Study Guide

A Man for All Seasons Hypocrisy

By Robert Bolt


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)

This is the 16th-century equivalent of those gaudy presidential photo-ops that show wealthy politicians pretending to spend time with regular folks. In other words, it's about as phony as you can get. Still, you better prepare yourself—we've just started to scratch the surface of the hypocrisy present in A Man for All Seasons.

STEWARD: [...] What I can tell them's common knowledge! But now they've given money for it and everyone wants value for his money. (1.459)

For context, the steward has just leaked information to Chapuys and Cromwell regarding More's decision. The gist of it is that he hasn't made one. Regardless, this humble common man has just sparked a whirl of twisted political machinations that won't stop spinning.

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

Yes, this is just a casual visit from one friend to another, not a pre-planned stop on a publicity tour by the most powerful man in England. (We're being sarcastic, of course.) Although Henry dons an approachable, folksy style when we first meet him, we can see right through the facade.

HENRY: [...] Now that's a wrestler's leg. But I can throw him. (Seizes NORFOLK) Shall I show them, Howard? (NORFOLK is alarmed for his dignity) (1.518)

Norfolk is alarmed because he knows thathe could kick Henry's butt from here to Timbuktu, but he also knows that doing so would be a borderline treasonous move. It's a funny thing, being a king, huh?

CROMWELL: We feel that, since you are [...] a friend of More's, your participation will show that there is nothing in the nature of a "persecution," but only the strict processes of law. (2.220)

Here's a pro-tip from us, Shmoopers: if you have to actively make something look less like a persecution, then you're probably persecuting someone. Unfortunately, Cromwell hardly agrees. He either wants More's signature on the dotted line or his head on a platter, and he doesn't care how he gets his results.

NORFOLK: [...] We're supposed to be the arrogant ones, the proud, splenetic ones—and we've all given in! Why must you stand out? (2.417)

More's steadfastness only highlights the spinelessness of his peers. In many ways, his mere existenceis a reminder of their weakness, their cowardice, and their hypocrisy. This goes double in Norfolk's case, as he and More were once as thick as thieves.

MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; [...] if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? (2.520)

Leave it to More to express things far more eloquently than we ever could, perfectly explaining his refusal to go with the flow and accept the King's divorce. It might not matter to his friends. It might not matter to his fellow leaders. Heck, it might not even matter to his family. But More could never live with himself knowing that he's a hypocrite.

CROMWELL: [...] He must submit, the alternatives are bad. While More's alive the King's conscience breaks into fresh stinking flowers every time he gets from bed. (2.570)

This one came as a surprise for us: the King apparently feels super guilty about divorcing Queen Catherine. We might even say that he feels bad about the hypocrisy of his actions. Fancy that. Instead of taking this as a sign that he should take a different path, however, Henry takes a different tactic—cutting the head off of his annoying little conscience once and for all.

MORE: [...] Is it my place to say "good" to the State's sickness? Can I help my King by giving him lies when he asks for truth? (2.724)

We don't know why, but we feel like More would make a pretty killer rapper. Dude's got bars. Career advice aside, this quote finds our hero once again tearing the King's argument to pieces by highlighting the hypocrisy of the legal case levied against him.

CROMWELL: pushes the table off, takes a small black mask from basket and puts it on COMMON MAN. The COMMON MAN thus becomes the traditional Headsman. (2.786)

We find it interesting that Common Man—the character that fills all of the lower-class/extra parts in the play—is given the sole responsibility of executing the great Sir Thomas More. Why doesn't Cromwell do it himself? As we've learned well over the course of the play, however, Cromwell will do anything to take his enemies down—as long as he stays in the shadows. And that, unfortunately, also makes all the common people complicit in the shady goings on we see in the play.