Why does More refuse to agree to the oath? What is the difference between More’s understanding of what he’s doing and typical expectations of morality and martyrdom?
Going into the play, we know that Thomas More is a saint and a martyr. Most people consider a saint to be a man of principle, and a martyr is a man who dies for his beliefs.
But Saint Thomas More as characterized in Robert Bolt’s play has other reasons for refusing to agree to King Henry’s oath. He is not concerned with doing what is right according to Christian dogma. Rather, he acts based on his own conscience. He says, “not that I believe it, but that I believe it,” emphasizing that something within him dictates how he should act. His morals in this case form the bedrock of his sense of self, and to betray them would be to kill that self.
Throughout the play, other characters expect More to make gestures that symbolize his beliefs. But More puts realistic considerations ahead of any high-minded ideals he might harbor. In this sense, he breaks the mold of what we might expect a martyr to be—More dies because there’s no other way out for him, not because he wants to make a political or religious statement. Even though he speaks out at the end of the play, his diatribe comes only after he has been sentenced to death, showing that he was not killed for what he said, but what he did not say.
What does Roper’s conversion from Catholicism to Lutheranism and back again suggest about Bolt’s opinion of faith?
In A Man for All Seasons, William Roper serves as a counterpoint to More, but he is one who is less clearly reprehensible than men like Thomas Cromwell and Richard Rich. Roper is passionate about whatever cause he happens to be championing in any given scene, but his high-minded ideals concerning religion are as inconstant as the wind or water. After Roper returns to Catholicism, More threatens to hide Margaret, his daughter, from Roper’s “seagoing principles.” More finds Roper’s willingness to stake everything on something as uncertain as God’s wishes an impractical way of approaching life and morality.
In fact, Bolt uses Roper’s ever-changing faith as a comedic device. In addition to clarifying More’s own position, Roper’s point of view comes off as so inconsistent as to be funny. Starting off the play calling the pope the Antichrist, he ultimately ends up in a dour priest’s uniform, complete with a Catholic cross. As More makes fun of Roper’s outfit, we too recognize the folly of blind faith.
How does the Common Man character implicate the audience in More’s struggle?
The Common Man, as Bolt announces in his preface, is intended to be common in the sense of “universal” rather than in the sense of “low class.” As a universal character, the Common Man is meant to reflect all of our actions and attitudes in his. To emphasize his universality, the Common Man plays many different roles. He slips into and out of the roles of Matthew, the boatman, the innkeeper, the jailer, the jury foreman, and the headsman (executioner). In each case, the switch is made abruptly and without much ado and therefore seems omnipresent. He could be any of us at any given time, and his culpability and cowardice come to be seen as traits that all of us have had to struggle with at one time or another.
At the same time, the Common Man’s ever-changing roles come on at a faster and faster rate as the play progresses. At the end, he switches from More’s jailer, to a juryman, to More’s executioner in rapid succession, and this mounting pace suggests the suddenness with which we often find ourselves cooperating in situations of which we don’t ultimately approve.
The Common Man also implicates the audience by addressing us directly, as an interpreter and commentator. His monologues draw us into his ominous, cautionary tale. At the end of the play, he wishes us good health and long life, even though More’s character makes it clear that these should not always be one’s primary concerns. In this way, the Common Man speaks to what is common in a base sense.
1. Discuss Bolt’s approach to history. What does he choose to focus on and why? What does he omit?
2. How does Bolt’s use of water imagery encapsulate one of the central conflicts of the play?
3. Why does More’s wife, Alice, ultimately reconcile with her husband? How does this emotional climax relate to the moral struggles presented in the play?
4. Describe the moments when More shows his passion. In particular, think about his final speech in court, and his interactions with Norfolk, Alice, and the jailer. How do his displays of passion differ from one another? How are they similar? How do they reflect his philosophy about clamoring before God?
5. Is Sir Thomas More a teacher? If so, describe the instances in the play in which he tries to teach others. How does he teach? What do his methods reveal about his character?