Study Guide

A Man for All Seasons Analysis

By Robert Bolt

  • What's Up With the Title?

    As made clear by the play's epigraph, the phrase A Man for All Seasons is meant to apply to More himself. Robert Whittonton, a writer from More's time, used the phrase to say that More was the kind of guy you would want at your back in any situation.

    A court case? You want More. A philosophical discussion? You want More again. A rollicking good time? You just need more More, baby.

    More's unquestionable greatness only highlights the tragedy of the play. After all, if the best, most intelligent, and most morally good man in the world ends up with his head on a pike, then what hope do the rest of us have going for us? Sadly, it's this grim question that keeps ringing in our ears after reading through the entirety of A Man for All Seasons.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Given that A Man for All Seasons is based on real-life history, all you'd have to do is look at Thomas More's Wikipedia page to be spoiled about the execution at the end of the play. Oh, well.

    We close this thing out with Richard Rich completing his road to corruption, which provides a perfect frame for his opening conversation with More. Remember that? It's basically More telling Rich that he shouldn't get into politics because he will be tempted by bribery and seems to lack the moral fortitude to reject those bribes. And guess what? Rich completely lacks that moral fortitude, as proven by his decision to lie under oath about More in order to get a cushier gig for himself.

    After the axe falls (in complete darkness, unseen by the audience), Common Man returns to give us a brief send-off. This closes out another of the play's frames, as Common Man opened the play and frequently provided pithy commentary between scenes. His semi-ironic closing treatise is no different:

    COMMON MAN: [...] 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. (2.795)

    In other words, don't rock the boat if you're sailing with powerful people. While we can certainly look at Common Man's closing words in an ironic fashion, they still give proper weight to the very real, very grim reality of Sir Thomas More's downfall.

  • Setting

    16th-century England

    Although the historical setting of 16th-century England plays a huge role in A Man for All Seasons, the actual places we visit are a bit trickier to discuss. While there's nothing groundbreaking about a play using a limited number of settings, A Man for All Seasons signifies these different locales in quite a unique way.

    Royal Divorce 101

    It's pretty useful to know some historical context before going into A Man for All Seasons. Failing to do that would be like watching The Force Awakens before seeing A New Hope. Like, crazy. Anyway, the play is all about the real-life situation that led to the creation of the Church of England and its separation from the Catholic Church, which was a Really Big Deal as far as these things go. The play starts roughly in 1529, which is the year that More becomes Chancellor—and the moment before the guano hits the fan.

    There's also a host of political alliances to untangle. King Henry VIII is currently trying to end his marriage to Queen Catherine, the widow of his older brother, Britain's original heir apparent, Arthur. To make things even more complicated, Catherine's nephew Charles is the King of Spain, which also has a lot of control over the Catholic Church. That's who Chapuys works for. Then, on top of all of that, you have the Pope. Having once made a political dispensation to allow Henry to marry Catherine, he's unwilling to do it a second time around so that Henry can divorce her. But then what will happen, now that it seems like Catherine can't produce an heir?

    Simply put, this situation a doozy.

    Keeping It Spartan

    Luckily, Robert Bolt uses a sparse set of individual settings to simplify this tabloid-ready tale. The most notable of these is More's home. At the beginning, with More still on the up-and-up, the house is thriving—it's the very envy of King Henry himself. As More becomes rejected by the British aristocracy due to his non-conforming views, however, we see this status reflected in his now-decaying home. What was once a beautiful and finely furnished estate is now crumbling in rampant disrepair, its once bustling hallways now "drab and chilly" (2.239).

    Another way that Bolt keeps things simple is by having scene changes occur in a subtle fashion. In the stage directions, a scene shift is usually achieved by the insertion or removal of a few objects—often pulled out of Common Man's handy basket. There are also cues for scene changes to be signified through shifts in the lighting, which is another clever technique.

    While this aspect of the play could obviously vary with individual productions, it shows how A Man for All Seasons uses simple micro-settings to counterbalance the endlessly complicated historical shenanigans going on.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    Sir Thomas More

    More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning; I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability? And as time requireth a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes of as sad gravity: A Man for All Seasons. Robert Whittinton

    He was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced. Samuel Johnson

    What's up with the epigraph?

    The epigraph basically functions as a résumé for Thomas More. To hear these two dudes tell it, More's pretty much the greatest dude in all of England, if not the world.

    Some historical context wouldn't hurt here. Robert Whittinton was a historian and writer who lived at the same time as More—he also probably knew the dude, so his opinion may count more than most. Samuel Johnson wouldn't be born for another hundred-some years, so he's mostly talking about the legend of Thomas More. But Johnson is so legit that you ought to take his word on this one, too.

    Of course, Whittinton's quote also gives us the title of the play: A Man for All Seasons. This just further emphasizes More's greatness. It doesn't matter if it's winter, spring, summer, or fall; it doesn't matter if you're trying to win a court case, discuss the finer points of falconry, or kick back a few glugs of wine—Thomas More's the man you want at your back.

    Man—that makes the whole decapitation thing such a shame, huh?

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    You might expect a book about 16th-century England to be dense when it comes to language, but A Man for All Seasons is defined by its modern, readable style. The thing features quite a bit of stage direction, some of which can be pretty subtle, but that shouldn't trip you up too much.

