A Man for All Seasons, a play written by Robert Bolt, retells the historic events surrounding Sir Thomas More, the Chancellor of England who remained silent regarding Henry VIII's divorce. Because More would not take an oath which essentially endorsed the king's separation from the church in Rome, the Chancellor was imprisoned, tried, and eventually executed. Throughout the drama, More is forthright, witty, contemplative, and honest. Some might argue that he is too honest. He follows his conscience all the way to the chopping block.
A Man for All Seasons asks us, "How far would we go to remain honest?" In the case of Sir Thomas More, we behold a man who speaks with utmost sincerity, a virtue that will cost him his life.
The Basic Plot
Shortly after the death of Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas Moore, a wealthy lawyer and loyal subject of King Henry VIII, accepts the title of Chancellor of England. With that honor comes an expectation. The King expects More to sanction the divorce and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. More is caught between his obligations to the crown, his family, and the tenants of the church. Open disapproval would be an act of treason. Public approval would defy his religious beliefs. Therefore, More chooses silence, hoping that by staying quiet he can maintain his honesty and avoid the executioner as well.
Unfortunately, ambitious men such as Thomas Cromwell are more than happy to see More crumble. By treacherous and dishonest means, Cromwell manipulates the court system, stripping More of his title, wealth, and freedom.
The Character of Sir Thomas More
When writing an essay about a literary work, students would be wise to analyze the character arc of the protagonist. Most main characters undergo a transformation. However, one could argue that Thomas Moore, the man who remains consistent throughout the seasons (in good times and bad), does not change. If you are looking for an essay topic in response to A Man for All Seasons, consider this question: Is Sir Thomas More a static character or a dynamic character?
Many aspects of More's nature hold steadfast. He demonstrates devotion to his family, friends, and servants. Although he adores his daughter, he does not give in to her desire to marry until her fiancé repents his so-called heresy. He exhibits no temptation when offered bribes and contemplates no underhanded schemes when faced with political enemies. From beginning to end, he is forthright and honest. Even when locked away in the Tower of London, he politely interacts with his jailers and interrogators.
Despite these almost angelic characteristics, More explains to his daughter that he is no martyr, meaning that he does not wish to die for a cause. Rather, he fervently maintains his silence in hopes that the law will protect him. During his trial, he explains that the law mandates that silence must be legally perceived as consent; therefore, More argues, he has not officially disapproved of King Henry.
Yet, his opinion is not quieted forever. After losing the trial and receiving a death sentence, More decides to explicitly reveal his religious objections to the King's divorce and second marriage. Here, students may find evidence of a character arc. Why does Sir Thomas More voice his position now? Does he hope to persuade others? Is he lashing out in anger or hatred, emotions he has kept in check until now? Or does he simply feel as though he has nothing more to lose?
Whether More's character is perceived as static or dynamic, A Man For All Seasons generates thought-provoking ideas about honesty, morality, law, and society.
The Supporting Characters
The Common Man is a recurring figure throughout the play. He appears as a boatman, a servant, a juror, and many other "everyday" subjects of the kingdom. In each scenario, the common man's philosophies contrast with More's in that they focus on day-to-day practicalities. When More can no longer pay his servants a living wage, the Common Man must find work elsewhere. He is not interested in facing extreme hardship for the sake of a good deed or a clear conscience.
The devious Thomas Cromwell exhibits so much power-hungry maliciousness that audiences will want to boo him off the stage. However, we learn in the epilogue that he receives his comeuppance; Cromwell is charged with treason and executed, just like his rival Sir Thomas More.
Unlike the play's blatant villain Cromwell, the character Richard Rich serves as a more complex antagonist. Like other characters in the play, Rich wants power. However, unlike the members of the court, he doesn't have any wealth or status at the beginning of the play. He waits for an audience with More, eager to obtain a position in court. Although very friendly with him, More does not trust Rich and therefore does not offer the young man a place in court. Instead, he urges Rich to become a teacher. However, Rich wants to attain political greatness.
Cromwell offers Rich the chance to join his side, but before Rich accepts the shady position, he desperately pleads to work for More. We can tell that Rich genuinely admires More, yet he cannot resist the lure of power and wealth which Cromwell dangles in front of the young man. Because More senses Rich is untrustworthy, he turns him away. Rich eventually embraces his role as a scoundrel. During the final courtroom scene, he provides false testimony, dooming the man he once revered.