Study Guide

A Man for All Seasons

By Robert Bolt

A Man for All Seasons Introduction

If you know A Man for All Seasons at all, it's probably as the film that made a big splash in 1966 and won Oscars up the wazoo: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay—you name it. But before this baby was Best Everything, it was a successful play by one Robert Bolt.

Although the name Robert Bolt sounds like it should belong to either a Static Shock-esque superhero or a seventies-era punk rock superstar, it's actually the name of one of the most legit playwrights and screenwriters of all time.

Even if he was just a regular old human, Bolt was still a boss among men. A World War II veteran and an English teacher, Bolt launched his career as a full-time writer after the success of his play Flowering Cherry in 1958. But that was just the beginning. Besides his work in the theater, Bolt wrote some of the most iconic screenplays of all-time, including those for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, as well as for the film adaptation of his 1960 play A Man for All Seasons.

Perhaps Bolt's best-known play, A Man for All Seasons was born as a BBC radio drama in 1954. That's pretty cool, because it means that Bolt has told this tale—about the most lamentable downfall of Thomas More—in three different media: radio, theater, and film.

So what makes this sixteenth-century-schmohawk Thomas More so darn interesting? Well, for one thing, that's Sir Thomas to you, buddy. Or, if you're Catholic, it's Saint Thomas. Maybe even Sir Saint Thomas. That might be a mouthful, but you get the point—More's a big deal.

The play sweeps us back to the pivotal moment in More's life, which—spoiler alert—also happens to be one of the last moments of his life. In the 1630s, England's King Henry VIII announced his desire to divorce his wife, Queen Catherine, because she was unable to produce a male heir. But there was a problem. The Pope, having given special permission to Henry to marry Catherine in the first place, said that the divorce was a no go. And boom—now we have some Game of Thrones-level drama.

Although he doesn't want to get involved in any of this tomfoolery, More is swept into the debate after he gets elected to a high-ranking political position. What's more, dude is the foremost public intellectual of his day, and the King knows that getting More on his side will turn public opinion heavily in his favor.

This might sound like a big ol' historical info dump, but the play itself is anything but a boring history lesson. Featuring an approachable, modern style, mind-bending theatrical techniques, and some classic British humor, A Man for All Seasons remains an entertaining play because it focuses on the people stuck inside a world-changing historical event, not just the event itself.

Also, there are severed heads.

Just sayin'.

What is A Man for All Seasons About and Why Should I Care?

If there's one thing that Thomas More has plenty of in A Man for All Seasons, it's people telling him how he should live his life.

He's got Henry VIII, who'll leverage anything—from their long friendship to his limitless power as a regent—to get More on his side. He's got Chapuys, who pretends to be all buddy-buddy due to their mutual Catholic faith but is in fact just advancing his own interests. Even his bros, like Norfolk, beg him to turn against his gut, if only to soothe their own guilty consciences.

That's a lot of peer pressure, folks. But guess what? More isn't going to take any of that nonsense. More eats that kind of nonsense for breakfast. If More had a dime for every time he let that kind of nonsense affect him, then our man would have zero dimes.

We could all learn a thing or two from this mindset. We all deal with bullies who exert their power over us. We all deal with shady people who only act like they're our pals because they're working some angle. And, yes, we all have well-meaning friends who sometimes drag us down due to their own insecurity and fear.

That's some real stuff. Who knew that the British aristocracy was pretty much indistinguishable from a high school classroom?

A Man for All Seasons Resources

Websites

The Center for Thomas More Studies
Fellow More junkies rejoice—this site will be your one-stop-shop for all things Sir Thomas More.

The Six Wives of King Henry VIII
This PBS site provides some soap-opera-worthy insight into King Henry and his prodigious marriage habits.

Movie or TV Productions

A Man for All Seasons (1966)
This 1966 adaptation of the play was written by Bolt himself and even features Orson Welles in a brief role. Score.

A Man for All Seasons Trailer
If you have a thing for classic trailers, then this sucka is going to scratch that itch.

Articles and Interviews

A Seven Point Plan to Survive King Henry VIII
This pithy article would've come in quite useful for old Thomas More.

On the Uncomfortable Matter of Beheadings and Executions
This heavy piece uses Thomas More as an example to make a broader point about the cultural impact of beheadings. Serious stuff.

Video

The Story of Thomas More
This cute little animation gives us some additional historical insight into the life of Sir Thomas More.

The "Devil" Speech
Remember this one from the play? Here's a clip of it being performed in the film adaptation of A Man for All Seasons, and it's pretty awesome.

Audio

Literature's Lessons on Leadership
This fascinating radio piece from NPR uses A Man for All Seasons to make a broader point about good leadership.

Controversy Accompanies Pope's 2010 Visit to England
There was a ton of controversy surrounding the Pope's 2010 visit to England, which was the first since Henry's divorce. Some wounds cut deep, huh?

Images

Thomas More
It's late at night, so we might just be sleepy, but More's pretty cute, huh?

Thomas Cromwell
Whoa—Cromwell looks like an evil, parallel universe version of More. If only he had a mustache.