Free Study Guide for A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt|
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A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS: LITERATURE SUMMARY / NOTES
KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
Man for All Seasons is set in the Reformation Period of Britain. The time
was also considered to be part of the Renaissance. The time was from 1529 through
1535. It was during the reign of King Henry VIII, the second Tudor King of England
The Sixteenth Century (the 1500’s) was an exciting
time. Much was happening. The world, including Britain, was changing quickly.
People were thinking and sharing new ideas. Examples of this sharing were the
visits Erasmus, a Dutch humanist and writer, made to Sir Thomas More. Johannes
Gutenberg had invented the printing press around 1450. Christopher Columbus had
reached America in 1492. Michelangelo was still alive. Leonardo DaVinci had died
Sir Thomas More's residence, where some of the action takes place,
was in Chelsea. Chelsea is a district of London. Hampton Court, where other action
takes place was the king’s residence. It too is in the area of London, on a bend
of the Thames River.
Sir Thomas More
Sir Thomas More is the protagonist, or main character. His refusal
to affirm the Act of Supremacy making King Henry VIII the supreme head
of the Church of England is the main subject of the play. The play focuses
on Sir Thomas’ inability to sacrifice his moral conscience to save his
life. His conscience is more important to him than life itself. But, More,
in the play, is more existential than he is religious. More is definitely
not eager to be a martyr. He tries not to become one by refusing to speak
out against the Act of Supremacy. He also does not write anything against
More loves the world of the law. He knows that laws are what keep everyone
safe. Without agreed upon laws men would have no protection. To More,
only God is ranked higher than society’s laws.
The Common Man
The Common Man is a useful invention for this playwright. His
characters can be looked upon as either universal or base. His characters
do whatever is expedient. They “go along to get along.” They let others
be concerned with right and wrong. They are concerned with what works,
with “getting by.”
When he is not in a separate character, the Common Man helps set the
scene for the audience. He talks to the audience directly.
by the Common Man
Matthew, the Steward
Matthew is the Common Man character that makes the most appearances.
He understands his position well. He knows what he should do, what he
can do, what he should not do and what he is not required to do. What
he should do is the work that is required by his position in the More
household. What he can do is pass on unimportant information about his
employer, Sir Thomas. What he should not do is pass on secret information
about Sir Thomas. What he is not required to do is alert his employer
that people are making enquiries about him. He also knows that he is not
very important in the eyes of his employer, who has a tendency not to
The boatman is mainly concerned with making a living. More tends
to not see him; similar to the way that he does not see Matthew, the steward.
The publican, who runs a tavern or pub called “The Loyal Subject,”
is willing to overlook suspicious activity with the expectation that he
will be making some money by serving those involved. He is not a spy,
as some people who actually are spies believe he is, but rather he is
just trying to make a living.
The jailer is used as a witness to trap Sir Thomas. Then, an
attempt is made to use him as a paid spy in an attempt to get information
on Sir Thomas. The offer of money frightens the jailer, whose main concern
now is keeping out of trouble and staying alive.
The jury foreman is reluctant to take part in the trial of Sir
Thomas. No good will come of it. But, he doesn’t have a choice. And, when
the time comes to give the verdict, he does what is necessary to insure
his safety; he says that Sir Thomas is guilty.
The headsman has only one line. By the time he does his job,
we can easily guess why he beheads Sir Thomas. It is the way that he can
save his own self.
The character of Richard Rich is the opposite of the character
of Sir Thomas More. Rich is mostly interested in gaining riches and stature.
