Study Guide

A Man for All Seasons Choices

By Robert Bolt

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CHAPUYS: (Ruffled) He has given his answer!

CROMWELL: The King will ask him for another. (1.413-414)

A Man for All Seasons rests upon a single choice: whether Thomas More should approve of King Henry's divorce from Queen Catherine or not. Trust us on this one—it's a sticky situation.

HENRY: Then you have not thought enough! (With real appeal) Great God, Thomas, why do you hold against me in the desire of my heart—the very wick of my heart? (1.554)

Initially, Henry makes a personal appeal to More by exploiting their long friendship and camaraderie. It works as well as a table tennis champion taking on Serena Williams. So that's when he takes things up a notch, throwing around his kingly weight to intimidate More into making the "right" choice. In a word: yikes. In two words: super yikes.

MORE: (Taking in her anxiety) Well, Alice. What would you want me to do?

ALICE: Be ruled! If you won't rule him, be ruled! (1.606-607)

That's a good point. As of yet, More hasn't made a choice—he's decided to stay silent so as not to incriminate himself. Alice eviscerates this argument, however, rightfully pointing out that he must make a decision sooner or later.

MORE: [...] I've resigned, that's all. On the King's Supremacy, the King's divorce which he'll now grant himself, the marriage he'll then make—have you heard me make a statement? (2.146)

Well, it looks like More is still refusing to make an official decision. Although he makes a half-choice by resigning from his position as Chancellor, he still refuses to take things all the way and give the King a piece of his mind. And why should he? This isn't a democracy—there aren't any town hall debates 'round these parts. If you get on the King's bad side then, well, that's bad.

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)

If you told Thomas More that he had to choose between Option A and Option B, he'd probably start inquiring about the efficacy of Option C. It's just the guy's lawyerly nature. Unfortunately, he'll quickly learn that this latest oath from Parliament was created with a very express purpose—to force More to make his personal opinions public knowledge.

MORE: I insult no one. I will not take the oath. I will not tell you why I will not. (2.499)

More still refuses to explain himself, even after being imprisoned in the Tower, London's most-feared prison. Is this courage or just plain foolhardiness?

MORE: It's most material. For refusing to swear, my goods are forfeit and I am condemned to life imprisonment. You can not lawfully harm me further. (2.510)

And with that, we finally understand what More's been doing the entire time. He hasn't been avoiding making a choice. Instead, he's been working the legal system to his own benefit, using his unparalleled knowledge of the law to take a principled stand while simultaneously holding on to his head.

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)

The same could be said about the choices we make each and every day. In fact, More seems to look at oaths as choices in and of themselves—choices to either stand up for what you believe in or stick your tail between your legs and give in to the pressure of others. It would be hard to be as hard-nosed as our main man More, but we respect him a ton for staying true to himself.

MORE: [...] But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, [...] and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, [...] justice and thought [...] why then perhaps we must stand fast a little—even at the risk of being heroes. (2.609)

We can always count on More for the perfect expression of a difficult-to-express idea (we suppose we should actually be crediting Robert Bolt, of course). If doing the right thing were a profitable choice, then no one would be sincere—they'd simply be doing good to benefit themselves. But when you live in an immoral world? Well, to do good in that context is quite an accomplishment. And guess what? That's pretty much the kind of world we actually live in.

MORE: Alice, you must tell me that you understand!

ALICE: I don't! [...] I don't believe this had to happen. (2.649-650)

It's harsh, but it's the truth. This didn't have to happen—More could have just gone with the flow and lived out his life as a rich aristocratic sellout. But he didn't. He couldn't. For better or for worse, More will never choose to go against his beliefs.

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