to his principles. Thus, coming back to our symbolism, the civil law win over the absolute power meaning that absolute power in one’s hand can be lethal. Thomas’ ethics and integrity is based on a strong base.
In the play, other characters appear to be good people but do not have as strong a base as the Judge. The duke of Norfolk for example seem to be a good guy. However, he does not understand More’s motivation. As Lee puts it, “ The behavior of the duke of Norfolk are dictated by yet another good, the benefit of friends. The constant for Norfolk is the preservation of friendship with the people of the here and now, and thus, he cannot comprehend more’s insistence on risking those friendships for his love of a heavenly God. (313).