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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


SETTING


A 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 (reigned 1509-1547).

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 in 1519.

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.


CHARACTER LIST


Major Characters


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 the Act.

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.


Characters played 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 see him.

Boatman
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.

Publican
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.

Jailer
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.

Jury Foreman
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.

Headsman
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.

Richard Rich
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 play.

 

Minor Characters


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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 around him.

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 mind.

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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