Study Guide

A Man for All Seasons Power

By Robert Bolt

Power

MORE: Talk of the Cardinal's Secretary and the Cardinal appears. He wants me. Now.

ALICE: At this time of the night?

MORE: (Mildly) The King's business. (1.141-143)

'Nough said—if the King wants to talk to you in the middle of the night, then you can better believe you'll drop whatever you're doing and meet him. That's just how things roll in a monarchy, folks.

CROMWELL: [...] It's odd how differently men's fortunes flow. My late master, Wolsey, died in disgrace, and here I am in the King's own service. There you are in a competitive backwater—yet the new Lord Chancellor's an old friend of yours. (1.389)

We can't say that we're too fond of Cromwell, but the dude can humble-brag like a master. That's got to count for something, right? Yeah, maybe not. Basically, Cromwell is the most power-hungry character in the play: no matter what he's doing, he's always exploiting his situation to gain more power for himself. And what happens if something silly like morality or legality gets in his way? Pshh. Cromwell doesn't even know how to spell the word "morality."

MORE: (Appearing momentarily from the folds of the cassock) The service of God is not a dishonor to any office. (The cassock is pulled off) Believe me, my friend, I do not belittle the honor His Majesty is doing me (1.490)

In contrast, More doesn't have an ambitious bone in his body. It's not that he's opposed to being a powerful politician, or that he doesn't think he'd do a good job—he's just not that into it. If he can help his country by being a Chancellor, then he'll do that. If he can help it by being a pauper, then he'll do that, too. Power isn't even in the equation for More.

HENRY: [...] Be seated—it was villainy then! Yes, villainy. I was right to break him; he was all pride, Thomas; a proud man; pride right through. And he failed me! (1.548)

Yikes—take a chill pill, buddy. The conversation between Henry and More at More's home is an important one, as it's the first (and last) time we meet this mighty regent in the flesh. And boy, does he put on a show. Although things start off cordially, it quickly becomes clear that Henry won't cotton to anything that undermines his power.

HENRY: [...] It is my bounden duty to put away the Queen, and all the Popes back to St. Peter shall not come between me and my duty! How it that you cannot see? (1.564)

Although it might be tempting to paint Henry as an out-of-control King who's obsessed with his own power, it's a little more complicated than that. After all, Henry has the entire country of England riding on his back, for better or for worse—that kind of pressure can get to your head. What's more, he knows that there will be steep consequences if he is unable to produce an heir.

HENRY: No opposition, I say! No opposition! Your conscience is your own affair, but you are my Chancellor! (1.584)

As his conversation with More continues, Henry drops the intellectual trappings of his anti-Catholicism argument and lays his cards on the table—More will do what he says because the King is saying it. In other words, More better check himself before he wrecks himself.

CROMWELL: [...] Yes, it may be that I am a little intoxicated. [...] With success! And who has a strong head for success? None of us gets enough of it, Except Kings. And they're born drunk. (1.731)

Doesn't sound pleasant, but it's a rather accurate assessment of the situation. When you live in a system in which all power is concentrated in one individual, it becomes inevitable that this individual will do some unpleasant, immoral stuff. The trick, according to Cromwell, is to keep kissing that powerful person's butt and grabbing the scraps they leave behind.

CROMWELL: [...] If the King destroys a man, that's proof to the King that it must have been a bad man, the kind of man a man of conscience ought to destroy. (2.389)

This kind of circular, Catch-22-esque logic tells us everything we need to know about the King's mindset. If he kills someone, then it goes without saying that the person deserved it; if he doesn't, then it goes without saying that they didn't. Yeesh—this is making our heads spin.

MORE: Death...comes for us all, my lords. Yes, even for King he comes, to whom amidst all their Royalty and brute strength he will neither kneel nor make them any reverence (2.701)

Well, he's not wrong. While More is more than willing to "give unto Caesar what is Caesar's" and all that, the dude's got no illusions. Henry might be able to dominate an entire country, he might be able to win a stare-down with the Pope, and he might be able to bend the aristocracy to his will, but his power doesn't mean anything to a guy like More.

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, if you're going to cause trouble, make sure you're not doing it to someone with a lot of power. That's not exactly a heartwarming moral—in fact, it's pretty cynical. Still, given the rather harrowing events of the play, we're not sure if we'd disagree with this assessment of the situation.