Study Guide

A Man for All Seasons Principles

By Robert Bolt

Principles

STEWARD: [...] My master Thomas More would give anything to anyone. [...] and that's bad...because some day someone's going to ask him for something that he wants to keep. (1.177)

Mmm, now this is some tasty foreshadowing. Even without that, however, this quote shows us a lot of More's moral character—that is to say, he's a really good dude. Unfortunately, he's going to learn the hard way that he might be the only member of the British aristocracy with anything resembling principles. In other words, this is going to be one wild ride.

WOLSEY: [...] You're a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could been a statesman. (1.196)

Yeah, More, why are you always letting nonsense like "morals" stand in your way? This quote becomes even more fascinating when you remember that it's being spoken by a cardinal—you know, the kind of guy whose job it is to have sound moral judgment. This is our first real indication that More's going to have trouble maintaining his principled mindset.

MORE: Well...I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties...they lead their country by a short route to chaos. (1.229)

This might as well be More's personal motto. While other aristocratic figures seem more than willing to throw their consciences overboard in order not to rock the boat, More treats his principles like an anchor and holds fast. It's going to take quite the storm to move him from that spot.

ROPER: My views on the Church, I must confess—Since last we met my views have somewhat modified. (1.634)

Roper changes his deep-seated religious beliefs at the frequency that most people change pairs of underwear. Sure, he's a good dude (More wouldn't let him marry his daughter if he weren't), but he could never be described as principled.

MORE: [...] You see, we speak of being anchored to our principles. But if the weather turns nasty you up with an anchor and let it down where there's less wind, and the fishing's better. (1.717)

And here comes More blowing our "anchor" metaphor out of the water. Typical. Although he's talking about Roper here, he might as well be referring to every other character in the play. After all, does Norfolk follow his personal principles? Does Richard Rich? Nope. In both instances, seemingly good men turn against their deeply held principles simply to save their own skins.

CHAPUYS: Because it would show one man—and that man known to be temperate—unable to go further with this wickedness.

MORE: And that man known to be Chancellor of England too. (2.63)

More is tempted to make a stand against the King's divorce, but he's terrified of the consequences. That leaves him in an unenviable position—he's unable to turn against his personal principles, but he's equally unable to buck the system and make a stand. Talk about a sticky situation.

MORE: [...] But what matter to me is not whether it's true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather, not that I believe it, but that I believe it...I trust I make myself obscure? (2.108)

Yep—completely obscure, More old buddy. The key here is to check the italics: the most important part of More's statement is the "I," not the "believe." In other words, the most important part of a belief system is not the truth of that system, or its efficacy in the real world—the most important part is that an individual is making a personal declaration.

ALICE: [...] I understand you're the best man that I ever met or am likely to; and if you go [...] And if anyone wants my opinion of the King and his Council they've only to ask for it! (2.656)

We'd be remiss if we didn't give the fiery Alice More her due credit in this department. Although More is quite principled, he frequently proves himself to be a Nervous Nellie. That's not so with Alice. Alice is not afraid of anyone (especially after what they've done to her husband), and she's more than happy to give people a piece of her mind. No wonder More calls her a lion.

MORE: In good faith, Rich, I am sorrier for your perjury than my peril. (2.754)

Think about this for one second. More is about to be executed, yet the thing he's worried about is the fact that Rich lied in court. If that doesn't show you More's principles, then we don't know what will.

MORE: [...] What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. (2.767)

In the end, More realizes that this was inevitable. He might have been able to escape this nasty little decapitation situation if he had been willing to compromise his principles, true—but then he wouldn't be the Thomas More we know and love.