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Free Study Guide for A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt

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The setting of this play is the reign of Henry VIII. He is well known to our age. He was a spoiled brat who demanded what he wanted and received it. He is a great example of the baser side of human nature. By reading about him we can indulge that side of us today.

Opposing Henry was the long history of medieval religious piety, which unfortunately had been scarred by the avarice of some church leaders.

When he was growing up, Henry was not expected to become king. His older brother, Arthur, was to become king. However, Arthur died before he became king but after he married Catherine of Aragon. At that point, Henryís parents and Catherineís parents wanted to continue their close connection. They decided to marry Henry to Catherine. They had to have the pope approve of the marriage because it was usually not considered correct for a man to marry his brotherís widow. The approval was obtained. Catherine became Henryís wife and his queen.

At first the couple was happy, but over time that changed. Some of the reasons are hard to fathom, but it seems likely that they included the following. Catherine had grown unattractive. Henry was in love with Anne Boleyn. The Spanish alliance was unpopular in England. The prime reason was that Henry and much of England felt that he needed a male heir. And, Catherine, who had reached menopause, seemed unable to give him one. Anne Boleyn appeared to be able to give Henry his required male son. But, if they were not married, the son could not succeed his father as king. Once again the pope was called upon to approve of what England wanted. But Spain argued against Englandís request. Spain wielded great power at that time because they had occupied Rome. After much wrangling the pope refused to grant the divorce. This angered Henry immensely.

Henry was sure that his marriage to Catherine should not have taken place. And, because of that, it should be undone. His punishment for marrying his brotherís wife was not having sons. He had sinned because his father and the pope told him to marry Catherine and told him that it was all right to do so. It seemed clear to him that a man who would try to keep him in sin could not be called the Vicar of God, as the pope was called.

As Henry researched the subject farther, he found that there were others who questioned the special position of the Pope as head of the Church. He found that others thought of him as simply the Bishop of Rome. If he was a bishop, then he could not be changing rulings made by God. He did not have the authority. He also did not have the authority to appoint other bishops. And, it seemed reasonable that the person with the authority to appoint bishops was the King who held that position by the Grace of God. The Bishops of Rome had been usurping the power of the English Kings for centuries. Henry appointed Thomas Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury. He felt certain that Cranmer would do as he wanted in the matter of the divorce and remarriage. He was right. And the Church of England was born.

So far we have covered the political and religious environment of the play. We now turn to include the economic environment. The economic setting was progressive while the religious environment was reactionary, setting the scene for a collision of the two. This collision was a collision between men and within men.

The author wrote Sir Thomas More as having an extremely strong sense of self. He could be moved and bent by family, friends and even enemies only up to the point where it intruded on his sense of self. To protect his sense of self, he was unbendable. What first attracted the author to Sir Tomas More was his capacity for living and enjoying life. Sir Thomas was indeed bendable in many areas. When he could not be bent was when he was required to state under oath something that he did not believe. Sir Thomas was very sociable, had many friends including many of the great thinkers of his age.

The sea and dry land are used as symbols for the superhuman context and for society with its shared shelter.

The style of playwriting that the author used was that of Bertolt Brecht. The author used Brechtís alienation technique to deepen involvement in the play. He had an actor address the audience in character instead of directly. The intention was to grab the audience and pull them into the play, not to alienate the audience.

The author found that some people took exception with the Common Man character, the one who speaks to the audience. They felt that it was insulting. Others felt that the Common Man was vulgar. The author claims that he wanted the Common Man to come across as attractive and having a philosophy with which it is hard to disagree.

The Common Man was in the theatre at times. The author heard him laughing in the gallery.


The preface was written after the play had been performed. It gives the reader or audience member who reads it only after reading or seeing the play a different slant on the play than he or she probably got from the play.

Much has been written about the reign of Henry VIII. The author tells us what we need to know to understand the play.

Following are a few tidbits of information to add to what the preface tells us.

Anne did not give Henry the son that he desired, but she did produce for him the next ruler of England. Anneís daughter, Elizabeth, was a very successful ruler even though she was a woman.

Henry felt that he was wrong to marry Catherine because she had been his brotherís wife. However, he saw nothing wrong with marrying Anne Boleyn even though he had had an intimate relationship with her sister, Mary.

Berthold Brecht, the playwright from whom the author mentioned borrowing, started the use of the alienation effect, which was supposed to make events on stage seem unfamiliar to the audience. Brecht did not want what happened onstage to be confused with reality. The audience was to remain alienated from the staged events. The author gave Brechtís ideas a twist. As he said, he wanted to pull the audience into the play.

After reading the play, and being exposed to the character of Sir Thomas More, it is difficult to understand the authorís use of the Common Man as someone with impregnable philosophy.

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