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In Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons, Thomas More is a man whose sense of self is set in stone. He dies not because he wants to be martyred or made a hero, but because he finds himself unable to compromise his integrity. Throughout the play, the characters that interact with More act as foils. When their priorities are contrasted with his, they more clearly define him as an individual. In this way, the reader achieves a deeper understanding of More by gaining insight into what he is not, rather than what he is. More, the “uncommon man,” is a singularly pristine figure against a soiled and compromising backdrop.
From More’s first conversation, “the price of a man” is a question that the characters struggle to articulate and understand. The ambitious and impressionable Richard Rich, whose malleable moral compass has been tampered with by reading Machiavelli, insists that “Every man has his price!” (4). More, whose values are much more deeply rooted, disagrees:
MORE: No no no.
RICH: Or pleasure. Titles, women, bricks-and-mortar, there’s always something.
RICH: Well, in suffering, certainly.
MORE: Buy a man with suffering?
RICH: Impose suffering, and offer him – escape.
MORE: Oh. For a moment I thought you were being profound. (4-5)
More is the type of man who cannot be bought, neither by treasure nor threat of suffering. This initial clash of principles sets a precedent for the rest of More’s interactions with other characters in the play. His inflexible, outspoken sense of justice makes it impossible for him to submit to inequity. More is a man with a great capacity for understanding, but, as the Steward predicts, “Some day someone’s going to ask him for something that he wants to keep; and he’ll be out of practice” (17).
When More meets with Cardinal Wolsey, who has a strikingly utilitarian outlook for a clergy member, Wolsey tells him, “You’re a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see the facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could have been a statesman” (19). Unlike many men, Thomas More’s morality is not simply a perspective which he can choose to wear or cast off like a pair of glasses. Rather, his ideals are a part of him, immutable and inseparable from his identity and sense of self.
King Henry pays More a visit to his house for dinner – a pretense to discuss the issue of marriage with him. He wants More to approve his divorce from Catherine and remarriage to Anne Boleyn, so as to appease the public and relieve his own personal conscience:
MORE: Then why does Your Grace need my poor support?
HENRY: Because you’re honest. What’s more to the purpose, you’re known to
be honest . . . There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown, and there are those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I am their lion, and there is a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves – and then there is you. (55)
More follows not a crown, nor a lion, nor anything else simply because it has pomp and “power,” but follows what rings true to his own heart. Henry and the people of England know this, and so Henry feels that Thomas’ approval will vindicate his struggle for divorce. More wants to follow the king’s commands, but his conscience simply won’t allow him to.
When King Henry requests that More give his blessing on his divorce, he forces More to choose one side of his opposing internal allegiances. More is the king’s loyal subject, but also a man of deep, unshakable faith. Though his consideration for the well-being of his family and his friendship with the king has kept him neutral on the subject of his marriage, Henry’s request pressures Thomas to choose between loyalty to his king or his values (and thereby his faith in God). This core, this undividable moral kernel that is More, cannot be ruled by a king, or any earthly entity; neither can it contradict itself, as the king asks him to. He tries to explain this to Alice:
ALICE: You’re too nice altogether, Thomas!
MORE: Woman, mind your house.
ALICE: I am minding my house!
MORE: Well, Alice. What would you want me to do?
ALICE: Be ruled! If you won’t rule him, be ruled!
MORE: I neither could nor would rule my King. But there’s a little . . . little, area . . . where I must rule myself. It’s very little—less to him than a tennis court. (59)
More stands firm and is prepared for whatever may come, but he neither expects nor wants to make any sort of public statement with his refusal to accept the marriage. He avoids being confrontational about his beliefs so as to cause the least amount of trouble for himself and his family. He assures Alice, “Set your mind at rest—this is not the stuff of which martyrs are made” (60).
Though he is a compassionate, forgiving, and generous man, Thomas More’s principles simply will not be budged. Men like Norfolk, Cromwell, Rich, and Roper have mercurial morals, allowing themselves to rise or fall with every fluxuation in King Henry’s moral temperature. More, however, refuses to buckle to the will of the king, prioritizing purity of conscience over preservation of physical comfort.
Unlike the fickle theology of William Roper, More’s foundation is set on rocks, and endures through whatever the world might hurl at him:
MORE: . . . Will, I’d trust you with my life. But not your principles. You see, we speak of being anchored to our principles. But if the weather turns nasty you up with an anchor and let it down where there’s less wind, and the fishing’s better. And “Look,” we say, “look, I’m anchored to my principles!” (69) More, as malleable in his morals as a diamond, cannot be changed. He is truly a man for all seasons. Richard Rich, yet another foil to More, is a man who has a price and knows it. In his conversation with Cromwell, he demonstrates his willingness to sacrifice his integrity:
CROMWELL: D’you believe that—that you would never repeat or report anything et cetera?
CROMWELL: No, but seriously.
RICH: Why, yes!
CROMWELL: Rich; seriously.
RICH: It would depend what I was offered. (72)
Rich is the type of person whose conscience means little to him. There is a fundamental disconnect between his and More’s priorities. Integrity means a different thing to each of them. Whereas More is a man whose spirit is able to transcend his worldly attachments, Rich fails to hold his soul as sacred, and is willing to sacrifice it for a sum:
CROMWELL: You look depressed.
RICH: I’m lamenting. I’ve lost my innocence.
CROMWELL: You lost it some time ago. If you’ve only just noticed, it can’t have been very important to you.
