Study Guide

A Man for All Seasons Themes

  • Friendship

    In A Man for All Seasons, friendship is more of an obstacle than a boon. After he's charged with high treason, Thomas More can't take comfort in his friends because his friends are in favor of More betraying his principles and approving of the king's new marriage.

    Norfolk wants him to sign the king's oath "for fellowship's sake." But More can't do this. To him, being truthful to his soul's most central principles is more important than retaining a friendship. The soul is eternal, in More's view, but even close friendships—like his with Norfolk—are susceptible to dissolution and change.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Does Norfolk understand why his friend, More, won't sign the oath? Or is his worldview too limited?
    2. What principles would you sacrifice a friendship for? And what wouldn't you sacrifice friendship for?
    3. Is King Henry VIII's friendship with More a genuine friendship? Why or why not?
    4. How does power influence friendships? If one friend has more power than another, can the friendship still work serenely? Use examples from the movie.

    Chew on This

    The English literary critic Dr. Samuel Johnson said that most friendships were just "confederacies in vice or leagues in folly." This is one way of looking at friendship in the movie—and one reason why More can't sustain his relationships with Norfolk or Henry.

    The great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas said, "Nothing on this earth is to be prized more than true friendship." Does the equally Catholic More contradict this because he's willing to sacrifice friendship for his religious principles?

  • Justice and Judgment

    Another way of titling this theme might've been "Injustice." Thomas More is martyred by the mechanisms of so-called justice at work in A Man for All Seasons… but that justice ain't particularly just.

    And justice is a secondary concern to men like Rich and Cromwell, who will lie and cheat in order to gain a desired outcome. But More himself is really concerned with justice—for instance, by getting rid of a bribe when he realizes what it actually is.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Since More ordered the execution of Protestants for heresy in real life, could you argue that his execution wasn't really a miscarriage of justice—it's just the tables being turned?
    2. Is King Henry VIII actually concerned with justice? Consider his reasoning about why his marriage is unlawful and the way he treats More's case.
    3. Do you think Cromwell was actually concerned with justice in any way, even though he acts so apparently unjust? (From his own perspective, is he just?)
    4. What does More mean when he says that he would "give the devil benefit of law" for his own sake? What would be the consequences of denying "the devil" the benefit of law?

    Chew on This

    A Man for All Seasons shows us that justice does not prevail—More is executed.

    A Man for All Seasons shows us that justice does prevail—just listen to the voiceover at the end of the movie.

  • Marriage

    A Man for All Seasons doesn't deal with marriage in a domestic way, but it's super concerned with marriage in a political way, and the action of the movie is set in motion by the marriage that King Henry desires with Anne Boleyn.

    Thomas can't approve of this marriage—which is a political marriage designed to produce a heir and prevent civil war—because he would have to ditch the Pope and the Catholic Church in order to do it. More's marriage with Alice provides a good counterweight: It's an example of a marriage that is a genuine union.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Is there anything wrong with the new marriage Henry wants to contract? Think about the effects that failing to produce a male heir would have on the country—specifically, civil war.
    2. How does Thomas More's marriage to Alice function? Is it similar to a "good" marriage in the present day?
    3. In the movie, the Pope has to approve King Henry's divorce and remarriage. In the present day, how has the relationship between marriage and religious institutions changed?

    Chew on This

    It's wrong to marry or get divorced for political reasons like Henry VIII—a marriage should be a genuine love-match.

    If you actually consider the position of king in the 16th century, it's simply necessary for him to marry for political reasons. Everything a king does is inherently political, and he has greater social responsibilities to think of (like having a clear successor in order to prevent civil war). There's just no way around it.

  • Power

    Kanye West once asked, "You got the power to let power go?" Thomas More would be able to say "yes" to that question. Cromwell, Rich, and Henry VIII probably would not be able to.

    More doesn't mind letting go of worldly power and influence: Being Chancellor to the king is a lot less important than remaining true to his beliefs, and when the two aims conflict, he resigns as Chancellor. But principles and beliefs seem to mean little or nothing to Cromwell and Rich (in A Man for All Seasons, at least; in real life, Cromwell was a serious Protestant), and power is their primary goal. It's the only thing they're interested in.

    Questions About Power

    1. How does spiritual power (the kind held by the Pope) differ from secular power (the kind held by King Henry VIII)—provided you consider there to be a difference? What really causes the conflict between the two in the movie?
    2. How does Thomas More's attitude toward power differ from that of the other characters? Consider the differences between the attitudes of Henry, Norfolk, Cromwell, and Rich.
    3. Does More pursue power at all? How did he manage to advance as far as he does (becoming Chancellor, etc.)?
    4. In More's view, what's the right way of wielding power? How does Henry VIII end up going too far, and why in More's view does this qualify as being "too far"?

    Chew on This

    It's commonly said that "absolute power corrupts absolutely." Might this apply to King Henry VIII?

    The main problem in A Man for All Seasons isn't the king, but his power-driven underlings. The king doesn't want to kill Thomas More—it's people lower down the ladder like Cromwell and Rich who seem more desirous of this outcome.

  • Principles

    If you did a Google search for A Man for All Seasons + principles, you'd get a zillion hits. That's because Thomas More loves principles. They're his bread and butter, his currency, his jam.

    In fact, he identifies his most deeply held principles with his own self—he can't betray them because they're essential to him, and he would lose his soul if he did. This makes A Man for All Seasons one of the greatest studies of the way a classic "Man of Principle" takes his stand and ultimately dies for it.

    Questions About Principles

    1. What are Thomas More's principles? Define them and say what they mean to him.
    2. Does Henry VIII have his own set of principles or not? If so, explain what they are and how they conflict with More's.
    3. And what about Norfolk? Cromwell? Rich? If they have principles, what are they?

    Chew on This

    To be a good person, you need to take a stand. Like Thomas More, you need to draw a line somewhere and say, "This is something I won't do."

    Life is all about the gray areas. There's always a situation in which it's okay to bend a rule or throw out something you used to think was absolute.

  • Religion

    Religion is at the heart of A Man for All Seasons: Basically, Thomas More doesn't want to change his religion or betray it or compromise on it, and virtually everyone else wants him to. They end up killing him for it.

    In order to get a divorce and get remarried, King Henry VIII needs to break with the Pope. And, corrupt as the Pope of the time may or may not be, More sees him as the right representative of Christ's Church on earth: To question his right to approve marriages like Henry's would be treason against God.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Is Henry VIII breaking with the Church for purely worldly reasons—or does he have an honest religious beef with it?
    2. Does religion matter to More's opponents, Cromwell and Rich? What about Norfolk?
    3. Why won't More break with the Church and follow Henry? What is it that compels him to hold onto his belief in it?
    4. Does More think he will be damned if he signs the king's oath?

    Chew on This

    If you're Thomas More, you believe that the institution of the Church really matters. Christ established it and put St. Peter in charge. You can criticize problems within it, but you can't attack the institution itself. That institution is definitive and God-established.

    But, if you're Thomas Cromwell, you don't see the institution as that important. For Cromwell, the institution of the Church is far less important than his more personal form of belief.