  • Common Man's Basket

    Whenever Common Man switches identities (which happens a lot), he pulls his latest costume out of the same handy basket he uses to set the stage for the next scene. This not only allows A Man for All Seasons to transition between settings in a graceful way, but it also allows Robert Bolt to comment on the nature of theater as a whole.

    A Basket For All Seasons

    First off, Common Man's basket contains the settings for scenes. These are typically small objects, like a book or a candle, but they go a long way toward signifying the different locations of the play. This is further amplified by the monologues that Common Man delivers while setting the stage, which typically take into account future historical context; we get the sense that Common Man exists on a different plane of existence from the other characters.

    In addition, Common Man pulls his various costumes out of that same handy basket. Usually, this takes the form of hats that represent the various professions he fills throughout the play, such as a boatman or innkeeper. Ultimately, we see these costumes all come together as Common Man sets the stage for More's trial:

    ([...] He brings it on the jury bench, takes hats from the basket and puts them on poles with a juryman's hat, takes jailer's hat off head and puts it on a pole. Seven are plain gray hats, four are those worn by the STEWARD, BOATMAN, INNKEEPER, and JAILER.) (2.680)

    This is a unique occurrence in the play: Common Man is using his basket to fulfill both of its purposes simultaneously—defining characters and setting the stage for scenes.

    A Night at the Theater

    We also have to think about the theatrical effect of Common Man's basket. A Man for All Seasons is pretty heavy on stage direction, and you could imagine the play feeling quite different if it had traditional scene changes. So why did Bolt choose to go with Common Man and his basket? We can't say for sure, but we'd argue that Common Man—and his basket—go a long way toward grounding the audience and providing it an easy pathway into the distant world that the play depicts.

    While it isn't a symbol in the traditional sense, Common Man's basket is a unique theatrical device that defines A Man for All Seasons. Whether you see it as a clever way for Bolt to provide historical context or a clever way for him to comment on the nature of theater, the basket is the glue that holds together the entirety of the play.

  • The Oath

    Thomas More looks at oaths with a level of intensity that we usually reserve for late-night sessions of Grand Theft Auto Online. That is to say: he takes them really, really, really seriously.

    Just listen to the man himself:

    MORE: [...] When a man makes an oath, Meg, he's holding how own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands) And if he opens his fingers then—he needn't hope to find himself again. (2.607)

    Serious stuff. To the totally law-abiding Sir Thomas More, an oath is a direct reflection of one's inner self. What's more, a failure to respond honestly to oaths could lead to an individual not even knowing what he or she believes anymore, which is a scary thought. Do that, and you'll end up like Norfolk and his aristocratic bros, shifting your beliefs whichever way the wind blows. (And things don't turn out too well for Norfolk in the end, as we find out.)

    Word Up

    More, on the other hand, demands to know the exact wording of an oath before he even considers signing on the dotted line. This exchange with Roper is tells us pretty much everything we need to know:

    ROPER: We don't need to know the [...] wording—we know what it will mean!

    MORE: It will mean what the words say! An oath is made of words! It may be possible to take it. Or avoid it. (2.451-452)

    While More has no issue signing an oath of allegiance to King Henry in theory, he'll refuse if it contains even one assertion he disagrees with. That's why he ultimately doesn't sign it: he disagrees with its claim that King Henry—a political figure—has power over religious matters. Whether or not you agree with this argument, More's refusal to deny his beliefs in the face of death shows how seriously he treats oaths.

  • Henry's Boat Tour

    King Henry's over-the-top boat tour highlights his absurd level of political stagecraft. It's like every presidential debate of all time, rolled into one.

    We can tell that something's up from the moment that Cromwell first describes the tour to Chapuys. Although it's clearly a big, expensive publicity stunt, Cromwell frames it as the intrepid King leading a ship as its captain. Check it out:

    CROMWELL: [...] You may not know that the King himself will guide her down the river [...] He will have assistance, of course, but he himself will be her pilot. (1.406)

    It's kind of like when you see a president driving a tank or jet fighter in an attempt to look rugged and tough—it's totally inauthentic, and it never looks right. For his part, Henry seems to wholly believe his own hype, bragging about the mud on his shoes like he's a real wild man:

    HENRY: No ceremony, Thomas! No ceremony! (They rise) A passing fancy—I happened to be on the river. (Holds out a shoe, proudly) Look, mud. (1.504)

    Henry even tries to wrestle Norfolk in a further attempt to prove his manliness, despite the fact that everyone knows Norfolk could beat anyone in wrestling. In other words, Henry at this point is mad delusional, a fact that is further emphasized by Henry continually trying to frame his visit to More as a personal one, despite the fact that we know this is a politically focused stop on a pre-planned publicity tour.

    All in all, King Henry VIII's little boat tour unearths the hypocrisy of the British political order—a hypocrisy that ultimately proves to be Thomas More's undoing.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Niccolò Machiavelli (1.26, referenced throughout)
      • Aristotle (1.96)
      • Martin Luther (1.323)
      • John Colet (1.515)
      • Erasmus (2.39-40)
      • Socrates (2.39-40)
      • Cato (2.180)
      • Thomas Aquinas (2.424)