47 pages 1 hour read

Robert Bolt

A Man For All Seasons

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1960

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Summary and Study Guide


A Man for All Seasons is a 1960 play by English playwright Robert Bolt. Though it was published in its completed form in 1960, it was originally written for radio in 1954. It was then adapted for television in 1957 before finally being rewritten for the stage. The original runs of the show in London and later New York attained critical and commercial success. In 1966, the play was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film of the same name. In 1988, it was adapted into a TV movie. Bolt first developed an interest in Sir Thomas More, an influential but controversial Catholic lawyer during the reign of King Henry VIII, when he was a teenager. In the play’s Preface, he writes that he idolized More as “a man with an adamantine sense of his own self” (19). Bolt explores More’s political and religious objections to King Henry VIII’s creation of the Church of England and his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The play follows More through the last years of his life, ending with his execution.

This guide uses the 2013 e-book edition published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

Plot Summary

The play begins with the Common Man, a character who breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience. He plays several minor roles in the play, changing his costume each time. He puts on the costume of Matthew, a steward in Sir Thomas More’s house. More is having a lively debate with Richard Rich, a young lawyer. Rich has spent several months trying to gain the patronage of Cardinal Wolsey, without success. More advises him to become a teacher instead of getting embroiled in politics. He gives Rich a silver cup that a woman tried to give him as a bribe. The Duke of Norfolk enters with More’s wife, Alice, and daughter, Margaret. The characters discuss Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s secretary; most, besides Rich, see Cromwell as a self-serving man of no principles. 

A letter arrives from Wolsey, summoning More even though it is late at night. At their meeting, Wolsey asks More to read a dispatch that is being sent to the Pope. The dispatch asks the Pope to grant King Henry VIII a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon. Because she was Henry’s brother’s wife first, the dispatch argues, it is inappropriate for Henry to be married to her, and he must be divorced. Wolsey asks More for his approval; More, a staunch Catholic who does not believe in divorce, refuses to give an opinion. Wolsey points out that if Henry cannot remarry, he is unlikely to produce a male heir, potentially destabilizing the monarchy. More is unmoved by this argument. 

More calls for a boat to bring him back home. Cromwell appears and asks More about his conversation with Wolsey. He leaves, and then Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, arrives and asks similar questions. More does not give a clear answer to either man. The Boatman, played by the Common Man, laments the bureaucrats like Cromwell who set his fares without understanding his needs as a worker. More returns home very late at night. Margaret greets him with William Roper, a young Protestant lawyer. She wants to marry him and asks for her father’s permission. More refuses, so long as Roper maintains his Protestant beliefs.

The play jumps forward several years. The Common Man notes that Wolsey died at the end of 1530, Cromwell started working directly for Henry VIII, and More became the next lord chancellor, a position previously held by Wolsey. Rich is now working as Norfolk’s secretary. Matthew the steward tells Cromwell that More is very worried about Henry’s divorce. When Henry sends word that he will be arriving for an unexpected supper, More’s family finds him at prayer and rushes to make him look presentable. The King arrives and once again asks for More’s support for his divorce. More is unwilling to give it. Henry leaves before supper is served. Alice encourages More to simply give the King his support. More counters that it is not him who stands between Henry and the woman he wants to marry, Anne Boleyn, but a sacrament. 

Roper returns, having somewhat softened his views on the Church, but More still finds him too Protestant. More and Roper discuss the role of law in society. Cromwell and Rich meet in a pub. Rich is moving up in the world, but Cromwell advises him that he will be more successful if he does not hold strong religious beliefs. Rich tells Cromwell about the silver cup that More gave him. The second act jumps forward again, this time to 1532. More, Chapuys, the now-Catholic Roper and his wife, Margaret, and Alice learn that Henry has created the Church of England and severed ties with Rome. More immediately resigns as chancellor. Though he tries to remain cheerful, More knows that he is now in grave danger. His family falls into poverty.

Using Rich as one of his primary sources of information, Cromwell builds a case against More. He claims that More accepted bribes and that he refuses to accept Henry’s divorce and role as the head of the Church of England. Chapuys visits More to ask him about his political stances. More is careful to note that while many people have speculated about his opinion, he has never actually stated it openly. His silence is widely taken for guilt, which is the opposite of his intention. More is sent to Cromwell’s office to answer the charges laid against him. Cromwell accuses More of ghostwriting Henry’s early-1520s Catholic treatise, The Defence of the Seven Sacraments, which More denies. The play implies that he did, in fact, write it, but that it would be embarrassing for Henry to admit this. When More leaves, he meets Norfolk, who also urges him to simply lie lest he be imprisoned. More refuses, saying that if he were to set aside his beliefs, he would end up in hell.

More is arrested and spends more than a year in the Tower of London. Breaking the fourth wall again, the Common Man tells the audience that Cromwell and some of More’s other accusers will later be executed when they fall out of favor with the King. More sees his family once more, and they beg him to save himself by swearing an oath to the King. More refuses, accepting that his refusal will result in his death. During More’s trial, Rich lies under oath to destroy More’s reputation so that he can be convicted of treason. The Common Man dons an executioner’s mask and beheads More. The play has two endings; in one, Cromwell and Chapuys see eye to eye after the execution. The other ending has the Common Man advising the audience to keep out of trouble if they want to stay alive.