A Man for All Seasons

by: Robert Bolt

Symbols

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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.