He has no interest in listening to his conscience. He has no interest
in More’s suggestion that he be a teacher. There is not enough to be gained
by being a teacher, at least not enough of what he desires. He read Machiavelli’s
writings and seemed to use them as a guide to how to act. He is the type
of person likely to prosper during the reign of King Henry VIII. In fact,
he does prosper. His fortunes rise at the same time that More loses favor
with the king and the king’s men. His name, Rich, seems like a name given
to the character by an author trying to label him. But, in fact, this
character is based on a real person, as are the other characters in the
Duke of Norfolk
The Duke of Norfolk is Sir Thomas More’s friend. He seems almost
innocent when compared to Cromwell. Since he took part in bringing More
down, he surely cannot be considered a faithful friend. However, he does
continually try to get Sir Thomas to save himself. He does not understand
that it would be impossible for More to do that.
The Duke of Norfolk’s name was Thomas Howard. He was the 3 rd Duke
of Norfolk. He married Lady Anne, the daughter of Henry IV. He was a member
of the old nobility. The old nobility was frequently against the men,
such as Thomas Wolsey, who rose from a common birth to a position of power.
Norfolk was an uncle of Anne Boleyn. This gave him a reason to want the
king to marry Anne besides his loyalty to the king.
Alice More is Sir Thomas More’s wife. She does not know how to
read and does not want to learn. She is unable to understand why More
won’t just do as the king demands. It would be so much simpler. Then they
could continue with their life together. She finally accepts his reasons
without understanding them.
Margaret is Sir Thomas More’s daughter. She has received a good
education from her father and others. It was unusual in the Sixteenth
Century for a woman to be educated. She comes closest to understanding
him. During the timeframe of the play, Margaret marries the man she loves,
Will Roper. At times in the play Margaret is called Meg.
Cardinal Wolsey was a powerful player in the reign of King Henry
VIII until he fell out of favor with the King. During earlier years, he
could almost be described as equal to the King in power. He was frequently
at odds with the old nobility, such as the Duke of Norfolk, who resented
the fact that a commoner could rise so high in the King’s Court. Besides
irritating the old nobility, Wolsey also caused disquiet among the commoners.
They did not like to pay the taxes that he caused to be levied. They also
looked askance at his luxurious lifestyle.
Thomas Cromwell seemed to make Machiavelli his guide to living.
He was in Wolsey’s service until Wolsey’s fall. After that he worked for
the King. He seemed to have no sense of guilt or shame. When the King
felt that something unpleasant needed to be done to someone, others would
do what was required of them somewhat reluctantly. Cromwell performed
his required tasks with relish.
Chapuys was Spanish Ambassador to England during the time of
the play. His first name was Eustace. He was a good friend and supporter
of Queen Catherine. He also pressed for her rights and privileges because
he was working for the King of Spain who was Catherine’s nephew. He frequently
masked his political agenda with an interest in religion.
William Roper is the suitor of and then the husband of Sir Thomas
More’s daughter, Margaret in the play. He is anti-Catholic in part of
the play, but then becomes a Catholic like his wife is.
Henry is King Henry VIII, King of England. Some of his actions
are those of a man without a conscience. But, he does have a conscience.
He just turns the world upside down and inside out in order to make his
actions moral. What Sir Thomas More thinks of him is extremely important
to him because he knows that More is a moral man. More’s acceptance of
what the King does would make the King appear to be a moral man also.
He is only in one scene of the play, but much of the dialogue centers
Woman (pg. 100 & pg. 161)
The character referred to as Woman is given the name Catherine Anger.
She is the person who tried to bribe Sir Thomas More with a silver cup
causing him to want to get rid of it immediately. He gives the cup to
Richard Rich. Later the cup and the woman are back in the action when
Cromwell tries to use them to trap Sir Thomas. Finally, as More is walking
toward the headsman, the woman tries to get More to say that she was right.
Attendant of Chapuys (pg. 105)
The attendant of Chapuys appears to have a lot in common with the Common
Man characters. He is basically someone to whom Chapuys can speak his
Cranmer (pg. 135)
Thomas Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 because
King Henry VIII liked the course of action that he promoted to assure
that the King succeeded in divorcing Queen Catherine. He served the King
even when what he was asked to do revolted him. Later, after the time
period of this play, he was the force behind the creation of the Book
of Common Prayer.
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