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A Man for All Seasons

Robert Bolt

Plot Overview

Context

Character List

The Common Man figures prominently both in the plot of the play and also as a narrator and commentator. Although treated in more detail in other sections, in the following plot summary, his presence is indicated only when he interacts directly with the other characters in the play.

Sir Thomas More, a scholar and statesman, objects to King Henry VIII’s plan to divorce and remarry in order to father a male heir. But More, ever the diplomat, keeps quiet about his feelings in the hopes that Henry will not bother him about the matter. At a meeting with Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England, More reviews the letter to Rome that requests the pope’s approval of Henry’s divorce. More points out that the pope provided a dispensation, or exemption, in order for Henry to get married in the first place, since Catherine, the woman Henry married, was the widow of Henry’s brother. More doubts that the pope will agree to overturn his first dispensation. Wolsey accuses More of being too moralistic and recommends that he be more practical.

After conversing with Wolsey, More runs into Thomas Cromwell, the king’s confidante. Cromwell, recently promoted to the position of cardinal’s secretary, insincerely tells More he is one of More’s greatest admirers. More also meets Signor Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador to England. Chapuys takes More’s noncommittal response to questions about his meeting with Wolsey to mean that More agrees that the divorce should not go through. Chapuys stresses Christian morals and Catholic dogma and seems most concerned that Henry does not insult Henry’s wife, Catherine, who is also the king of Spain’s aunt. Chapuys thinks he has found an ally in More.

Back at More’s home, More’s daughter, Margaret, has received a visit from Roper, her Lutheran boyfriend, despite the late hour. Roper asks More for Margaret’s hand, but More refuses to allow a Lutheran, in his eyes a heretic, into his family.

Meanwhile, Wolsey dies, leaving the position of Lord Chancellor vacant. The king was displeased with Wolsey’s failure to secure a papal dispensation to annul his marriage to Catherine, and Wolsey died in disgrace. More is appointed as Wolsey’s replacement.

Cromwell meets with Richard Rich, a low-level functionary whom More helped establish and to whom More gave a silver cup he was given as a bribe. (More did not realize that the cup was a bribe when he received it.) Cromwell tempts Rich with an opportunity for advancement, and the spineless Rich seems all too eager to accept the job in exchange for information he has about More. Rich and Chapuys, who has just entered, ask Cromwell what his current position is, and Cromwell announces simply that he does whatever the king wants done. He mentions that the king has planned a boat ride down the Thames to visit More. Meanwhile, More’s manservant, Matthew (played by the Common Man), has entered the room, and Cromwell, Rich, and Chapuys are eager to bribe him for information. Matthew tells them only the most well known facts about his master, but the trio pays him off anyway.

Back at More’s home in London’s Chelsea district, the king is set to arrive, but More is nowhere to be found. After fretting over his absence, the family eventually finds him busy at vespers (evening prayers). When the king arrives, all are on their best behavior, and More comes off as the most flattering of all. However, More does tell the king that More cannot agree to the divorce, reminding him that the king promised not to bother More about it. The king storms off, telling More he will leave him alone provided More does not speak out against the divorce. Alice, More’s wife, is angry at his behavior and thinks her husband should do as Henry wants. Rich arrives to tell More that Cromwell and Chapuys are collecting information about him. He asks for employment, but More turns him away.

At a local pub called the Loyal Subject, Cromwell meets Rich to conspire against More. Rich is reluctant and guilt-ridden, but he ultimately agrees to tell Cromwell about the bribe that More received and passed on to him. In exchange, Cromwell offers Rich a job.

Parliament passes the Act of Supremacy, which establishes the Church in England and appoints King Henry as its head. More decides that if the English bishops decide to go along with the act, he will resign as Lord Chancellor. Both Chapuys and Roper call it a remarkable “gesture,” but More, dead set against the act, thinks of it as a practical necessity. He refuses to explain himself to anyone but the king. Even his wife and daughter cannot know his reasons, because he does not want to put them in the position of having to testify against him later.

Cromwell meets with the Duke of Norfolk and tells him of his plan to bring More up on bribery charges. Norfolk proves that More gave the cup to Rich as soon as More realized it was a bribe, and Cromwell is forced to come up with some other way to entrap More. He tells Norfolk, however, that the king expects him to participate in the persecution of More.

A now impoverished More refuses to receive a letter of appreciation from the king of Spain, and he turns down the bishops’ sincere offer of charity. Cromwell calls More to his office and attempts to malign More by accusing him of sympathizing with the Holy Maid of Kent, who was executed for treason. Cromwell also accuses him of having written a book attributed to King Henry. More deconstructs both these charges, but when Cromwell reads a letter from King Henry calling More a villain, More is genuinely shaken. Meeting Norfolk outside, More insists that if he wishes to remain in the king’s favor, Norfolk should cease to be his friend, since by this point it is dangerous to know a man like More. Parliament passes another act, this time requiring subjects to swear an oath to King Henry’s supremacy in England over the Church and to the validity of his divorce and remarriage. The next time we see More, he is in jail for having refused to take the oath.

Cromwell, Norfolk, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, interrogate More in prison, but they cannot trick him into signing the oath or divulging his opinions on the king’s behavior. As long as More refuses to talk or sign the oath, Cromwell can keep him locked up but cannot have him executed. He removes More’s books but lets his family visit, hoping that they will be able to reason with him. Though More’s daughter, Margaret, tries to convince her father he has done all he can, More refuses to relent. Alice finally sympathizes fully with More’s predicament, and, displaying their full love toward each other, they reconcile just before the jailer (the Common Man) insists that the visit is over.

Cromwell gives Rich the office of attorney general for Wales in exchange for Rich’s false testimony at More’s trial. Though More never opened his mouth, Rich claims he heard More deny the king’s authority over the Church. More is sentenced to death but not before he can express his disapproval of the Supremacy Act and his disappointment with a government that would kill a man for keeping quiet. More goes to his death with dignity and composure, and the play ends with his beheading.

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Study Questions

by AutumnTime22, September 11, 2013

How does Thomas More differ from Thomas Cromwell on religion and politics?
Why do the characters in the reading react as they do to Richard Rich reading Machiavelli and knowing Cromwell?
How does More differ from Wolsey in his opinion on the King’s divorce?
How does Thomas More feel towards Henry VIII?
How does Henry VIII try to persuade More to change his mind?
How does More resemble Henry VIII?
How do Cromwell’s words and actions with Richard Rich demonstrate his political and moral Machiavellianism?... Read more

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