Study Guide

A Man for All Seasons Setting

By Robert Bolt

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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.

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