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A Man for All Seasons, written by Robert Bolt, revolves around a character named Sir Thomas More. In a world full of people who define themselves by the route society lays out for them, More stands out because of his strong morals and catholic beliefs. This introduces many problems to More as he faces choices which force him to either abandon his morals or endanger both himself and those for whom he cares. Many authors use motifs, recurring ideas throughout a literary work, as a way to emphasize specific points.
Throughout the play, Bolt repeatedly brings up a motif of water as a way to emphasize many different concepts in relation to the development of Sir Thomas More. Bolt’s use of water helps indicate More’s Identity to the audience. This is also used as a way to make More’s fears known to the audience as the situation with the king’s divorce continues. Bolt uses water to show the increase of danger, which emphasizes his silence to his loved ones as a way to assure his family’s safety.
Many different characters are present in this play. Most are distinguishable from More in multiple different ways, but what really makes More distinct is his identity. Most if not all characters follow society and do not have their own morals or beliefs, but More has a strong relationship with the church and will not compromise his morals or beliefs for anything. As the motif of water develops throughout the play, More’s identity becomes more recognisable as he does not even think twice about compromising his morals to insure both the safety of himself and his loved ones. The author uses water in many different ways to portray More’s identity and the lack of identity in many other foil characters.
As More explains his concept of identity to his daughter, Margaret, More uses water as way of representing his identity, “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water and if he opens his fingers then – he needn’t hope to find himself again.” The water enclosed in his hands represents his identity, and he is saying that if he “opens his fingers” up and lets the water out, then he will no longer be himself. This really shows the contrast between More and all the other characters in the novel as they are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, even if it means letting their identity slip away by compromising their morals. As Kings Henry’s situation with the divorce continues, More finds himself opposing decisions made by the king and in doing so, he is forced him to make a decision which could end up saving his life, but in return losing his identity.
The statement, “Only an unhappy few were found to set themselves against the current of their times, and in so doing to court disaster”, said by the Common man demonstrates More’s situation as he finds himself being forced to oppose the decisions made by the king in order to keep his identity, which in return costs him his life. Bolt’s use of water does not solely emphasize More’s identity, but it also introduces More’s fears to the audience in relation to the situations which are present in the play. More’s fear of drowning becomes known to the audience after the Steward informs Rich that he “could have told him any number of things about Sir Thomas – that he has rheumatism, prefers red wine to white, is easily sea-sick, fond of kippers, afraid of drowning.”.
There are multiple meanings to this as it shows More’s literal fear of drowning, but on a deeper note, it indicates More’s fear of instability as water takes the shape of its container while land is firm and solid like his views on the law. This is the main reason as to why More has chosen his profession of a lawyer since the law can not be changed based on the parameters you want. Nearing the end of the play, when More’s life is in jeopardy, water comes up again as his cell is “too near the river”. All of More’s fears are brought to reality at this instance as he is drowning in the corruption of the government and court system. The water motif plays an important role in developing More’s fears since Bolt uses the contrast between water and land so the audience understands the instability of the court system with the overwhelming corruption at that time. He dies partly because of the corruption and bribery which took place in a plot to get More to side with the king, but More’s belief in his morals were too high.
More’s loyalty to his friends and family plays a huge role in More’s character as it shows the audience the lengths which More will go to to keep them safe. The motif of water and More’s silence go together, as the water motif develops the danger, the more More has to separate himself from his family and friends by being silent about the king’s divorce. After More gets back from a meeting with Wolsey about the divorce, Alice, More’s wife, asks about the meeting, but More, knowing the danger the situation with the divorce presents, continuously redirects Alice’s questions in an attempt to shift their conversation away from the meeting with Wolsey: ‘“What did Wolsey want?” Young Roper asked for Margaret.” Here Alice asks about the meeting, but More redirects the question immediately by informing Alice about Roper asking More for permission to mary Margaret. More’s obligation to keep his family safe causes him to distance the situation from them as much as he possibly can. Later in the play, as King Henry is at More’s house discussing the divorce, he indicates to More that he has to “catch the tide” because “[it] will be changing” as a excuse to leave.
Bolt’s reference to the change in the water represents the change in sides the political standings will have on More, which indicates the increase in threat towards him. This upcoming danger causes More to hide details regarding his conversation with the king from his wife and daughter for their own safety. More also forcibly ends his friendship with Norfolk in order to distance him from the possible danger. While speaking to Norfolk, More explains to him that “a water 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.”. More states this as a reason as to why he can not sign the Act of Succession. The author’s use of water spaniels shows the audience how More’s identity is obstructing his ability of having relationships with those he cares about because he can’t defy his morals and still be the same person. This forces him to distance himself from his friends even if it means hurting them, since it is for their own safety.
The motif of water plays a major role in developing More’s character throughout the play, supporting the concept of identity and More’s overwhelming passion to stick to his beliefs and morals no matter what the outcome may be. Not only does Bolt use water to support More’s identity, but he also uses it to show the audience a bit about More’s fears and what the outcome of his actions to keep his identity will be from losing friends to keeping information from loved ones, to eventually costing him his own life. Bolt’s use of water effectively develops More’s character, and without it would cause More’s character to lack certain aspects which make him himself.
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