Study Guide

A Man for All Seasons Themes

By Robert Bolt

  • Politics

    A political system can get way complicated when it's ruled by an authoritarian leader with a big ol' crown on his head—that's what we've learned from A Man for All Seasons, at least. Following the life of Sir Thomas More, pretty much the most honest statesman ever, the play depicts the famous 16th-century political struggle that lead to the formation of the Church of England. To make a long story short, it's a big, honking mess. As More struggles to fulfill his duty to the British legal system while still enjoying his personal freedom, he'll learn just how nasty the political game can get.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Is More a good politician? Why or why not?
    2. Can Bolt's commentary on 16th Century British politics be applied to other political systems? Explain.
    3. What are Common Man's thoughts on politics?
    4. Is More's romantic view of politics and the law naive? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Although More is a good man, his refusal to get his hands dirty means that he will never be as effective a politician as Cromwell.

    More might not be a good politician in the traditional sense, but he presents an alternative example of what a statesman could be.

  • Power

    Here's some advice: if you're going to get on someone's bad side, try your best not to let that person be a king. Just ask A Man for All Seasons Thomas More and his severed head if you don't believe us. See, this guy was a real bigwig back in 16th-century England, but he found himself on the wrong side of the law after mighty King Henry VIII announced his desire to sever England from its relationship with the Catholic Church. More wasn't down with that, however. As we watch him struggle between his duty as a loyal royal subject and his inner beliefs as a strict Catholic, we learn why it might not be a good idea to pick a fight with one of the most powerful dudes in the world.

  • Principles

    In A Man for All Seasons, the one-and-only Sir (and Saint) Thomas More sticks to his principles like they were made out of super glue. It doesn't matter if his family thinks he's lost his marbles. It doesn't matter if his friends think he's acting like a cantankerous old fool. It doesn't even matter if the freaking King tells him to loosen up or lose his head. No matter what gets thrown his way, no matter how he's critiqued, and no matter what violence he's threatened with, our boy More stays true to his beliefs—for better or for worse. Actually, given the play's decapitation-heavy final act, we're just going to go with for worse on this one.

    Questions About Principles

    1. Why does More forgive Roper for his ever-changing principles?
    2. Compare and contrast More and Norfolk's personal principles.
    3. Is More's principled nature a good thing?
    4. Does Cromwell have principles? If so, what are they?

    Chew on This

    While More's principled nature earns him a ton of respect, it cannot be defined as "good," because it proves to be his undoing.

    More's principled nature is good because even though it leads to his death, it allows him to make a larger point that still his relevance hundreds of years later.

  • Rules and Order

    In A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More is kind of like that kid from your elementary school who always reminded the teacher which students had been assigned detention at the end of the day. In other words, he's a real stickler for the rules. Unlike that kid from your elementary school, however, More is the real deal—he's a highly respected lawyer who knows more about the intricacies of British law than anyone else on the planet. But when More becomes a victim of the British legal system himself, he comes to the horrifying realization that all of his legal knowledge and political know-how isn't worth much in the face of pure, unrelenting power.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. Why is More so obsessed with following the law?
    2. How does Cromwell's view of the law differ from More's?
    3. Was More's legal strategy a smart one? Should he have done something else?
    4. Does the ending of the play invalidate More's reverence for the legal system?

    Chew on This

    While More looks at the law objectively and with distance, Cromwell views the law as a tool to reach a goal.

    In the end, More's need to follow the law to the letter becomes his undoing, as his enemies have no such limitations.

  • Religion

    A Man for All Seasons is all about religion—just not in the way you might expect. It's not about spirituality. It's not about mysticism. It's not even really about faith. Instead, it's about the tenuous and often downright hostile relationship between the political realm and the religious one. Set in 16th-century England, the play depicts the formation of the Church of England, which has a pretty unique origin story as far as religions go. We don't want to spoil the fun, but it involves one thirsty regent, a host of tangled political alliances, and the most tabloid-ready divorce in recorded history. That's some juicy stuff.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Is More actually a devout Catholic? Why or not?
    2. Are Henry's anti-Catholic arguments valid? Explain.
    3. Why is More so opposed to Henry's spiritual supremacy?
    4. Is Chapuys a good representative of the Church?

    Chew on This

    More isn't a devout Catholic in the traditional sense: he follows the religion due to its long tradition rather than its spiritual tenets.

    While Henry's anti-Catholic arguments are valid in a sense, he clearly deploys them in order to cover up his own political ambitions.

  • Choices

    We sometimes have a full-on mental breakdown when choosing a pair of shoes to wear, so we don't even know what we'd do if we were in Thomas More's size elevens in A Man for All Seasons. A high-ranking politician in 16th-century England, More is plunged into controversy when King Henry VIII decides to divorce his wife, Queen Catherine, much to the chagrin of the Pope and the Catholic Church. That leaves More to make an important decision: should he turn his back on his beliefs and take the King's side, or should he follow his conscience and make a stand for his religion?

    Questions About Choices

    1. Does More make the right choice? Explain.
    2. In what ways does Alice help More make decisions?
    3. Can an oath be considered a "choice"? Why or why not?
    4. What other characters, besides More, make important choices during the play?

    Chew on This

    More made the right choice by refusing to sign the oath because he is a man who values staying true to one's principles above all else.

    More made the wrong choice by refusing to sign the oath because being alive is better than being dead.

  • Fear

    Although everyone in A Man for All Seasons thinks that Thomas More is fearless, they're so off base it's not even funny. Don't get it twisted, though: More's a brave dude. Like, as brave as a certain little toaster we know. Still, that doesn't mean he doesn't feel fear—he's just learned how to control it. Just look at his reaction to King Henry VIII's decree that the Catholic Church will be expelled from England: although More is terrified of what might happen to him if he publicly disputes this issue, he refuses to back down and renounce his beliefs. And trust us on this one—More has good reason to be scared...

    Questions About Fear

    1. What is More most afraid of?
    2. Is the King afraid of anything? Explain your answer.
    3. How does More's fear of reprisal come out in his interactions with his family?
    4. Why does Rich think that More is fearless?

    Chew on This

    While More has little concern for his own well-being, he's absolutely terrified of something happening to his family.

    Although More refuses to talk directly with his family about the divorce, his fear becomes clear through his occasionally angry outbursts and short patience.

  • Hypocrisy

    A Man for All Seasons features arrogant royals, manipulative politicians, and shady religious leaders. We're talking the Hypocrisy Olympics here, ladies and gents. Set in 16th-century England, the play follows the huge controversy surrounding King Henry VIII's desire to divorce his wife Queen Catherine—a move that would eventually result in the formation of the Church of England. Weird, huh? As you can imagine, this situation goes anything but smoothly, and the resulting hypocrisy displayed by England's aristocracy shows us how even the greatest people can be corrupted by their own power.

    Questions About Hypocrisy

    1. How does Henry's boat tour display his hypocrisy?
    2. In what ways is Norfolk hypocritical regarding More?
    3. How does the play depict the corruption of the British political system?
    4. Is More hypocritical in some way? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Henry's boat tour displays his hypocrisy because it shows the distance between his self-image as a rugged individualist and the reality of him as an all-powerful regent.

    Norfolk, as representative of the British aristocracy as a whole, reveals his hypocrisy by changing his beliefs simply because the King told him to.