A Man for All Seasons
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Types of Moral Guides
In his preface, Robert Bolt addresses the apparent contradiction between Thomas More’s upright moral sense and his periodic attempts to find legal and moral loopholes. More strongly opposes Henry’s divorce, yet he hopes to avoid rather than speak out against the Oath of Supremacy. More explains his actions when he says to Will Roper, “God’s my god. . . . But I find him rather too . . . subtle.” More respects God’s law above all else, but he also does not pretend to understand it. Therefore, he sees man’s law as the best available guide to action, even if it occasionally contradicts God’s law or lets some evildoers off the hook.
In his approach to moral action, More is thoroughly pragmatic, but not, like Cromwell or Rich, at the expense of his beliefs. If More sometimes seems hypocritical, it is because he is trying to balance his respect for the law and society with his deep-rooted sense of self. He obeys the law fully, and, in the end, the prosecution has to come up with false charges to execute him.
More’s pragmatic maneuvering through society contrasts with what More calls Roper’s “seagoing” principles. Roper follows ideals instead of a his conscience or the law, and More argues that attempting to navigate high-minded ideals is akin to being lost at sea. Roper switches willy-nilly from Catholicism to Lutheranism and back again, each time utterly convinced of his own righteousness. Bolt implies that because we cannot comprehend the moral alignment of the universe, much less wrap it up in a tidy theory, we should focus our energy on improving ourselves and our society.
A Man for All Seasons focuses on the rise of Richard Rich as much as it follows the fall of Sir Thomas More. As More’s steadfast selfhood earns him a spot on the chopping block, Rich acquires more and more wealth and greater status by selling out his friend and his own moral principles. Although Rich at first bemoans his loss of innocence, by the end of the play he has no qualms about perjuring himself in exchange for a high-ranking position.
In Act One, scene eight, Rich gives Cromwell information about the silver cup in exchange for a job. Rich laments that he has lost his innocence, and the scene suggests that Rich has sold his soul to the devil. Cromwell himself evokes the devil as he craftily cajoles Rich into selling out before cramming Rich’s hand into a candle flame.
Although Act One, scene eight recalls many cautionary religious tales about the seductive powers of the devil, Bolt does not depict Rich’s corruption to warn us that people like Rich go to hell. Rather, Rich’s corruption, set against More’s hard and fast sense of self, shows the damage Rich has done to his own life. Rich has sacrificed the goodness of his own self, which the play argues is the only thing for which life is worth living.
The Self and Friendship
Through its depiction of More’s personal relationships, the play examines the extent to which one can be true to oneself and a good friend to others. Above all, More looks inwardly for his strength and comfort. He appears to be more of a teacher than a friend or a lover. He relies on his own conscience as his guide, and through tests and through the example he sets, he attempts to teach others to do the same. However, More’s instructive instinct results in relationships that are not overtly heartfelt.
One could also argue that More shows his friendship and love by teaching others. The play shows that More’s self-reliance is not completely incompatible with friendship and love. In More’s conversations with Norfolk and Alice, he shows that he truly cares about them as his friend and wife, respectively. More tells Norfolk to “cease knowing him,” but More argues that he gives his instruction because of the friendship the two men share. He tells his wife that he could not die peacefully if he knew that she was still confused about why he remains silent and does not give in to King Henry. More also tells Matthew that he will miss him.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Satire and Wit
Throughout the play, the characters with ties to the court participate in confused and misinterpreted exchanges of dialogue. These exchanges both satirize the court and portray the way corrupt morals lead to corrupt and ambiguous speech. In Cromwell’s exchange with the innkeeper, Cromwell humorously states that he can never be quite sure whether he’s duping or being duped when he interacts with such a “tactful” person. Cromwell has a similar exchange with Rich, in which he tries to assess just how trustworthy and how bribable Rich might be. Chapuys wrongly assumes that More’s straightforward answers are double talk and gives him a knowing wink that is completely out of place.
Historically, More was as witty as he was saintly. Much to Alice’s chagrin, More spends most of his time making light of the dangerous situations he encounters. In the play, More’s wit establishes his humanity. In Act One, scene seven, More insists that man is born to serve God “wittily.” By this, he means that man must cleverly escape death for as long as he legitimately and lawfully can, but the statement also emphasizes the importance of a sense of humor.
More is remarkable as much for his silence as for his statements. He maintains that if he does not speak his opinion concerning his disapproval of the king’s intention to divorce his wife, then, according to the Bible, his silence will connote consent, not dissent. More uses silence to his advantage, refusing to incriminate himself in a way that resembles invoking the fifth amendment in a United States court of law. More also protects his family from legal persecution by staying silent about his opinions in their presence.
More is silent in other ways as well. He disparages people, like Roper, who clamor at all times about ideals. More prefers to listen to the voice within, his conscience. He does not criticize Norfolk until he is sure that Norfolk needs to be criticized and enraged.
At the trial, Cromwell’s argument to the jury equates More’s silence with complicity in a crime. Cromwell’s claim is ironic, for the play shows how many other characters— primarily those played by the Common Man—remain silent when they could tell More about the plot against him.
Guilt receives much attention in the play, particularly in the characters of Rich, Norfolk, the jailer, Matthew, and even in More himself. Bolt shows how Rich constantly suffers under his own sense of guilt and yet cannot resist the temptation to improve his own prospects at the expense of others and his own conscience. When he is Matthew, the Common Man noticeably feels guilt on some level when More shows affection for him. As the jailer, the Common Man has a conscious understanding of his guilt and assuages his guilty conscience by convincing himself that it would be futile to set More free. Norfolk is obviously wracked with a sense of guilt when he tells More of Cromwell’s plot and his own association with it. More himself shows an inkling of guilt when he realizes that he might have to go to the chopping block with his family still unaware of why he acts the way he does.
More understands guilt as a personal judgment made by one’s own conscience, and, based upon one’s perspective, the same action could be guilty or innocent. He also seems to be able to eradicate the guilt he feels for taking the tainted goblet as a bribe by getting rid of it. This flexibility is particularly true with respect to Norfolk. More says that he and More could part as friends even if Norfolk were to remain in his office, which is associated with the plot against More.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Water and Dry Land
In his preface, Bolt announces that his play is rife with water and seafaring imagery, which symbolizes the uncertain moral territory of the great beyond, the unknowable realm of God and the devil. Characters who establish their actions on such an uncertain base include King Henry, whose shaky moral ground is symbolized by the way he sails down the Thames in order to visit More, and Roper, who holds what More calls “seagoing” principles.
Unlike Henry and Roper, More recognizes God’s will as impossible, and More therefore prefers to root his actions in his own conscience and in the law. When speaking with Roper, More compares the realm of human law to a forest filled with protective trees firmly rooted in the earth. To emphasize his belief in law as a guide to action, More tells Roper that removing all the laws in pursuit of the devil would be like cutting down all the trees in the land, letting the devil run amok like a fierce wind. In other words, More views society as a bulwark against the moral mysteries of the cosmos.
The Gilded Cup
In the first scene in Act One, More offers Rich a cup that More received as a bribe. Acknowledging that the cup is tainted, More tells Rich that he wishes to be rid of it. More tries to set an example by throwing away the cup, but Rich quickly shows that he does not share More’s intentions. Rich takes the cup from More and pawns it for money and a new set of fashionable clothes. The cup symbolizes corruption, and it also symbolizes More’s attempt to test Rich and teach him by example. More’s attempt to test Rich with the cup actually sets in motion the events that lead to More’s conviction at the end of the play—a conviction that Rich helps secure by lying under oath in court.
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