RICH: That’s true! Why that’s true, it can’t!
CROMWELL: We experience a sense of release, do we, Master Rich? An unfamiliar freshness in the head, as of open air? (74)
More’s identity, and thereby his entire existence, revolves around his principles. His beliefs are important to him because without them, More cease to be More. It’s not the logic of them that matters to him, but rather that they are part and parcel of what he identifies as himself. To change or compromise his values would be to try to re-sculpt a thing already set in stone. He tries to articulate this to Norfolk:
NORFOLK: Does this make sense? You’ll forfeit all you’ve got—which includes the respect of your country—for a theory?
MORE: The Apostolic Succession of the Pope is . . . Why, it’s a theory, yes; you can’t see it; you can’ touch it; it’s a theory. But what matters to me is not whether it’s true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather, not that I believe it, but that I believe it . . . I trust I make myself obscure? (91)
King Henry’s request calls More to do what he cannot: compromise his allegiance and mute his conscience. Though a loyal subject of the king, More’s first and foremost loyalty is to his G-d. He cannot and will not give this up, because to do so would be to give up his very essence. When he refuses to sign a document acknowledging his consent of the King’s divorce, he is accused of treason and thrown in jail. The Common Man, dressed as the Jailer, allows More to be locked up, even though he knows him to be an innocent man. He uses an old expression to rationalize his failure to act:
COMMON MAN: “I’d let him out if I could but I can’t, not without taking up residence in there myself. And he’s in there already, so what’d be the point? You know the old adage? ‘Better a live rat than a dead lion,’ and that’s about it” (127). The Common Man is “plain and simple.” He would rather save his own neck than take a stand for what he knows to be right. More hides in “the forest of the law,” refusing to make a definitive statement about his opinion on the king’s marriage. By remaining silent, he deadlocks the prosecution against him. Rich, whose price turns out to be Wales, is eventually called to give a false testimony against More to expedite the process. With his false account of More’s actions, More is found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. In his last informal conversation with Norfolk, Norfolk berates More for his refusal to give into King Henry’s commands. More attempts, one last time, to make Norfolk understand what it is that compels him to be so adamant about his beliefs:
NORFOLK: Oh, that’s immutable, is it? The one fixed point in a world of changing friendships is that Thomas More will not give in!
MORE: To me it has to be, for that’s myself. Affection goes as deep in me as you think, but only G-d is love right through, Howard; and that’s my self.
NORFOLK: And who are you? Goddammit, man, it’s disproportionate! We’re supposed to be the arrogant ones, the proud, splenetic ones – and we’ve all given in! Why must you stand out? You’ll break my heart. (122)
Norfolk is deeply troubled by what he sees as a painful and illogical sacrifice on More’s part. Unable to see beyond the immediate, physical impact of things, he is frustrated with Thomas, because he cannot find a direct or tangible rationale for his friend’s actions. Though undeniably a good man, Norfolk has a spiritual shallowness to him, and fails to comprehend the ultimate significance of actions. His decision to succumb to the king’s will isn’t, for him, morally compromising. He simply doesn’t see an evident reason to stick his neck out, so he chooses to keep quiet. In this way, he is another foil to More, who goes on to tell Norfolk:
MORE: And what would you do with a water spaniel that was afraid of water? You’d hang it! Well, as a spaniel is to water, so is a man to his own self. I will not give in because I oppose it – I do – not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do, I! (123)
More’s very essence is at stake in his decision. Without his faith, he is but a shell of himself, of no more consequence than a water spaniel who can’t swim.
When he talks with his daughter Margaret for the last time, More tries to make her understand what it is that drives him. She asks him, “Haven’t you done as much as G-d can reasonably want?” (141) In a tone that suggests that he has come to terms with the situation, he replies, “Well . . . Finally . . . It isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.” (141)
More’s unshakable devotion to his ideals stems from a deeply rooted connection with G-d. Even after he has done all for his faith that could be expected of him, More insists on remaining true to his morals. He makes the decision to go above and beyond his obligations not to save face or because he is a stubborn old man, but because, as any man in love, he is willing to do irrational things for his “Agape.”
When Richard Rich gives a false testimony, claiming that More spoke treasonously of the king, the court is able to sentence More to death. He is taken to the cutting block and decapitated.
In the wake of the execution, the Common Man removes his mask and comes to the center of the stage: “I’m breathing . . . Are you breathing too? . . . it’s nice, isn’t it? It isn’t difficult to keep alive friends – just don’t make trouble – or if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that’s expected” (162-3).
Like Rich, Norfolk, Wolsey, and Cromwell, the Common Man is a foil to Thomas More. He allows himself to be led around on a leash, acting as he is ordered to, without consideration to his own sense of right and wrong. More is clearly cast of a different mettle: His decision to adhere to his ideals is rooted in a unique, genuine joy and faith in G-d, and so transcends “logical” justifications for acting differently.
In this day and age, the idealist is often considered impractical, irrational, and even ludicrous in his fidelity to hope. More’s is the story of a man whose ideals were greater than his flesh. He clung to them beyond “reason,” beyond obligation, and beyond necessity, not out of fear or inability, but out of love. It was this love; this spirit of divine grace that was interwoven into More’s every action that gave his him the tenacity to outlast his physical body. More the body died, but in doing so immortalized those aspects of himself that were most remarkable: his passion, his fidelity, his faith, and his love.
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